Dying to be Happy (Hardcover)
November 24, 2014
My wife has breast cancer.
It’s aggressive. We’re waiting for the surgeon at the university cancer center. It’s Monday of Thanksgiving week, and the oncologist has just left the room. It turns out there is a new treatment strategy, and it doesn’t matter whether Ellen has a mastectomy or undergoes chemotherapy first. But time is of the essence. So she’ll have her right breast removed just before Christmas and start the New Year with a steady diet of poison plus cancer drugs. The medication will continue for a full year, long after the four months of chemo are done, most likely pouring through a port at the top of her chest right above her heart. Cardiac damage is one of the drug’s potential side effects.
“I can almost certainly guarantee you will not have nausea and vomiting,” said the physician with assurance. “But I can definitely guarantee you will lose your hair.”
Truthfully, this respected and caring expert couldn’t be certain of any outcome—except that Ellen will die. But it may not be the cancer that kills her. She might trip on her shoelace and sustain a head injury in the hospital parking garage. Or be crushed in a rollover crash on our way home when the driver of a semitrailer loses control of his rig in the windblown rain. Or my lovely wife may simply never wake up after we kiss goodnight and doze off.
Perhaps it will be my soul that slips away in the dark, while Ellen goes on to live twenty years without me.
Only one thing is certain. Guaranteed. No one is getting out of this life alive. We just hate to admit it. Is that because it’s frightening? Unknowable?
Have you bought life insurance? Completed your will? Pre-planned your funeral? Staked out a cemetery plot? Maybe.
But have you thought much about judgment day?
Why is it easier to forget or procrastinate than prepare for our appointment with the grim reaper and our Creator?
Jesus frequently reminded his contemporaries of their death denial. One of his parables features a rich landowner who reaped an unusually abundant harvest. He knocked down his barns and built new, bigger silos to store up his huge surplus. The fortunate farmer made plans to party and live carefree, thanks to his newfound wealth. However, the Lord provided a surprise twist to teach the harsh truth about life.
God said to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:20–21)
We are going to die. Don’t ever forget it. Our stay here is temporary. While we’re alive, our mission is to serve God. That is what lasts forever.
Even the prayer Jesus taught his disciples reminds us of our mortality. “Give us this day our daily bread . . .”
Not an annual harvest. Not a monthly allowance, not even a week’s worth. Just food for today. Enough to get by, from sunrise to sunset. Tomorrow is not included. And you’re not entitled to it, no matter how convinced you are you’ll pass that momentous milestone; ace that entrance exam; win the big game; throw the party of a lifetime; buy your dream house; watch your kids grow up, or play with your grandchildren and see them graduate.
We cannot earn these things; no matter how hard we work, study, diet, exercise, and invest to secure their likelihood. They are blessings, not dividends. Yet we often obsess about building enough wealth or making provisions to insure future plans.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow,” the Lord advises. Today offers enough to keep us busy, especially if we’re truly living in the moment. Besides, “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” Jesus asks in Matthew 6:27.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25)
Of course, it is. And anxiety doesn’t lengthen life. In fact, worrying tends to shorten it and make the days we have miserable and our nights sleepless.
“If you worry, why pray? And if you pray, why worry?” Those are the words of a poor grandmother as she faced serious surgery for a disfiguring and disabling condition. The woman had just opened her home to her underemployed son, his wife, and young family. She was uncertain how things would play out, but she was willing to leave them in God’s hands.
Have you ever gone to great efforts to make a series of backup plans, only to have the original arrangements go just fine? Or better yet, planned for every contingency and then have the event cancelled? How often do the things you worry about come true? How often do wonderful surprises occur in your life? Do you ever get the feeling that you’re blessed by divine intervention? That you’ve got a friend upstairs? You do.
Moral of the story: we’re not in control. God is. Forget that and we’ll lose our way and our lives to fear and anxiety. Those are evil, diabolical forces. When we give in to them, we tell God we don’t trust him to take care of us.
Then why do we believers worry so much? What do you worry about? How much time do you waste by stressing?
Why do we overthink, over-plan, overwork, over-buy, over-tweet, over-like, overcook, over-stock? Is it because we’re afraid there won’t be enough for tomorrow? Do we think the store is going to run out of fashions, food, or drinks? Why do we save for a distant future that may never come? Why do we fund a life expectancy that assumes we’ll need premium long-term care?
The answer: We want to feel in control. We’re afraid of things we can’t control, despite the fact that with the Our Father we pray, “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, now and forever. Amen.” That’s thine, not mine.
It is, indeed, hard to trust these words and put our complete faith in God. But is it really easier to play God than to trust him? To deny our mortality and convince ourselves that we can cover all the bases, insure all outcomes, spare no expense, leave no stone unturned—all in the name of preserving our earthly lives at all costs?
The irony is that many of the old and ailing pray for death. They long for the end of loneliness, suffering, drug interaction, interminable doctor appointments, tests, pain, and decay. Some accept the futility of delaying the inevitable. Wives pray to die before their husbands and vice versa.
Be careful what you wish for. Old age is not for the faint of heart. Trust the Lord. The Father knows best. Live to serve God, and let him manage the rest. Including the day you’ll die.
He does anyway.
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. (John 12:24–25)
Are you ready to die if Jesus comes knocking today? Tonight? Not sure?
Fortunately there may still be time to prepare for our afterlife. And the first step is to recognize that the moment we’re born we begin dying.
This should be top of mind for Catholics, or anyone who’s ever thrown or watched a “Hail Mary” pass. “. . . Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” That hour could be now.
Death is as much a part of life as breathing, or eating, or celebrating a baptism or a birthday. Have you ever witnessed a death? Held someone’s hand as he or she breathed his or her last? Unfortunately the irrational fear of death and its inevitability leads to so much of our misery. Jesus died for us so we can live forever, so we can be happy now and for eternity.
And yet we’re chasing the delusion that happiness, peace, and security are hiding somewhere among earthly things. Madison Avenue invites us to “open happiness,” and buy “happy meals.” Meanwhile, a top-tier business school offers a master’s level marketing course called “Designing (for) Delight,” where you can learn to design happiness and spread happiness with happy brands.
But St. Paul the apostle says we’ll only find true joy when we let go of this world and hold onto God for dear life. “The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).
Death versus life.
Worry versus peace.
Delusion versus truth.
Obsession versus trust.
Fear versus happiness.
Which side are you on?
By the way, all our planning for my wife’s breast cancer treatment was for naught. As Christmas approached, yet another change of plans occurred. Ellen’s sentinel lymph node biopsy was negative. It was very likely the cancer had not spread!
Her surgeons delayed the mastectomy until mid-January. At first we were a little scared. Let’s kill the cancer now! we thought. But the doctors assured us the brief delay was medically safe. So, instead of the low-key Christmas we’d planned, we had three festive celebrations with our family. We also learned we would become grandparents in the coming year. We felt incredibly blessed.
Thank God. There’s no need to worry. He is so merciful.
Trust him. He knows we’re all dying to be happy.
Dying to be Happy (Hardcover)
Dying to be Happy (Hardcover)
Back to Dying to be Happy (Hardcover)
About Dying to be Happy (Hardcover)
A few days before Thanksgiving 2014, author Chris Stepien found himself in an oncologist’s office. But he wasn’t the patient. Stepien’s wife, Ellen, was just beginning her battle with aggressive breast cancer. That day, while listening to the oncologist’s treatment strategy, Stepien began writing Dying to Be Happy: Discovering the Truth About Life.
In the pages of this book, a brush with a life-threatening disease sparks a frank discussion on mortality. The author explores the prospects of embracing death on a daily basis versus denying it. He encourages readers to follow the advice of Jesus Christ—always be ready for the end of life. Along the way Stepien highlights a spectrum of short, true stories where people rise above the fear of death, including the harrowing account of a child who survived the Holocaust-—Stepien’s own mother.
But Dying to Be Happy is more than an anthology of grim tales and close calls. It beckons readers to admit the inescapability of death in order to find true joy in this life and the next.