Chaplain's Corner


  • Larry Hirst, Author
  • Retired Chaplain, Bethesda Place

I know I write a lot about death, it is after all a significant part of a chaplain’s experience. Back in the month of June there was a week where death consumed my week. Three residents at Bethesda Place died within three days, I was attending to several families at the hospital where death was on the doorstep and I was asked to care briefly for a couple whose baby was born dead. It was not a week that I want to repeat anytime soon. By the end of that week, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed.

It may sound a bit morbid, but there is a sense in which I am grateful that death is so much a part of my life. Why, because in reality, death is so much a part of life. The World Fact Book for 2011 estimates that 550,300,000 people will die in 2011. If we break that down: 151,600 people dies each day, 6316 die each hour, 105 die each minute, 2 die each second. In the time it takes to watch your favorite 30 minute sitcom on television, 3158 people die. In the time that it takes to attend church on a Sunday morning 12,632 people die. So, death is a part of life. It is happening all around us, every day, no matter what is happening in our personal lives.

Most of us, at least those of us who don’t listen to the funeral announcements every morning or read the obituaries in the paper every day, go through our days not thinking much about death. We’ve become desensitized to the deaths we witness each day on television, whether they are happening on a TV drama or on the evening news. We pass funeral homes, cemeteries and funeral processions but because we do not know the person involved, no impression is made.

I personally don’t think this is bad. Most of us are not emotionally equipped to live in the raw reality of death every day. That is why people in medicine and the funeral industry develop sophisticated (and some times not so sophisticated) defense mechanisms to keep that raw reality from overwhelming them. However, there is benefit to maintaining an awareness of the reality of death in our everyday lives.

The benefit is that we live with an awareness that every day is a gift from God and that each day is to be lived in a way that if it is our last, we will have as few regrets as possible. Of course, what this might look like will differ depending on one’s philosophy of life.

If you embrace the “Budweiser” philosophy of life – “You only go around once in life: Go for all the gusto you can get.”  You will make choices about the way you live each day that will be very different than if you embrace the philosophy of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl. 12:13b) And perhaps this is something that we should all give a little for thought to:  what philosophy gives direction to the way I live my life?

OK, I know some of us rarely if ever think of philosophical matters. We are practical people that concern ourselves with paying the bills and making it though another week. But often, beneath this practicality, there is something that we believe that directs our lives. Philosophy after all is simply the “why” to the “what” of our lives. And believe me, there is a why to everything we do, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Why do people live the way they do, make the choices they make, embraces the values that they embrace? One of the things that the church has been quite conscientious about in the past was identifying the “what” of life: the behaviors that are considered “right” or “wrong”. But interestingly, one of the sadder realities that is evident in the Christian Faith is that so many people who were raised in the “what” of life in their family and church exchange that “what” for another “what” that many times is quite different, possibly even oppositional to the “what” they were raised with:  they leave the faith.

Why does this happen? It happens because we do not teach our young people the “why” behind the “what”. It may be that we didn’t teach our children this because we ourselves are not very certain about the “why” behind the “what” of our lives. And although we are practical people and our lives are not so much about thinking about why we live the way we do as much as just making sure we get the “whats” of our life taken care of, we do ourselves and those around us a grave disservice by failing to consider, and examine the “why” behind our behaviors.

Socrates, a Greek philosopher who lived in the 5th century B.C. is still oft quoted 2500 years later: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” At least part of what Socrates was talking about is that it is only as we understand the “why” beneath the “what” of our life that we can truly live life in the way that we will not regret the way we have lived.

I wonder how many of the over 500 million plus people that will die in 2011 will have thought anything about the “why” beneath the “what” of the lives? I fear that it will be a very small percentage. The last year or months or weeks of a person’s life is not the best time to begin thinking about the “why” beneath the “what” of our lives. I would recommend that we all begin thinking, right now, about the “why” beneath the way we live.

Why do we have this attitude or that attitude? Why does this fear or that fear have control over our decisions? Why do we treat people the way we treat people? Why do we handle our money the way we do? Why do we have a relationship with God or not have a relationship with God?

These are not easy questions. But they are important questions, for unless we understand why we are the way we are, we will have no awareness that we need to change and consequently when things aren’t working will most of the time expect that the changes need to come in someone else’s life.

We are all going to die; we may or may not have the opportunity as our death approaches to think back over our lives. But, it seems that the people who come to death with an awareness of why they are the people they are, have an easier time embracing the reality of the end of their earthly life, than the  folks who come to the end oblivious as to why they are, who they are.

Life and death, these certainties are inescapable. However, we know intuitively and from observation that there are some ways of living that are to be preferred above others. However, the important question is “why?” If you have never given much thought to the “why” behind your way of living, might I challenge you to do just that? You may be surprised at what such an endeavor will produce in your life.

Chaplain's Corner was written by Bethesda Place now retired chaplain Larry Hirst. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely that of the writer and do not represent the views or opinions of people, institutions or organizations that the writer may have been associated with professionally.