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Heavenly fears of dying.

EVERYONE WANTS TO GO to Heaven, but nobody wants to die. Elijah was taken there in a fiery chariot, but that's pretty much it. Even Jesus and His mother had to die before they were brought into Heaven, body and soul. The rest of us, apparently, also will have to die before meeting our final reward.

Most people spend a lot of time avoiding the idea of death. A friend has been fighting cancer for six years. She recently decided--enough. No more endless rounds of experimental chemotherapy and the resulting sickness. There is a window for some decent quality of life, and then she knows she will die. Her family is resisting--has been resisting--for years now. They do not want to face death, and if it means she has to suffer longer, that is a price they are prepared to let her pay.

Parents without wills or plans for their progeny think you are morbid if you suggest it might be prudent to make arrangements. Middle-aged people express surprise when someone as young as they inexplicably appears in the obituaries. Many elderly people, with long and rich lives, are reluctant to make the emotional and spiritual preparations necessary for psychological health at the end of life.

Coping with death is just one slice of the pie. Ease and bliss--a shallow feint at heaven on earth--conflict with troublesome details, such as effort and sacrifice. Substance abuse, theft, and the epidemic bitterness encouraged against successful people are baser versions of the same desire: ecstasy without the agony. When then-candidate Barack Obama suggested to Joe the Plumber that the fruits of Joe's labor ought to be "spread around" like orange marmalade on toast, there ought to have been a collective gasp sufficient to create a vacuum effect over the country. At least Mr. Obama was forthright about his intentions; many others harbor the same notion but have neither the weapons nor the personnel necessary to execute it.

Humans are programmed to seek pleasure. One of our neurotransmitters, dopamine, enjoys a particularly intimate relationship with thrills. Dopamine is part of the electro-chemical charge of falling in love, winning at gambling, and excitement in general. The dopamine system evolves across the life span. Small children experience countless rushes--everything's wonderful! Snow! School! A snow day! Adults whose brains are unspoiled by drugs are barely moderated versions of children in this regard: Sunset! Sunrise! Sex! Steak! Cake! Teenagers, however, go through a phase where their dopamine systems, to put it crudely, either are flatlining or mainlining: any experience is boring, boring, boooooring, or a complete high. This, plus brain changes related to executive function development, comprise a considerable source of the notorious stupidity of adolescence. The fiat-line phenomenon is not unique to teens: dopamine receptors are among several known neurotransmitters' receptors that can be burned out by stimulants such as Ritalin, other amphetamines, and cocaine. Possibly, many drug abusers suffer actual chemical ennui due to neural exhaustion and neurotransmitter depletion. The end result, however, speaks to the preliminary problem of wanting a thrill without working for it.

Change requires rewiring the brain--literally. Learning may occur in a single event, but generally the hardwiring of neural development is slower. If the desired change provokes temper tantrums in the pleasure-seeking dopamine system, it is prudent to plan for roadblocks, setbacks, and the interference of those near and dear to us. It is an essential strategy, because brain physiology and chemistry often are set up in opposition to change, even change that is good for us.

An acquaintance recently remarked that it was time get religious about his health. He is not atypical: he fancies himself too busy to eat properly, although not too busy to eat out most nights. A normal schedule justifies insufficient time for consistent exercise, etc. Implicit assumptions bespoke trouble. First was the apparent perception that making new choices was something static: that the better choices made at 39 would suit at 49, 60, or 75. He seemed oblivious to the many variables linked to the behavior he wanted to change. What friendships revolve around dining out or a few beers after work? What daily conversations concern the television shows he will miss if he spends an hour at the gym? Who--romantic partner, cat, or employer--will feel cheated if he carves out time for his new routine? He was unprepared for the fluidity of life and the challenges that make psychological shock absorbers so helpful. Finally, one of the high-grade psychological shock absorbers--accepting that emotions sometimes merely are marginally interesting information, not a compass--was missing. Being committed to an exercise program does not cause one to "feel like" rolling out of bed for a run in the sleet. At some point, the "feeling" must be treated as little more than a buzzing mosquito in the panoply of brain activity.

He envisions grocery shopping and cooking fresh meals from scratch but, without strategies to cope with subtle details, change will be more excruciating than necessary. He either will learn to keep a running list of items for grocery shopping, or shop nearly daily. The latter is as much a time killer as dining out can be. Cooking sounds good until the night that either takeout or a bowl of cereal over the sink are the best options because it has been a hellish day and what he planned last weekend intersects with working three hours late on Wednesday night. Then there is the appestat adjustment: a grilled chicken breast and crisp green salad are not as filling as a burger and fries. Hunger, or a lack of fullness, will be one of his new friends. That is good; he will need friends. His other friends will gripe because he's never around; they will make plans without him; eventually, he will have to choose between workouts and his social circle.

We cannot experience true life without acknowledging death. Childbirth is painful; meaningful friendships require effort; and a rich spiritual life takes time, too. We resist facing the inevitable: bliss requires suffering. Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

Dolores T. Puterbaugh, American Thought Editor of USA Today, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Largo, Fla.
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Author:Puterbaugh, Dolores T.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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