Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Dying is a 12-step program

My seven-year-old son Isaac was listening to Gil Roth’s interview with me on the Virtual Memories Show. “He will be dead from prostate cancer within the next two years,” Roth said in introducing me. “You’re dying?” Isaac cried. Isaac is named after Isaac Rosenfeld, of whom the critic Ted Solotaroff said that “his very name itself still seems to possess an incantatory power: some of his friends speak it as though ‘Isaac’ were a magic word for joy and wit. . . .” My son too is a merry prankster, the family’s stand-up comic. He was not prepared to think of his father as dying, and not only because he is just seven years old.

Dying is the problem, not death. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe with perfect faith in the resurrection of the dead, but until that happens, death is the termination of consciousness. No peeking back into life. I won’t get to keep a scorecard of who is crying at my funeral, who is dry-eyed, who never bothered to show up. If I want someone to cry at my funeral, I need to patch things up with him before the last weak images flicker out.

In the past few weeks I have been approaching ex-friends whom I have damaged to ask their forgiveness. I’ve been behaving, in short, as if dying were a twelve-step program. Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.” Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Not that I mind having enemies. One person whom I approached recently accused me of “basking in self-importance,” which is one possible way, I suppose, of describing the tireless knowledge that death is near. But there are other persons, including some with whom I have had very public fallings-out, whom I don’t want as enemies when I pass away. To die without accepting responsibility for the damage I have done to relationships that were once meaningful to me would be shameful and undeniably self-important.

The remaining ten steps can be revised somewhat to suit the dying:

• “We admitted we were powerless over our dying and that prolonging our lives had become unmanageable—by us.”

• “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to acceptance of our death.”

• “Made a decision to turn our last remaining days, the peace and torment, over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

• “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” (This one needs no revision.)

• “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our regrets and reasons for happiness.”

• “Were entirely ready to have God receive us exactly as we have become, without the opportunity for additional effort or success.”

• “Humbly asked Him to make light of our failures.”

• “Continued to take personal inventory and when we indulged in magical thinking about death, promptly stopped it.”

• “Sought through prayer and meditation—and, sometimes, through literary exertions—to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying (and, sometimes, writing) for knowledge of life under the shadow of death and the power to endure it.”

• “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to the dying and to practice these principles in our daily lives, even if we occasionally suffered dark nights of the soul, which we tried our best not to carry over into the next morning.”

The difference, of course, is that dying is an addiction from which there is no recovery. But the similarity is this. Dying is a mental discipline, even if the goal is not to be clean and sober, but simply to be ready.