I caught the end of this NPR story yesterday when I was driving home from the grocery store. It was one of those stories that I had to sit in my car and finish when I pulled into my parking spot, and then had to turn my car off when it was done and just sit in silence for several minutes to absorb and integrate what I had heard. It was about a young woman who was dying from cancer, with so much intention and respect and curiosity. She was fascinated by the ways in which her physical body was declining. She saw it all as a meaningful and worthy aspect to the wholeness of her living. She had two young daughters, and had been sick for several years, since they were both toddlers. She was keeping very public records of her dying process via a blog and voice recordings. She expressed no trace of self-pity, rather a very deep and penetrating reverence for the entire dying experience. She described learning about this thing that happens as you get close to the end, where your lungs become starved for air. Her oncologist told her it was called, “air hunger.” She thought the term was beautiful. She planted the seed within herself to lean into it fully when it happened to her.
She talked about how she had the choice to reject and recoil from her physical body’s decline, or embrace, accept, and become fascinated by it all. Allow for exactly what was happening to be something beautiful, without resisting it.
I had to sit in my car for several minutes after the story ended because I needed to imagine myself as her. I needed to remember that there are thousands of people dying right now in this moment. I needed to not gloss over her story and impact and hastily move on with my day. I needed to marinate in her message.
I think we all would like to opt for a dignified death. And what this woman reminded me of was that every day of our living is a practice ground for that. Because there are a million things and reasons and ways to be scared. And we get to, if we choose to, lean into our fears, versus check out of them. And when we do that as a practice, we are setting ourselves up for a dignified life and a dignified death. We are flexing the muscles necessary to let go, embrace, allow, be present, with love.
Fear has many guises. We all have a sense of what it feels like in our bodies to be scared about something. Sometimes it’s so intensely obvious. Other times, it’s subtle, or it looks like something else. It can look like laziness, or obsession, or righteousness, or judgment, or defensiveness, or justification, or bitterness, or whining, or insecurity, or lying.
I know when I’m afraid because I want to crawl out of my skin. Sometimes I throw little tantrums, or I dip out of a situation or conversation as soon as I can manage. Sometimes I sloth around for long periods of time feeling like I’m wasting my life away. And I’ll have all kinds of stories and reasons and excuses to back myself up. But as I’m writing this now, thinking about all of the excuses I’ve used to support my disguised fear states, I’m coming to terms with the fact that all of my crafty excuses were actually tactics to run away from some underlying fear. Knowing this doesn’t guarantee that I’ll never have another excuse for why I can’t do something that I know is important to me. Or that I won’t invent some justification for a behavior that isn’t particularly highlighting of my highest self. But at least I know now, that in that moment of excuse, I’m choosing avoidance, and I'm choosing limitation. And I know also that there’s always another choice.
And so what is the other choice? The other choice is of course, love. And like fear, we know when love feels really obvious. When it’s oozing out of us so copiously that we can’t even contain all that scrumptious light matter.
But love too has its more subtle variants. It can look like an apology, or relaxation, or a small, thoughtful deed. It can look like showing up to do the work that feeds your soul even when you aren’t necessarily inspired to. It can look like asking questions vs. making assumptions, or enjoying a simple moment of awe. It can look like encouraging oneself and others to keep at it, or a slow, deep breath when you feel the first hints of frustration. It can look like giving yourself and others the benefit of the doubt. Love, like fear, has many permutations. It doesn’t have to be mushy and sentimental, although it certainly can be. It can also be quiet and under the radar. It can be making yourself a hot cup of tea when you notice that you’re in need of some nourishment and warmth. It can be sending a silent blessing to a person you pass on the street who is obviously suffering. We can live our lives in a million shades of love. It’s always there for the choosing.
And as I'm learning, entering fear head on is a passageway into love. Just like the woman who approached her dying with curiosity and awe, we can do that with all of our terrified places, one-by-one, as they arise. There’s nothing more honoring to me than when someone expresses their fear openly. Because the alternative is to act it out, in some roundabout way, often times in a way that causes harm. When we can just say, “I have a fear, and here it is,” we liberate ourselves and all others involved. When we can acknowledge our fear with genuine curiosity instead of condemnation, we free ourselves from being victims of our inner prisons. It’s brave business, leaning into fear. But just think about the alternative.
In case you need reminding:
Our lives are far too precious to waste on that stuff.
May your fear become your ally and love your obvious choice.
All the blessings,