Having the opportunity, which I consider blessed, to work with dying people in the role of Chaplain, has given me insight into the experience of mistakes, or sins if you will. We think in terms, of course, of a hierarchy of mistakes. Overindulging in a dessert is not in the same league as sleeping with your neighbor’s husband.
photo credit – Steven Kreuch
It’s the latter category of mistake, and much worse, that rises up to haunt people on their deathbed. We do know right from wrong and when we have wronged another we will be uncomfortable until we have atoned, in whatever way is possible for us to do so. Conscience is expressed as early as toddlerhood, as every mom and dad will confirm.
photo credit – Maria Spinella
We can, and do, get away with denial, suppression, and other kinds of mental gymnastics for sometimes many decades. What I’m telling you most emphatically is that the deathbed (or car, or plane, or ambulance) is the place where the bill comes due. If we ignore it, in my educated opinion, it will come due again and again beyond this life in one form or another.
I’m not trying to induce guilt or shame here, quite the opposite. The operating system of the universe, and the human psyche as part of it, is founded on law. Believing that guilt and shame are the point, as some religious traditions do, is like thinking that hunger is the point rather than the nourishment of the body.
At one stage in my career, some of the dying patients I worked with had been brought to the hospital from a maximum-security prison. What came up for them as they faced death were sins like murder, drug dealing, child molesting, and other serious offenses to their fellowmen.
It was not uncommon for these individuals, the ones who had committed the most serious “mistakes”, to rationalize, minimize, blame the victim, or out-right deny their culpability. It was as though taking ownership of what they had done, and setting foot on a path toward redemption, was just too frightening. These situations called for a different style of ministry before we could even get to remorse. They needed to realize that their prison was of their own making.
Some souls had to tell their story often, with their versions challenged, until they came to a place where they were tuned into the pain of another, where they questioned their own thinking. I got to see what people are like when they “turned on their own lightbulb.” This was new territory for them – taking responsibility for themselves, their thoughts, and actions.Some of them let grace in when their human tale was almost over. Sadly, some died in torment. This is what the metaphor “hell” describes.
By contrast, war veterans, who had been expected to kill as part of their job, felt remorse and torment readily; often it had stalked them for years. It was possible, once again by listening to the story, to lead them toward greater peace before death.
The twinges of conscience that we experience as guilt, or it’s deeper, darker cousin shame, are like the warning lights on your dashboard – ignore them at your peril.
photo credit – Maria Spinella
The point for us everyday folks is that recognition and acceptance, as soon as possible after the act, of our responsibility for atonement, will save us from most of our deathbed angst. As is taught in the 12 Step programs, making amends on a regular basis will keep our psychic home in order.
You always have the opportunity to listen to your true nature. When you take advantage of that, you’ll thrive. So make an intention, set aside time and space, to experience the peace of the examined life while you still have earthly time.
This is not to say you’ll run out of time. For all eternity you’ll be offered chances to change your thinking, your attitudes, your actions. Peace is within, why wait?