Preparing for the Final Exam of Life

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Recently, I was taken aback by being asked to deliver the memorial eulogy for our departed classmates at our upcoming 50th year High School Reunion. Why me, I asked? Isn’t there a Priest or Rabbi in our class who is used to doing something like this? That question not only did not seem to matter to the classmate planning the event, but she replied that my professional background would be the most appropriate of all. No stigma about psychiatry here. At least I had done a couple of memorial eulogies for staff who had died, one even from suicide. And I had learned much about eulogies from my Rabbi son. So, with a feeling of both personal and professional honor, I agreed.

Here is what I prepared to say:

Greetings, classmates! I am here to honor our departed classmates, as well as ourselves, in this memorial eulogy I was asked to give. Let’s start with 20 seconds of silence for the 19 known to have passed away and 1 for anyone who has died without our knowing:

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
Thank you. Like the poet Blake’s “The world in a grain of sand”, let our classmates be crystallized in these dotted seconds.

Back 50 years ago, during most of high school, I doubt many of us thought about dying. That just wasn’t a usual preoccupation of adolescents, especially in that time, as we were looking toward our futures. But we were caught short in November of our senior year when President Kennedy was assassinated. The memory of when I first heard about his death as I was leaving school that day has remained powerfully clear. Fortunately, no other attempted assassinations of Presidents have succeeded since, but killings of high schoolers and younger children have, at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and other schools.

I’m also pretty sure most of us didn’t think about healthcare and healthcare costs during most of high school. I didn’t, at least until I broke my leg while skiing for the first time not long after President Kennedy died and was selected as “Most Accident Prone” of our class. We and I didn’t know anything about Medicare because it didn’t begin until 1965. I had no idea how my healthcare costs for the broken leg were handled.

I’m sure that now many memories – hopefully more pleasant ones than I’ve just mentioned – of those high school years come to mind. No matter what we did or felt, we all had an impact in one way or another. While some may have been shooting stars, we were – and are – all butterflies. Nowadays, scientists know about the so-called butterfly effect, that a butterfly flapping its wings in Mexico can have some influence over weather in China. Surely, the human ripple effect is much stronger.

So, 50 years ago, we went off on our separate waves, out to the schools of life. I’ll confidently assume that the grades we received in work, play, love of others, and self-love were different than the grades we got in high school, and perhaps even varied year by year. I’m also sure that we all, in one way or another, were subject to what Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

The grades we have gone through have each lasted many years, at least according to Erik Erikson, who conceptualized the psychosocial stages of development. During high school, we encountered the challenge to develop a personal identity rather than role confusion. Then, from the ages 19-40 or so, there was the young Adulthood class on intimacy vs. isolation. Isn’t it so interesting and meaningful that we had our last reunion, our 20th, 30 years ago, right at the cusp of beginning the next stage of Middle Adulthood, where the class was on generativity vs. stagnation, in the course of work and/or parenthood.

Of course, those who passed away along the way were subject to early and unexpected final exams. We hope that they passed with flying colors. Many memorials state something to the effect that we honor the dead by serving the living. Then, what are some of our options to serve our departed classmates?

In trying to do so, we have just entered Erikson’s final stage, our final class, if you will. At its essence, this is a class of undetermined length to try to achieve some degree of wisdom.

The paradox here is that to serve the living we have to take care of ourselves as best as possible. Some of the methods discovered to do so, especially for the well-being of our brains, can be quite enjoyable: drink a glass or two of red wine daily; have friends; have as much sex and/or other exercise as you can; don’t smoke; keep up to date on the preventive vaccines you need; and work – even re-careering – if you enjoy it and can. The positive side effect of this behavior may well be lower health care costs for ourselves and the nation.

Our class is part of the beginning of the American baby boomers, deemed the largest group in the history of the world to enter the “over 65” ranks. We graduated at the beginning of the famous – or infamous – sixties. Much progress was made on the human and civil rights of African-Americans and women. More still needs to be done for these, as well as the call for gay and trans rights. Perhaps a South African style Truth & Reconciliation Commission is needed for Native Americans.

We can also work on solving new problems or challenges which our own generation greatly contributed to, including climate instability, gun proliferation, the effects of technology on human relationships, and unsustainable health care costs. Ironically, we now even become a discriminated group ourselves, the aged facing ageism.

Wisdom also often makes it easier to forgive. We can ask for forgiveness from others and give our forgiveness to others when appropriate, even for long ago high school traumas. For those classmates of ours that we know are in financial need, we collectively can set up a fund to help them.

One of the benefits of a 50th year reunion is that it comes at the right time to remember what we learned in high school, continue or rekindle or begin relationships with classmates, and contemplate our future, which will include a final exam for us all.

H. Steve Moffic, M.D., 66, recently retired from clinical practice. He identifies himself as “psychiatric gadfly.” He graduated from Von Steuben high school in Chicago in 1964.

6 Responses to “Preparing for the Final Exam of Life”

  1. Faye Girsh

    I would add a wish that in our dying we are able to retain our dignity, control and choice. Personally I would have more peace of mind about the end stage knowing that I could choose a peaceful, assisted, legal death — much as people in the Netherlands are privileged to have. The prospect of experiencing many years of dementia, or endless treatments for cancer, or perpetual shortness of breath as in congestive heart failure could rob our last years of peace and result in being a burden to those we love. Never have people lived so long and been sicker when we die.

    • Steve Moffic

      Thank you so much for the comment. While I was focusing on what my classmates and I could do to honor our deceased classmates, you rightly point out that attention should also be paid for how we should die, providing we have that opportunity. Your point should indeed be another challenge for us baby boomers as we become elderly boomers: death with dignity and not being a burden (emotionally, practically, and financially) whenever possible.

  2. Ronald Pies MD

    A very moving tribute to your classmates, Steve, also containing many lessons for living, relevant to us all! I, too, think confronting our own mortality is very important. But at the same time, I have always liked this observation by the great French essayist, Michel de Montaigne (1533-92):

    “Philosophy ordains that we should always have death before our eyes, to see and consider it before the time…[but]…If we have not known how to live, ’tis injustice to teach us how to die…”

    Best regards,

    Ron

    Ronald Pies MD

    • Steve Moffic

      Yes, thank you, Ron, for pointing out what I think is one of the major challenges and paradoxes of life, that the prospect of death often enhances the preciousness of life, though sometimes that perspective is influenced by one’s view of an afterlife. As physicians, we often see that in patients’ response to life-threatening illness, especially if they recover. Life becomes more meaningful day by day. As we age, and pass that symbolic age of 65, I think the considerations of life, death, and religion often also get intensified. That has certainly happened to me!

  3. Carl Hammerschlag MD

    A delightful eulogy honoring your classmates S, and a gift to all of still living to remember that our lives are a treasure to be spent well. There are some things that cannot be outrun, so let’s leave behind a legacy that honors our humanity.
    Warm regards, C.

    • Steve Moffic

      Couldn’t say it better, Carl. “Leave behind a legacy that honors our humanity” could be a vision for being “over 65”. There are oh so many ways to do so, including your clowning (see the blog Schlagbytes).

      Steve