Think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
My friend Phil died a year ago today. His influence on my life is stronger than ever. He was my equivalent of Tuesday’s with Morrie- Actually better because I was gaining Phil’s wisdom in real time-live from the tap. All I had to do was walk a few blocks to his apartment and offer to buy him a cup of green tea.
Phil was a big man with a barrel chest, white hair and a deep and resonate voice. He loved chess and tutored any neighborhood kid who showed an interest. As a young man he became a Marine and the GI Bill paid for his education. He earned a doctorate in English and taught in universities and colleges up and down the west coast. Phil had mastered many arts and was a great storyteller. The story that affected me most deeply was how he approached his death.
Phil was diagnosed with bladder cancer. His doctors offered to cut a big chunk out of his internal pluming. They told him he was likely to die within six months without an operation. Phil read up on the topic and discovered the likelihood of a life filled with post operative pain and infection. Phil declined their offer. He said that living well was more important than living long.
After his decision, Phil’s behavior was the opposite from someone passively waiting to die. He changed his diet, began a disciplined meditation practice, took long walks in nature and read everything he could about non-invasive cancer treatments. He began to lose the Falstaff belly and his good humor returned.
He loved reading books from both Western and Asian wisdom traditions. His favorite philosopher was Socrates. Socrates' philosophy gave Phil a profound perspective on life and death. Phil grasped that real philosophy was much more relevant to life than a bunch of old guys debating obscure positions. He understood that Socrates was speaking clearly about life and death issues. Here is a quote from Socrates Phil liked to read, “Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”
Phil amazed his friends as well as a couple of astonished doctors, because he didn’t die six months later or even 5 years later. He lived another 10 years. In that time he wrote two books of poetry, which he illustrated with photos taken while he was on his walks. Once, toward the end of his life, I asked him “what is it like to die?” He thought for a moment and smiled “It’s an interesting experience and not at all what I thought.” Phil lived the final part of his life as an open book rather than a closed chapter. He had great clarity and little need to turn away from what was in store for him. His curiosity and sense of inquiry changed fear into acceptance and acceptance into joy.