The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Other People Matter: From Birth to Death

By talking about our families, we talk about what matters.

Let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. —1 John 4:7 

I recently read a wonderful CNN blog entry by Kerry Egan (2011) to which I draw your attention. I am just piggy-backing here, so please check out the original essay, which is beautifully written and moreover moving.

Ms. Egan is a hospice chaplain, and she described her work with the dying. She started by recounting a conversation she had with one of her professors while she was a young divinity student and learning the ropes of her profession. She was interning as a student chaplain in a cancer hospital, and one of her professors asked her what she talked about with the patients.

She replied, "We talk about their families."

The professor was apparently surprised, and asked her if they talked about God. "Not usually."

What about religion? "Not usually."

What about the meaning and purpose of life? "Not usually. We talk about their families."

Do you pray with them? "Sometimes, but not usually. They talk about their families, and I listen."

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That same professor shortly thereafter gave a lecture in a class in which Ms. Egan was enrolled, and he recounted to all his conversation with her. He was sarcastic, as professors at their very worst can sometimes be.

To the laughter of the class and the shame of young Ms. Egan, he went on to say, "And that was this student's understanding of faith! That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went! Talking about other people's families!... If I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying... the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family."

I think you know where this is going. Years later, Ms. Egan is now an experienced hospice chaplain. And what does she talk about with those who are dying? Their families—spouses, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers—and now she knows this is the right thing to do. By talking about our families, we talk about God, we talk about meaning, we talk about faith, and of course we talk about love. Theological language is not needed.

I wonder whether that professor at Harvard Divinity School ever read, and I mean really read, the New Testament. And if he ever dies (what a curious phrase), I wonder what he would talk about with his last breath.

As Ms. Egan herself wrote, "We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it. It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques. It's discovered through...actions of love."

Other people matter, from birth to death.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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