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Handbook for Mortals : Finding Meaning

Spirituality, Religion, and Relationships

To many, spirituality and religion are almost the same thing, especially at end of life. In fact, it has been said that all religion is about death and trying to make sense of it. And the connection between spirituality and end-of-life may seem obvious to people who have strong roots in organized religion. Religion gives believers a pathway with clear road signs and expected activities. If you have faith, you may take comfort in the milestones that mark the way, no matter how troubling the journey. If you have been actively addressing spiritual issues throughout life, with or without formal religion, life's last journey may feel like the natural conclusion to a lifelong journey, not requiring particular attention.

But most of us are caught up in the challenges of daily life, and reach the end of our lives with more questions unanswered than we would like. It is helpful to see the spiritual journey at the end of life, despite its challenges and troubles, as an opportunity to learn and grow. Serious illness often requires an important redefinition of self, because it lets us get beyond the usual "currency" of being worthy, whether that's making money or being a good citizen. Serious illness, like other significant life challenges, forces us to rethink what it is that really matters. Often, we discover that what matters most are relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the world that surrounds us.

Spirituality goes beyond readily defined social roles and relationships and focuses on one's relationships with an interior world, the soul, and with a limitless, external world. Those infinite worlds, both within and around us, and our relationship to each, shape our spiritual world. These are the relationships that may concern you as you approach death and question God or the universe: Why me? Why now? Why this? The way you answer those questions, or understand what is happening to you, also shapes your spiritual life.

How do you handle the urgent need to find meaning for yourself in what is soon to be a completed life? First, it helps to see this search for meaning as an important "task" for the end of life. In a sense, this is the valuable opportunity that dying with some forewarning offers: you have the chance to seek and find your own meaning. The fact that most people find this search to be terribly important and rewarding means that it is worth resisting the temptation to spend all your energy on medical treatment or on relatively unimportant tasks. It is as important to seek space and time for spiritual concerns as it is to seek the right treatment or therapy.

Second, it helps to seek spiritual companions. Perhaps you can talk to your spouse, or someone else who is close to you. He or she may be on a spiritual journey, too, and sharing thoughts can help you both along the way. Often, it helps to seek out others who have more experience, including religious advisors, older people, or groups of people who have taken on these issues together. Perhaps you will find it especially meaningful to share your journey with someone much younger who is not yet driven by a search for meaning but senses its importance.

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