A nun’s lesson for how we should live

A woman walks along Flamenco Beach in Culebra, Puerto Rico.
A woman walks along Flamenco Beach in Culebra, Puerto Rico. The Washington Post/Getty Images

This is a story about a Buddhist nun’s vacation in Puerto Rico. But it’s really an allegory about death.


The nun, Robina Courtin, had been invited to stay at a vacant house on the island for nine weeks. For someone who loves the sea and open sky, but who usually lives in a forest, this was glorious. She fashioned a robe-type bathing suit out of Lycra, and reveled in the sea and under the open, sunny skies each day. And then the nine weeks ended and she took a flight back to the forest, grateful for the good moments.

Not a terribly dramatic or unusual vacation. But how would it have differed, Courtin asked, if she’d refused to acknowledge or think about its temporary nature – if she didn’t fully accept that it would end?

Well, she wouldn’t have taken as much advantage of every day, because it would have seemed there were endless days ahead to jump into the waves. She would have felt comfortable putting off adventures, figuring she could always do it another day. And when the nine weeks ended, she said, she would have been a heap of crisis on the front porch, unable to believe that it was over.

This, Courtin said, is how too many of us live. When we reach a stage of comfort where we’re able to put troubles behind us, we’re somehow shocked when they find us again. We put off doing what matters to us, or brings us joy, because we think there will always be another day for that. It’s a denial of the one future we all face: death. And then when we are confronted with death, we react with shock and horror.

I’d gone to hear Courtin speak because her talk, titled “Happy Life, Happy Death,” came to my attention just a few days after my recent column, about a friend who declined chemotherapy for late-stage lung cancer. He died peacefully at home a few weeks later, his wife at his side.

The column, which posed the question, “When is a longer life not worth living?” prompted scores of emails from readers. They all concurred: Our medical culture has gone too far in its efforts to extend life at almost any cost. They want for themselves what I had written about wanting – or rather, not wanting. No slow, agonized deterioration in a nursing home, no full-bore campaigns to keep us alive a little longer. No torturous treatments that might buy us a little more time, but is bereft of comfort or joy.

It’s easy to blame the medical establishment for these things, and it’s certainly true that too often, doctors and hospitals seem intent on using all of their “medical toys,” as one reader put it, instead of asking whether that’s what the patient needs or wants.

Yet, to some extent, the medical culture only reflects a larger societal attitude toward death. We pretend to know it’s coming, but in truth, we’re pretending that it’s never coming. The medical profession’s reaction to death won’t change until ours does, and right now, it remains a concept that we fight, well, to the death.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.