We don’t want to diminish how much palliative care physician BJ Miller’s TED Talk, “Not Whether But How,” will move you and get you thinking, but we can’t resist giving you a taste here (if only to get you to take a break and listen in full):
“I’ve been seeing Frank now for years. He’s living with advancing prostate cancer on top of longstanding HIV. We work on his bone pain and his fatigue, but most of the time we spend thinking out loud together about his life. Really, about our lives. In this way, Frank grieves. In this way, he keeps up with his losses as they roll in. So that he’s ready to take in the next moment.”
Miller is the senior director and advocate of the Zen Hospice Project and we at WYD are big fans—mainly because of how he’s cultivating a richer dialogue about death and dying that is so needed in our time.
Miller’s own life was profoundly reshaped at age 19 by an accident that involved the live wires of a parked commuter train. As he tells it, the experience began his “formal relationship with death”—his own death.
“Paying attention to the fact that you die,” says Miller, speaking as a medical doctor who’s worked in palliative care and hospice for more than a decade, “can help you live a lot better. So a lot of my colleagues and I are very aware of the clock. Now sure, that can make you anxious as well, but, you know, we’re aware of our finitude and so we’re just a little more likely to be kind to ourselves and others, and we’re a little less likely to squander that time.”
Deeper into the interview, Miller gives us something else to think about:
“One of the upshots or silver linings about end of life is that, if you want to, you can let a lot of the rules that govern our daily lives fly out the window—because you realize that we’re walking around in systems in society and much of what consumes most of our days is not some natural order.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON MADARA
“We’re all navigating some super-structure that we humans created, that is the workday, the work week, whatever it is….We inherit that. And I think the trick is, if you’re dealing with serious illness or some unnatural trauma, or are facing the end of your life, often times, that becomes crystal clear….Where you’ve been hanging out and spending so much of your time and energy and worry is like living in someone else’s dream.”