Strength from Humanism in the Face of Death

 Initially printed in the Dec. 2010 The Shofar by Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.

Our Humanistic approach to life is certainly challenging–no guarantees of happy endings, no special cosmic attention because of our family, no automatic rules to define what to do and what not to do in every circumstance from getting dressed and eating to matters of life and death. But there is also tremendous strength to be found in facing these challenges with courage and conviction.

I was reminded of this during a two-week period when three Kol Hadash families faced personal loss. Each loved one who died was at least 80 (one was 102!), though none of the losses was particularly easy. Each had faced an extended illness over the last weeks and months, but the families had strong recent memories of them being intellectually active and vital until relatively recently. What I noticed most was how our approach to life also affects our approach to death.

Because we face reality, we know that death is inevitable, not optional. Because we make choices based on human needs, we can accept when the pain and suffering of prolonging life is not worth it. Because we focus on people, our memorials are even more clearly a celebration of life and love, a space for remembering our loved ones with old stories and new insights. Even in the face of tragedy, we must deal with the absolute truth that, as far as we can know, this person is lost to us for the rest of our life. The sooner one faces that grief, the sooner we can begin to learn how to live without them. A funeral director once explained to me that, “you don’t get over a loss; you get used to it.” We are experts at adjusting to the real human condition, as exhilarating and as painful as that may sometimes be.

In Sherwin Wine’s Staying Sane in a Crazy World, he describes the strength of living a life of courage:

The life of courage is hard.  But it is, ultimately, rewarding.  It makes us pay attention to our own experience.  It makes it easy for us to admit the truth. It notices our strength.  It protects our dignity.  It enables us to assume responsibility for our own lives.  It celebrates our own power.  It makes us sane in the face of a crazy world.

It even makes us pay attention to the opportunities, as well as the dangers, of the real world.  Pleasure is real. Happiness is real.  Usefulness is real.  Loving and supportive relationships are real. But, if they happen, they are not gifts of destiny.  They are human achievements–sometimes against overwhelming odds.

A life of courage helps us through life and death and back into life after mourning. Remember, your strength is in you.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to Strength from Humanism in the Face of Death

  1. Pingback: Facing Challenges | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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