Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rest in Peace, Pavarotti

I've never liked opera as much as Gary does; I admire the artistry tremendously, but the genre doesn't massage the pleasure center of my brain the way it does his. (The music that does that for me is Celtic folk.) Listening to opera's often a pleasant experience, even exhilerating, but rarely ecstatic.

But I was genuinely saddened to read about the death of Luciano Pavarotti. We'd heard him sing with Kathleen Battle at the Met in New York, and his voice was truly astounding.

I was even sadder when I read this passage from the AP story:
Pavarotti was preparing to leave New York in July 2006 to resume a farewell tour when doctors discovered a malignant pancreatic mass. He underwent surgery in a New York hospital, and all his remaining 2006 concerts were canceled.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most dangerous forms of the disease, though doctors said the surgery offered improved hopes for survival.

"I was a fortunate and happy man," Pavarotti told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published about a month after the surgery. "After that, this blow arrived."

"And now I am paying the penalty for this fortune and happiness," he told the newspaper.
In my chaplaincy training at the hospital, we were taught the "first in, last out" principle of pastoral care. In times of severe stress and illness, and especially at the end of life, people tend to revert to their first belief system, whatever they absorbed as small children. These theologies are often primitive and punitive, even if the believer has consciously adopted a more humane outlook for decades.

Pavarotti's poignant statement is a perfect example. Like so many other patients facing grave outcomes, he believed that his illness was a punishment. And in his case, wrenchingly, he believed that he was being punished for having been happy and successful and abundantly talented, for having brought joy to millions of people.

This reflects a sort of "first law of thermodynamics" view of the universe: there's no such thing as a free lunch, and if you prosper and flourish, you'll pay a correspondingly devastating price later on. According to this worldview, the happier you are now, the more fearful you need to be later.

I hope and pray that Pavarotti's end-of-life care included chaplaincy, that someone helped him work with, and revise, this outlook. And I find myself wondering what I might have said and done had I been his chaplain.

We're trained to ask questions, so I probably would have said something like this. "Why do you believe that people have to pay a price for being happy? What has happened in your life to convince you of that? Do you feel guilty about your success? Why? If a friend of yours, another successful singer, got sick and said the same thing, how would you respond?"

This last one is one of my tried-and-true strategies; usually the patient says something like, "Oh, of course I'd try to tell my friend that having been happy doesn't mean we deserve to suffer!"

To which I respond, "Can you tell yourself the same thing?" Patients often find this difficult, even when they clearly see the logic. Emotion supersedes reason, and guilt is one of the most toxic and tenacious emotions in the human repertoire.

Chaplains are trained not to talk at patients, not to impose our own belief systems on them (although sometimes this is difficult!). And so, had I been Pavarotti's chaplain, I would have had to bite my lip to keep from sharing my own opinion:

Death is the price we all pay, whether we have been talented and successful or not. We pay it in more or less painful ways, but it is always a loss to us and those we love, whatever beliefs we may have about what comes next. The more we have loved and achieved and shared with others, the more acutely we and others feel that loss. (And is that, after all, all he meant?) If we felt no loss, that would mean there had been no love, and that's no way to live.

Because we will all pay this price, we all try to leave something behind, to ensure that death will have not claimed everything we are and everything we have done. All of us want something we love to live on in the world. Many people leave behind a legacy of family, children and grandchildren; others work in their communities or in other countries to help those in need; still others bless us with their talent in the arts, producing work that will not fade even when those who have created it are no longer visible.

Luciano Pavarotti, you have left us all a dazzling legacy. Your memory will not fade as long as anyone listens to your music, and we will be listening to your music as long as we have ears. And because you were fortunate and happy, you have taught us that it is not necessary to suffer to produce great art, that art can also bloom from love and joy.

And so we mourn you, and grieve with your friends and family; but as much as your death is a loss, we do not believe that it is a penalty. Your life is a gift that remains with us; you have gained immortality here, whatever comes after death. You have shown us the power of living well and fully, which is the charge laid on all of us by our mortality.

We would have spared you pain and illness if we could, and we know no more than you did why pain and illness come to so many. But we do know that however we die -- peacefully in our sleep, or after the shock and agony of illness or accident -- we will want our lives to be as cherished as yours.

Death is not the penalty for a good life. A good life, if we can achieve it, is our reward for facing our inevitable death, and for making our mark on the world in its shadow.


  1. nice post.

    The way I've thought about death, or tried to think about it, is not so much the "price" that we have to pay, but rather the nature cycle of all that exists.

    When cherry blossoms bloom, we revel in their beauty, but no one sheds a tear when they fall and finish their natural life cycle. They will be back next year.

    And so it is with human life. To be born means that there will one day be death. But to live is to spread who and what we are to those around us. So that even if no large "legacy" is left behind, we too have changed the world.

    And if we can remind ourselves that we are but a part of a much larger, much grander picture, the natural cycle of the end of one life is not something to grieve about; it is the way things are and the way things should be... and, more life - is just around the corner.

  2. Amen, Susan. My grandfather didn't feel guilty, I don't think, but he had always thought he was excommunicated from the church because he divorced his first wife and then married my grandmother. I think he felt that way on his deathbed too even though I believed God told me otherwise in prayers. I always imagine him in heaven with grandmother. I wonder if he was surprised.

    I liked Pavarotti but didn't ever get to hear him perform. Lucky you! Even though he felt bad about his success I hope he finds himself in heaven and happy. I'm also wondering if his reaction to his illness was one of those 5 stages people go through when they face death and if it changed between the interview and his final days. I know deby's did.

    Is Lulu doing any better now that she is moved?

    Peace! Hope! & Joy!

  3. Anonymous1:47 PM

    I work as a chaplain at a children's hospita. Often parents believe they're being punished by God for some earlier action if their children become seriously ill or die. Generally, I support people's beliefs, though in cases of "God's punishment" I try to present other interpretations. At the same time, not all guilt is neurotic, and at times we have to separate out things that have genuinely harmed ourselves or others from things we are not responsible for. Perhaps Pavarotti felt some genuine guilt for lack of generosity to the poor, or a self-centered lifestyle. Maybe he put his faith on a shelf while pursuing his goals. Who knows?

    Ultimately, it helps to name what has gone wrong, and to accept forgiveness as well. The 12 Steps encourage us to "make amends where possible...", and then move on. I hope Pavarotti had someone with whom he could be really honest, and who could make real the enormous generosity of God.

  4. Thanks for your insights!


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