March 7, 2010
Harvard Law Prof Bill Stuntz Talks of His Impending Death, FaithPlease check out the gripping interview with, and testimony of, William J. Stuntz, Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, a 51-year old father of three, who has lived with intense chronic pain for ten years and is dying of stage IV colon cancer.
Many people wonder what it will be like when they learn that their death is drawing near. Is there anything that surprises you?
Yes, absolutely, but I think that this is just another one of many, many pieces of divine mercy. One thing that has certainly surprised me is just how easy it has been to absorb that message that I’m going to die soon.
I will probably not survive 2010. Yet that message is much easier to take than I would have expected. I don’t fully understand why. I would have thought that the knowledge that I am very likely in my last year of life would lead me to dwell on the dying. A certain amount of that is unavoidable. Death hangs in the air. It’s as though I am living with an hourglass right in front of my face. You cannot look away from it. You cannot close your eyes to it. It’s always there. But actually I think it has led me to dwell more on the living. It sounds really trite to say that things that seemed like very small matters seem really precious to me now. It’s no novel thought — but, in my case, it really is true.
Facing death, what do you fear and what do you not fear?
The awful part, the only thing about which I am sometimes scared, is the period right before death. Cancer deaths are ugly, and I assume mine will be ugly and painful and very, very unpleasant.
People do this. I will do it. People get through it. I will get through it. God will give me the resources I need when the time comes. But I try not to think very much about that.
There certainly are things about that hourglass that sting, that hurt. It hurts when my wife becomes sad because she wanted us to grow old together. We are not going to grow old together. She feels anticipated pain over my coming death, and seeing her feel the pain of that, that's hard.
I worry about my children. I want them to be happy. I won't be there to help my children when they might have wanted or benefited from my help. ...
Those things aside, I must say that I would rather not have that hourglass in front of my face, but it's nowhere near as unpleasant as it first appears. It pains me that it pains my wife and children, but my own pain is not as bad as you would think.
Do you have any favorite quotations or favorite scriptures, when it comes to death?
Yes, a passage in the fourteenth chapter of Job. The passage as a whole is not hopeful. Job is uncertain what will happen to him when he dies. In the end, he says that he will return to dust and there will be nothing after death.
In the midst of the passage, however, before he turns to despair, he has a moment of hope. It's a brief moment, just a couple of verses in the midst of an extended passage. Yet he says, "You will call and I will answer. You will long for the creature your hands have made" (Job 14:15).
I find those lines very powerful. The concept that God longs for the likes of me is so unspeakably sweet. I almost cannot bear to say them aloud. They are achingly sweet for me to hear.
There are many passages I love, but that one in particular has grabbed hold of me. Job's hope, it turns out, is more realistic than his despair.
- Wall Street Journal Law Blog, A Terminally Ill Harvard Law Prof Talks About Faith and the Future
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