Sunday, January 21, 2007

LIFE | Musing On Mortality and Oddly on a Turkey Trip

A friend sent me an article from the New York Times recently. It was on a new book by a surgeon, Pauline W. Chen - Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality.

My initial reaction was a baffled head-scratching. I wondered why my friend felt it was something relevant to me, since I have not been in contact with death recently. Perhaps in an introspective moment she felt it was interesting and she just decided to share. On further examination, it struck me how a question of mortality felt irrelevant then - and perhaps even a little offensive. If anything is certain, it is that I will die. Like many people, death is not an idea I am comfortable with.

The question of mortality reminds me of something that happened a while back: soon after the 2005 Asian Tsunami, the plight of the tsunami victims flooded the media. A friend was overwhelmed by the suffering and she asked me what does Buddha have to say about this kind of suffering and death? At that time I recall the parable of the mustard seed.

In the parable, Kisa Gotami had an only son who died. She went insane with grief and went around with the boy's body asking for help to save her son. Out of pity, someone told her to seek out the Buddha.

Kisa Gotami repaired to the Buddha and cried: "Lord and Master, give me the medicine that will cure my boy." The Buddha answered: "I want a handful of mustard-seed." And when the girl in her joy promised to procure it, the Buddha added: "The mustard-seed must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend." Poor Kisa Gotami now went from house to house, and the people pitied her and said: "Here is mustard-seed; take it!" But when she asked Did a son or daughter, a father or mother, die in your family?" They answered her: "Alas the living are few, but the dead are many. Do not remind us of our deepest grief." And there was no house but some beloved one had died in it.

Kisa Gotami could find no household that have not known death. Finally, weary and in despair she stopped her search for the mustard seed. And a realisation came to her that death is the ultimate fate of everyone, and she had been foolish and selfish in wanting to undo the death of her son. So she buried the boy, and went back to the Buddha where she found refuge in the Dharma.

But of course, I did not tell my friend this story. It was too long and she did not seem ready for a long tale.

The article on the Final Exam makes me think about how we view death now as something to be defied and delayed. Medicine is the explicit science of cheating death and it is no wonder that doctors are often unprepared for deaths.

... Doctors, like everyone else, avoid the topic. Institutionally, discussions of death are limited to formal inquiries known as morbidity and mortality conferences, in which surgeons analyze recent deaths on the operating table in the hope of learning from them.

Outside the conferences, death is the unwelcome, awkward visitor who stops conversation. Dr. Chen cites a survey showing that one-quarter of oncologists failed to tell their patients that they were suffering from an incurable disease. Nearly half of the doctors in another study rated themselves as “poor” or “fair” in breaking bad news to their patients. Often, with several specialists and sub-specialists assigned to a dying patient, each doctor waits for the other to provide unwelcome information.

And yet the story of the mustard seed reminds us that it is awareness of death that we need to bring us to a realisation of our fragile state of existence. Life is short and what we do now matters. Awareness of death is not morbid or disrespectful of life. It is knowing that we will eventually depart from this life that makes it important to live whatever time we have that much fiercer.

The leave for my Turkey holiday has been approved by my Department Manager (Yay!). News in the office travels fast and one colleague came up to me, envious of my pending trip. She too had read Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul and desires to journey to the mystical city of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires.

I asked her why don't she plan for a holiday too? We are doing the Turkey adventure on impulse afterall, and I can share my research with her.

"But it's difficult," she laments.

It's always the "buts" that paralyse us. We want to do so many things in our lives, but there's always some reasons why we're not doing it: the "buts" I call it.

But what if you know you are going to die tomorrow? Would these "buts" seem as important? Or would you just regret all that things you did not do?

The most important thought of all: memento mori. I believe we will all live our lives differently, more fully if we remember that we are on borrowed time.

1 comment:

Dorothy W. said...

Yes, very true. My best memories are of times when I tried something difficult or new, so why do I sometimes resist those experiences? Maybe remembering death now and then can help people be a little more brave -- and it wouldn't necessarily have to be morbid.