On the Cusp – New Possibilities and Emerging Models
By Jan Booth
“As living human beings, the most rewarding purpose of our lives is to awaken to our deepest reality, to unfold our most powerful energies of love and compassion. The study of and preparation for death may be the greatest opportunity towards learning to live a fuller life.” – Robert Thurman
Albert Einstein reminds us that we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking that got us into them. In the case of modern end-of-life care, death isn’t the problem. Our response of denial to the reality of death is the problem that causes much suffering. How might we help people find their way to a different way of being with death and dying? As stated in the Introduction to this handbook,
A guide is someone who is familiar with a place and leads travelers through new areas. She is able to communicate in a variety of languages and share her awareness of the culture of this new territory. She uses stories to bring the place to life and help others to see things they might not have noticed otherwise.
To imagine new possibilities, we might benefit by drawing from a different well of thinking and experience – a different kind of knowing, perhaps, and with a sense of curiosity. We benefit from exploring a more mythic understanding of the meaning of living and dying, and the mysteries connected with our transition from this physical life to what may come next. Such an approach may help correct the imbalance that results from relying exclusively on a rational, scientific, biomedical model of dying, and change the conversation we’re having about the end of life. This is an invitation for all of us to explore a larger vision of aging and dying, and to imagine death as part of living a fuller life.
Author Michael Meade, who studies myth and storytelling, describes the ancient Greek conception of two ways of accounting for what happens in the world – and to us, as individuals in the world. Logos is all about logic and a linear timeline, and is very familiar to us in the modern Western world. Facts tell the whole story and can explain most everything. Mythos is a different kind of knowing that is narrative-based, rather than logic-based. It concerns story, not facts, and the deep subjective feelings a person has about life and death. It explores meaning, mystery, intuition, and the “dream hidden inside our lives,” going beyond facts such as how old we are and what we look like. Mythos is about emotion and, most of all, imagination.
If the power of logos is thinking in a logical way, the power of mythos is imagining. Mythos is the way in which our imagination re-organizes the world into a story that includes us in the story of the world. (Living Myth, Episode 1 podcast, 2016).
What do aging, illness, and dying look like through the lens of mythos? The answer requires a shift in our thought process, our consciousness, as we move from a familiar way of thinking and acting to a new way. How might this shift help us re-imagine the possibilities for our lives? Our work is to ask open-ended questions, listen deeply, and allow space for a person’s exploration of thoughts and feelings. We listen without judgment to another person’s beliefs and values, psychospiritual experiences, inner wisdom, and intuition, and to their priorities for the next chapter of their life story. This more intentional and imaginative approach is one of the innovations emerging in end-of-life care.
Re-imagining end-of-life care involves creative thinking and seeing beyond the current dominant medical narrative about dying. It asks us to reflect and remain open to new ideas. When our culture goes too far in one direction, there is a natural correction that occurs – we move from death in isolation towards death within a community, from death as taboo towards more open conversations about dying, and from death as failure towards death as a natural part of being human. Out of the biomedical model of dying is emerging a bigger vision that includes a more holistic perspective. It’s big enough to hold both science and spirit, matter and consciousness, health and healing, the individual and the community. And there’s room for both the facts of dying and the unfolding story of our dying.
(Adapted with permission from Re-Imagining the End of Life: Self-development and Reflective Practices for Nurse Coaches, by Janet Booth. This self-published book was chosen as one of the American Journal of Nursing’s Best Books of the Year for 2019, awarded in both the Palliative Care and Professional Development categories.)
Jan Booth, MA, RN, NC-BC, has worked as a nurse for many years within the intersection of quality of life and end of life, as a hospice/palliative care nurse and as an end-of-life coach and educator. She serves as faculty for the International Nurse Coach Association and the Conscious Dying Institute, and is the author of Re-Imagining the End-of-Life: Self-Development & Reflective Practices for Nurse Coaches.