05/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Learning From the Reality of Death

Last week my wife Shirona and I watched the most powerfully honest, riveting, and provocative film that I have ever seen. Titled The Suicide Tourist, this film, which aired on PBS, is a documentary that follows the last days of Craig Ewert, a 59 year old retired Chicago professor who, facing the rapid physical deterioration of ALS, decides to commit suicide. He comes to this decision as he realizes that this fatal disease will soon lead to complete paralysis and a terrifying, imminent death.

"At this point, I've got two choices", he explains. "If I go through with it [suicide], I die, as I must at some point. If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer and to inflict suffering on my family and then die -- possibly in a way that is considerably more stressful and painful than this way. So I've got death, and I've got suffering and death. You know, this makes a whole lot of sense to me."

Ewert and his wife travel to Switzerland, the only country in the world where physician-assisted suicide is available to foreigners. There, he is brought in to a small Zurich apartment where he drinks a fatal dose of sedatives. His wife Mary wishes him a "safe journey", as the camera focuses on his face, showing his slow drift in to death.

"Oh my God", Shirona gasped. "I can't believe this. We just watched someone die."

I too was shocked. We all have seen many, often horribly violent, deaths on TV and the movies. But we know that these deaths are not real - simply feigned by actors who will jump back to life once the camera stops recording - so we can also pretend that death and pain are not real (perhaps this one of the unconscious appeals of movie violence). Ewert, though, was not an actor, and his death was unmistakably, irrevocably real. In this way, The Suicide Tourist is less about the morality of suicide (which is presented in a nuanced and thoughtful way) than about the stark reality of death.

Of all possibilities in our lives, death is only one that is absolutely certain. We all know that someday we will die; that our life has an ending. Unlike Ewert, whose pending death was undeniable, however, we can put this thought out of our minds, and convince ourselves that the end is so far off in the future that we need not concern ourselves with it now. For some of us, the thought of our death may be so frightening that we will do whatever it takes to keep the very idea from ever entering our minds. We may even fantasize that maybe, just maybe, we will be the one exception in the history of everything that has ever lived that will never die.

We can also console ourselves with religious doctrine that attempts to tell us precisely what will happen after we die. Many such possible explanations have been presented, from an eternal, disembodied life of pleasure or pain, to endless cycles of physical reincarnation, to future bodily resurrection into everlasting youth. We can argue about which one is true (including the possibility that nothing awaits us except oblivion), but the real truth is that we don't know what happens to us after we leave our bodies, and this uncertainty is at the core of most of the fears that drive us to behave in destructive ways. "What's the point"? we may ask ourselves, "when everything ends in death." Or we may decide to get as much pleasure as possible while we're here, regardless of the consequences, since the end will come anyways. Or, stemming from a distortion of religious teachings, we may live in fear of harsh, irrevocable divine judgment, and therefore avoid the physical pleasures that life offers. These responses can lead to despair, cynicism, nihilism, hedonism, and neurosis of all kinds.

The mature acceptance of our eventual deaths, though, does not lead to despair or confusion, but instead brings meaning, purpose, and joy to the time that we do have. I am at an age in which the reality of death is becoming clearer - not in a conceptual way, but in my gut. I know that there is very likely less time ahead of me then behind me, while the time behind me seems to have passed in a flash. And who knows what tomorrow will bring? At first I found this thought very frightening. Although I believe in the immortality of the soul and that, at our essence, we are eternal beings, this belief had felt insubstantial compared to the inescapable reality of the end of this life.

Now, I am coming to see that the knowledge of death gives context and perspective to my life, and propels me to have gratitude for the gift of physical existence, to live more fully in the present, to indulge less activities that waste time, to appreciate the presence of those who I love and who love me, and to worry less about the indulgent nonsense that had occupied most of my time (such as the need to be right, to be perfect, to be "special"). I am now more moved to live in a way that is blessing to others, and to leave a positive impact after I am gone. At the same time, I feel more strongly connected to that part of me that is eternal, and that emanates from a source that does not partake of temporal physicality. In this way, the reality of death has been a great teacher.

This is the lesson of the life and death of Craig Ewert. Although he very much desired to stay alive longer, he knew that his time was closing, and he used his remaining days to talk openly with his children, to love and listen to his wife, to enjoy the feeling of sun on his face and the fragrance of flowers, and to bravely share his journey with us. There was a radiance, transparency, and beauty in his being that shone through the screen as he yearned to live as fully as possible, within his limited condition and time. From this perspective, The Suicide Tourist, can be seen as an inspiring, uplifting film, presenting a man's full acceptance of the inevitability of death, and the responsibility for his life. He used his final moments to send us the most important message that we can ever hear:

Love life now!