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A Terminally Ill Harvard Law Prof Talks About Faith and the Future - (

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  • A Terminally Ill Harvard Law Prof Talks About Faith and the Future - (

    Once in a while, you come across an article that just sort of just stops you cold. Jeffrey Zaslow’s now famous article about former Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch’s “last lecture” was one such piece.

    We came across another today: a recent interview Harvard Law professor William Stuntz gave to an online publication called Patheos, which purports to present “Balanced Views of Religion and Spirituality.”

    Stuntz is the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard. He teaches criminal law and criminal procedure. According to the article, Stuntz since 1999 has suffered from incurable pain in his back that he, according to the piece, likens to “having a blaring alarm clock taped to one’s ear, with no way to lower the volume.” In February of 2008, he was diagnosed with cancer, which has since spread throughout his body. Stuntz, 52, is not expected to live more than a year. Stuntz is also a practicing Christian.

    The interview with Stuntz has little to do with law. Nor is it necessarily an easy read. But as a raw and unvarnished portrait of a man staring at death and pondering, in a very open way, his faith in light of that fact, it’s as compelling as anything we’ve come across in some time.

    Two quick outtakes from the piece:

    The Patheos author asks:

    The pain and the cancer in themselves are not good, then, and yet we as Christians believe that God can bring good out of evil. Not to paper over the negatives, but what good has God brought out of it? What lessons has God taught you, or how has He shaped you?

    Answers Stuntz:

    My experience of cancer especially is that God is just so eager to bless. I find blessing all over the place, not in the cancer itself but all around it. It would almost be easier to answer what blessings I have not found.

    Since my cancer diagnosis, I have experienced more friendship from more people than at any other time in my life. . . .

    Later, Stuntz is asked:

    Many people wonder what it will be like when they learn that their death is drawing near. Is there anything that surprises you?

    He responds:

    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.

    Here is a completely trivial example. I have always enjoyed my wife’s cooking, and always enjoyed eating good food at a restaurant. But not the way I enjoy it now. I just love eating something good at a time when it really appeals to me. Very often, a large fraction of the time, food doesn’t appeal to me. I eat on a schedule because I know I have to, not because I want to. But at those times when eating is really satisfying a desire, it is just intensely pleasurable. It never used to be. That has something to do with the medical conditions, but it’s also because I am dying and I know that I am dying.

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