Don’t Wait for Anything.
In 2015, my Uncle (who raised me) died of ALS. One of the last things he told me was: “I have one piece of advice for you: don’t wait for anything. I waited my entire life to do things, and now I can’t.”
I knew what he meant. We come from a family of Chinese Nationalists who had to flee or be killed when the Communists took over. Lost everything but what they could carry. My Uncle was born outside China and wanted to go see his homeland, but he never did. He had always wanted to take my Aunt to Europe, but he never did. He was waiting for retirement to do both. He died at age 64.
When we face death, we face what really matters. My friend and fellow spiritual director Dan Martin works in end of life care and told me that, across the world and throughout time, when people are confronted with death, they finally face four types of spiritual pain:
1. Meaning – struggling with the “meaning” behind life, relationships, and the world around you
2. Forgiveness – pain that stems from forgiving others, ourselves, and God
3. Relatedness – dealing with relationships, whether good or bad
4. Hope – feeling like there is no hope or it doesn’t exist
Everyone is on a spiritual journey from the moment they are born and from that journey, we feel pain and, in turn, we grow. Our society doesn’t often emphasize this journey. We distract ourselves with busyness, whether it’s work, consumerism, activities, or screens. But the pain remains underneath. As we near death, everything else is stripped away and only the important things matter. And that’s when the pain surfaces.
Our opportunity is to look at our spiritual pain earlier. Stoic philosopher Seneca believed that human life isn’t too short, but rather that most people waste a lot of it. We don’t have to wait until we’re close to death to look at what is truly important. The four spiritual pains are signposts of the things that really matter. Basically, did we live a good life? That’s why the ancient philosophers said that preparing for dying is preparing to live. Death has the power because it helps us see clearly; it puts life into proper perspective. As Khalil Gibran wrote, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
The ancients had a saying. In Latin, ars sacra moriendi, ars sacra vivendi, the sacred art of dying is the sacred art of living. Across time and culture, the wisdom of our ancestors is to lean into spiritual pain. As the 11th-century book The Sacred Art of Living and Dying said, “May you have the commitment to know what has hurt you, to allow it to come closer to you and in the end, to become one with you.” But instead of leaning into, we tend to avoid spiritual pain: with money, with accomplishments, addictions, and any manner of distraction. And long-term, it doesn’t work.
There is no “fixing” spiritual pain. They cannot be cured, but they can be healed. By embracing whatever wounded us, we become, as writer Rashani Rea put it, “alchemists transmuting pain into aliveness, unwanted experiences into awakening.” By stripping away our ego-defenses that we built up in the first half of our lives, we gain a greater prize: becoming whole. The second half of our lives can be a death to ego, to role, and to identity, a chance to prepare to face our Truest Self.
"The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." - Carl Jung
When I look at the four spiritual pains, I see pains of separateness, from others, ourselves, and God. We’re desperately trying to heal the belief that we are individual and disconnected from a greater story. The spiritual teacher Rupert Spira once said, “The sense of separation is a wound in the heart. Almost all our thoughts, feelings, activities and relationships are undertaken with a view to relieving the pain of this wound.” Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” As MEA faculty member Mark Nepo said, “We need to experience enough pain to realize we need each other.”
Christian writer Henri Nouwen wrote, “I have discovered that the gifts of life are often hidden in the places that hurt most.” In order to heal, we need to feel. In order to feel, we need to heal. The sacred art of dying is the sacred art of living. The regrets of the dying are a message for living. You don’t have to wait for a terminal diagnosis or life-threatening illness to drop the mask and live an authentic life. In leaning into our spiritual pain, we find what it is to live.
Douglas Tsoi is a spiritual director and personal finance teacher. He is gratefully a three-time MEA alum