May 242018
 

I am dying. Because of cultural biases, I imagine many will have found those words to be deeply disturbing. We resist contemplation of our own mortality at great peril. There are, I am told, places where daily meditations on death are encouraged, and those people derive insights and happiness from the practice.

To the best of my knowledge, I’m a healthy 66-year-old with, I hope, many years ahead. None-the-less, I am dying…and so are you. Recently, life encouraged me to think more about death. In the past week, I attended the wake of a friend who died after a fleeting battle with aggressive cancer, I had lunch with a dear friend who lost his wife of many years after a long fight with COPD, and I was encouraged to read Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life by Ira Byock, M.D. When life sends me a series of such powerful teachers, I prepare for the final exam.

Here’s what I have been reminded. Impermanence and death give life its ultimate meaning.

Suppose someone gave you a magnificent rose; a bloom of such splendor your heart leapt when you first witnessed its beauty. Suppose, in addition, it would never die, nor lose a speck of its glory. How long before your heart no longer even trembled in its presence? A week? Month? Year? Decade? At some point this miracle will have become invisible. Its glory will have faded. Its brilliance gone. Much of what brings joy and ecstasy to our lives derives from the impermanence of all things.

So too with human life. If we had an infinity of days ahead, soon, the miracle of each new day would become invisible. Its glory will have faded. Its brilliance, too, would be gone.

And yet, we not only deny death, we strive for its opposite: eternal youth. We wish for bodies that never decline in strength and vitality. We are on a continual search for remedies and rituals that eliminate all sources of suffering and sorrow. We strive to hide everything that reminds us of our mortality. Elders are sent to senior communities. The disabled are cared for in institutions. Every ailment life offers demands immediate remedy. We act as if, by hiding all reminders of old age and mortality, death will forget to tap us on the shoulder.

Reading Byock’s work reminds me of the beauty that can flow from old age and even death. In a heart wrenching moment, Byock is speaking to an elder whose life was defined by community service and is now nearing death in full-time hospice care. After a life of caring for others, the dying man now detests the thought of having to be cared for. Byock reminds him:

The social responsibility you have so well exemplified is not limited to doing things for others. Interactions just like this, caring and being cared for, are the way in which community is created. I believe that community, like the word family, is more of a verb than a noun. Community comes about in the process of caring for those in need among us. It’s unfortunate now that you’re getting to see that side of it, but in allowing yourself to be cared for, and being a willing recipient of care, you’re contributing in a remarkably valuable way to the community. In a real sense, we need to care for you. Not just those of us in hospice, but the community we represent.

The most difficult moments of life, especially as we travel with those who are dying, offer vistas from which to view the astonishing panorama of life, its crescendos as well as its depths. I wonder how much wisdom, compassion, and love we extract from our lives as we attempt to extinguish even the thought of old age, suffering, and death.

Contemplation of my mortality and meditations on death have caused many tears to flow over the past week. But they have gifted me with renewed appreciation for the finitude of the days I have left…and I am even more grateful as each one arrives.

Dec 052017
 

How should we understand human suffering?

I received a call from a young man who began the conversation by declaring “I have a gun in my lap and when we finish talking, I intend to use it.” This young man’s life, and sense of self, were defined by exploitation. He had been abused in every way imaginable, and the assaults came at him from all directions. Now, in his early 20s, he felt used and useless…his life had no apparent value. There was nothing left to do but end the anguish.

After we talked for some time, and I began to understand the depth of his desperation and hopelessness, I asked if I could share a story from the Hasidic tradition. He accepted the invitation.

As the story is told, a disciple asked his Rebbe, “Why does the Torah tell us to write the holy words on our hearts, why doesn’t it tell us to write them in our hearts?” The Rebbe replied, “That’s because, as we are, our hearts are closed, so we write them on our hearts and there they stay…until one day our heart breaks and the holy words fall in.”

After recounting that tale, I told the young caller how I wished I could take away his unfathomable pain, but I was helpless to dull even the sharpest of its edges. Knowing his heart had been shattered hundreds of times, I asked if he learned anything about the human journey that would enable him to help others. “Have there been holy words that have fallen into your heart?”

I was stunned by his reply. He told me story after story of his ability to save the lives of other young men who suffer the kind of abuse he experienced; he truly understood the depth of their searing pain. When he finally grasped his incredible capacity for empathy, and his ability to save others, he put the gun away.

When our hearts break, holy words do, indeed, fall in. We learn something important about the nature of the human journey. In moments of heartache and pain, if we are open to the lessons, we gain in our capacity for kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. Our hearts grow in those moments and we are unexpectedly more human, not less. We are broken open, not broken. I have been the beneficiary of the profound wisdom that emanates from human suffering hundreds of times on the suicide hotline.

Yet, we live in a culture that wants us to believe suffering can be made optional, or, if not, at least veiled and secreted away. Anything that reminds us of our mortality, recalls the fragility of our lives, is sequestered. We are flooded with images and products that hint at the prospect of everlasting youth…and an end to suffering. When we do suffer, we wear carefully crafted masks behind which we hide, lest others learn of our weaknesses and failures. Those who find themselves in crises are often deserted by friends who are frightened by the prospects of their own mortality.

We know, at some very deep level, much of humanity’s most profound wisdom has come from individual and collective suffering. I am reminded of how Joseph Campbell taught us the value of the heroes’ journey…the descent into Hades, only to reemerge, imbued with greater humanity and wisdom.

Because we are unpracticed at being in the midst of suffering, it takes effort to overcome our fear. But when we do, our hearts, too, will break, the holy words will fall in, and we will learn even greater kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. It is a difficult, yet essential, part of the human journey. Those moments plant within us essential seeds of human wisdom.