September 2, 2014
I had befriended Carlos when he first arrived at the hospital with his leukemia diagnosis, back in January. He was a spirited man, full of stamina and a relentless determination to fight his prognosis. Over the months I have listened to him as he grappled with each step of his body’s slow and painful decline. There have been days when he was filled with hope, and days when despair overwhelmed him. My role as Volunteer at the hospital has meant that I was limited in my help to listening to him, which turned out to be exactly what he needed. His wife could only cope with her impending widowhood through denial: she refused to believe the doctors, she refused to entertain the possibility that he might die, and even now when it is imminent, she will not allow anyone to speak of it in her presence.
There is a clearly defined pathway towards death among those lucky enough to die in controlled environments, over a defined period of time. The senses pack up one after another: taste is the first to leave, then smell. Patients lose appetite weeks before they stop eating entirely. Next, sight packs up, the eyes lose details, they only see shapes. Touch is among to last to leave, so hand-holding is particularly a comfort to them. Speech becomes more slurred as the lungs fill with fluids and loved ones, unable to understand the dying, sometimes stop speaking to them because they assume the patient cannot hear either. In fact, the last to leave is sound, compounding to the patient’s frustration. Most maddeningly, the mind speeds up as though it is picking up the slack for the other faltering senses. Often patients become so restless that they are unable to sleep. As the final end nears, it is as though the mind is rattling at the cage of the body, demanding to be released. It reminds me of wild birds when they are first caged. Or perhaps more aptly, of wild men when they are first jailed, pounding their fists on the metal doors, screaming to be let out.
We forget how trapped our minds and our desires are within the confines of our torsos and limbs. As long as we have the ability to walk to the shopping mall, to drive to the restaurant or the night club, we delude ourselves that we are free to chase our desires. “Free at last,” chanted the Civil Rights champions of the American ’60s, against the shackles of “For Whites Only” restrictions imposed upon their mobility. Oppressed peoples around the world are keenly aware of the limitations placed upon their desires. They imagine that if the laws are somehow changed, that national boundaries rearranged, then they would be free. But is that really so?
Aren’t our desires stifled by our very bodies? Not even Bill Gates, not even Mr. Putin is able to satisfy all of his visions. Even the young and the healthy are unable to soar as high as their imaginations. We kid ourselves that someday, when we have enough money, when we have enough time and fewer obligations, we will be able to accomplish all that we have dreamed. But when the body becomes immobile, when we are left staring at a hospital ceiling, that quiet panic inside grows louder and louder. We can no longer deny that our body is this heavy iron manacle we have been lugging around all of our lives. Then the mind yearns to be released from its fetter.
Death is seldom the way it is in the movies: think of the annoyingly virtuous Miss Melanie in Gone With the Wind, softly whispering her final goodbyes. And yet those violin-scored deaths of Hollywood are not entirely fiction. Some thirty years ago I witnessed my own mother’s passing. In her last moments she displayed such other-worldly grace that it permanently shattered the atheism of my youth. My mother, like Miss Melanie, belonged to those generations of women who valued the needs of others before their own. In doing so they figured out tricks for managing their own desires, a concept that sounds alien to contemporary ears. We have lost the skills to be aware of our desires, we no longer have the tools with which to question, to deconstruct, and to dismantle our desires. We are helpless to resist consumerism and only know to indulge our wants.
As I said my goodbye and stood up to leave, Carlos grabbed my hand and pleaded with those bulging, black eyes of his to give him some kind of peace. What could I say or do? How could I tell him it was much too late? There is no quick fix, no magic mantra, no holy oil. That the work should have been done when he was fit and coherent, that real spiritual calm takes years of dedicated self examination?
Rest in Peace, my friend, rest in peace.
May 26, 2014
Shivakumar’s hospitable food arrives cellophane wrapped, the main dish of boiled cauliflower and some kind of brown meat patty is obviously microwaved because it cools quickly and the fibers have that lacerated quality to them. I am embarrassed to serve this food to my elderly Sri Lankan patient. He is accustomed to his wife’s delicately spiced cooking. I have no doubt that were she still alive she would bring him lovingly-prepared tupperware containers of curried prawns and string hopper noodles. I also have no doubt that as a consequence, his recovery would be so much swifter.
One can hardly blame the hospitals for their low-cost approach to feeding patients. They survive on ever-shrinking budgets. Patients’ needs and tastes are so diverse that it would require the skills of a master chef to keep each patient content for his entire length of stay. Although all meals are vetted by a trained nutritionist, I can’t help but wonder: does food nourish more than body?
Of course, any master chef will tell you that food which is presented aesthetically, with the right color combinations, fresh green garnish, on beautifully crafted ceramics will taste better to the recipient than if the same meal were slopped together on a styrofoam container. They say we taste with our eyes as well as our tongues. Isn’t that because a thoughtfully presented meal signals to the mind that care and attention has been lavished on this meal? Isn’t it this tenderness that tastes so delicious?
Recently I was treated by my sister to a week of meals I had not tasted since my childhood. As we reminisced about our mutual upbringing, I was unaware that she was making notes of the flavors and tastes that I was sub-consciously missing. She continually surprised me by making for me obscure dishes I had forgotten I loved. Nothing elaborate, street foods, perhaps even peasant comfort foods one might say. Yet nothing ever tasted quiet so good to me (and I have dined at some of the best restaurants). Was it the care she put into the meals? The love and attention? Yes, plus one other vital ingredient.
A few years back I eagerly accompanied my friend to a newly-opened restaurant in our neighborhood. We had observed the extensive renovation done to the building and had high hopes for the food. Being vegetarian I am accustomed to having limited choices in menus. The sole vegetarian dish listed was a pasta dish which I verified was carcass-free with my waiter before I ordered it. As soon as I bit into the meal I was assaulted by the crunch and fetid taste of a dead chicken. I summoned the waiter and sent back the meal. He took the plate to the kitchen but returned apologetically, explaining that the chef thought that there was so little meat in that dish he didn’t expect that I should mind it. I was appalled by the blatant disrespect this chef had for me and my choices. To this day I hesitate to dine in that place.
It occurred to me then that we invest too much trust in the persons cooking our meals. It is a well-known food industry trick that should a guest act belligerent, rude or snooty, the cooks and the servers have ways of getting even. Having once worked in the food industry I have personally witnessed cooks spitting into the food, waiters pissing in the soup, then watching as the clueless guests devoured their just desserts. And yet we continue to trust the people working behind those steel doors of restaurant kitchens?
Materialists would argue that food is only about the nutrition in the thing eaten. Five-star gourmet meals comes out the same mess in the toilet bowl as the machine-made TV dinners. Spiritualist say that beyond the aesthetics, food is a reflection of the person who cooks it. They say the moods and emotions of the cook are transferred and digested through the meal. Eat the food cooked by an angry or depressed person and you ingest his hate. Likewise, eat the food of one who is cheerful and loving and that meal will nourish you emotionally as well as physically. I think one reason your mother’s food is always the best is because it is psychologically linked to your first meals from her bosom. It is no small coincidence that the most influential chefs of today have a joyous sensuality about them: Jamie Oliver, Padma Lakshmi, Nigella Lawson.
In Toronto there is a restaurant called O Noir, which serves food in complete darkness. As soon as you enter there is only pitch black, a blind waiter guides you to your table. When the food arrives you can’t see what it looks like. You don’t know if it is exactly as you ordered. You don’t know who served it and who cooked it. You taste it based on, well, blind faith.
May 20, 2014
Geraldine is a chatterbox with a mind far quicker than her eighty-eight-year body. As I sit listening to her I discover I hardly need to nod or interject the obligatory ‘yes’. After she is done telling her rich life story, she throws me a curveball. “When I fell sick and they brought me to the hospital’s emergency, honestly, I just didn’t care what was to happen next.” She kept her gaze steady before her, not bothering to see if I was startled her frank remark. “It’s not that I wanted to die, but truthfully, I have lead such a full life that I didn’t care if it was time for me to go.” Had she bothered to look at my expression, she would not have seen even a hint of surprise. I hear such sentiments from the elderly on a routine basis.
Yet a few months back one ninety-year-old man ignited a debate in Toronto by electing to choose the time and manner of his own exit from the world. John Allan Lee was an intelligent and self-aware man. He was a professor at a prestigious university and the author of several non-fiction books. He chose to leave the world now, before infirmity and dementia had set in. He did not want the indignity of waiting for death in an institution: having strangers change his diaper, being told when to eat and when to sleep. A practicing Buddhist, he knew that his awareness would not diminish, it would witness the agonizingly slow decimation of both his mind and his body.
His methodically planned suicide caused many of us to think very deeply about what choices we might make when our time comes. There was a time in my life when my immediate response would have been to dismiss any such notion as unethical. I used to believe strongly that if a person takes his own life he is then doomed to return in his next life to the same set of circumstances and/or difficulties that compelled him to end his own life. I am no longer that dogmatic.
As I listened to John Allan Lee tell the world of his reasoning, I was nearly convinced that his decision was a wise and reasonable one. Then he said, “”I’m finished. I don’t have a bucket list. I don’t have an unfinished agenda.” Since he was no longer able to physically pursue the activities that had once brought him joy, he saw no purpose in lingering.
It seemed to me there was a huge flaw in that logic. Speaking as someone who has undergone a transformative physical journey because of my own terminal illness, I too once felt as Mr. Lee did. That life was over, it had been swell and what is the point of taking my pills and keeping alive. But that physical journey was also accompanied by a psychically transformative journey. I was no longer useful to society doing what I used to do, but I still had much to contribute. I discovered new joys, new strengths, new skills I had never imagined.
Co-incidentally that same week a young father expressed to me more or less the same sentiments as Mr. Lee. This younger man was left physically debilitated by cancer and his desperation was obviously from emptiness, and not from fullness. “I won’t be able to do things I used to,” he complained. “I won’t be able to help my sons in the way a father is supposed to.”
“But what about helping them with a calm, reassuring presence?” I asked.
I am fortunate enough to have a large and loving family network. Recently I spent a week with my two-year-old grand-nephew who brought me such joy by his presence and his being. He taught me that I could share in his natural joy without having to do anything in particular. I had simply to be there with him. He does not have full language yet, but he sure understands the link between love and attention.
It reminded greatly of my own toddler years when there were many such loving adults who visited our home. I still remember them with fondness, though I cannot recall their faces or what they said or what they played with me. I simply recall the security and love of their presence.
Isn’t that plenty?
Ultimately I think the right to die is a personal choice but I do have concerns that sometimes people do not consider the serendipitous happiness that might lay before them. I have concerns that people underestimate the contributions they make to the lives of others without any conscious effort. I question whether the Right to Die is really the same as Dying With Dignity?
January 27, 2014
While the rest of us were tucking into our Christmas feast, Barbara was beginning her fast. No, she is no vain fashionista, simply a woman in hospital with a severe stomach issue. Whenever she swallows there is intolerable pain from her gastric region and so the doctors have denied her food and water till it clears. Four weeks later she is still not allowed food or water. Barbara shuts the door of her room when the hospital’s lunch trays arrive for neighboring patients because even a whiff of the food drives her insane with jealousy. It may be rehydrated mashed potatoes and microwaved fish but when you are deprived of food for as many days as she has, it still smells like the best gourmet ever.
She grabs several cooking magazines from my trolley and says mischievously, “Food porn.” She dreams about food and she says whenever she closes her eyes the only images in her mind’s eye are, well,… you know.
I saw Barbara again this week. “Still not eating?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but I don’t think about it anymore. It is her experience, as well as mine, that after a length of time without food, you cease to get hungry. It is as though the stomach has given up and put away all its usual tricks to get you to eat. I wonder, is hunger just another kind of addiction?
It seems to follow the same pattern as any other addiction. There is a dependency. You get cranky and irritable when deprived. Denied too long, you experience withdrawal symptoms. But persist and you reach a state of freedom. You no longer crave, you no longer feel the urge to kill to get your fix.
The idea is not new. Religions have been promoting fasting as good for the soul for centuries. We used to hear myths about yogis who lived for decades without food and water. They survived purely on the energy derived from the Cosmos (much in the same way as fashion models survive without eating purely on the energy derived from attention). Perhaps fasting’s value lies in demonstrating that we don’t need to eat as regularly as we believe?
Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-eight days without food. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes by Irish prisoners (also against the British) ten of the protesters survived without eating for between forty-six and seventy-three days. And then there’s me, getting cranky if I happen to miss a meal.
I am one of those people who has no store of body fat. Denied a meal, my blood sugars dip to a point where a migraine is imminent. I notice that when I do not eat, the stress response kicks in almost immediately. I am unable to concentrate, on edge with elevated adrenalin and neurotoxins floating within my body. So I never fast for recreation, though for medical treatments I have had to endure both short and long periods of fasting.
What is interesting about fasting is how we crave certain foods more than others. The hidden desires entangled within biological hunger reveal themselves. We see that our hunger has morphed from a simple survival mechanism to this monstrous hydra-like creature with multitude tentacles of needs and wants. The marketing industry has exploited these needs throughly in getting people addicted to salty and fatty foods. There is a reason fresh fruits and vegetables are always located near the entrance of the supermarket. Once a shopper has satisfied his need to buy nourishing foods, he is much more inclined to indulge his addictions for ice cream pies and deep-fried pizza.
Then there is this whole cultural preference around food. When I was at an ashram in India, there was a boy from Mexico studying with me. During his first week I caught him in the cafeteria rolling the Indian rotis into burritos around the curried vegetables. I had to laugh. Burritos are what his mother taught him to recognize as food, not this strange Indian meal. I personally love International cuisines, but as a vegetarian whenever I travel I am as suspicious of local cuisines as any befuddled tourist.
Few things are as unique about a person as his specific taste in food: the type of spicing he prefers, the vegetables he prefers, the obsession for meats (either indulging or abstaining). Psychologically also, some eat for comfort, some eat as a social activity, others find it impossible to eat without reading or watching the TV at the same time.
Eat we must but I believe the benefit of fasting lies in its ability to free us from insistence upon specific foods as well as specific conditions. It can make us more adaptable, more flexible to changing situations around us. It can help us to grab control over our meanest emotions.
And oh yes, it can help us empathize with people such as Barbara.
January 14, 2014
My ten-year-old grand-nephew was gifted a sketchpad and pencils. He was so perplexed about what to do with them that I sat him down and gave him a few pointers on the fundamentals of drawing. Is art even still taught in schools? Perhaps to his generation it is about as useful as penmanship or the art of letter-writing. Doesn’t every kid have a cellphone with which to snap pictures of anything remotely interesting (thereafter to be Instagramed). So why should they bother mastering the skill of drawing or painting?
In my day (yes, I know I sound like an old fogey) we learned to draw before we could write. It taught us to hold the pencil correctly, to discovers shapes and curves, all of which I think made reading and writing that much easier. As soon as that first pencil was placed in my hand I fell in love with drawing. It was a way of making sense of the chaos of colors and shapes in a world which was still new to me. It is a hobby I have since cherished throughout my lifetime and as I matured, it has gifted to me new skills at each step of the way.
In my youth I sat through many life drawing classes, and yes, we drew nude models. “Is it very sexy to draw someone naked?” was a question I used to get asked repeatedly. “No,” I’d say. “We are taught to see shapes, textures, tones. We don’t have time to think of sex.” People rarely believed me. But it is true. Life drawing is training ourselves to deconstruct what we see. It is a skill that stays with you outside the life drawing workshop. Sexy magazine covers and advertising cease to hold sway in our minds. We learned not just to see, but to observe critically.
Whenever I travel I like to spend time in art museums. I am always amused by the young who do not know the art of observation. In Paris there is the Musee de l’ Orangerie which houses wall panels painted by Claude Monet of his garden at Givenry. The panels are curved such that if you sit in the correct spot you are as though transported into the garden itself. As I was sitting, a young tourist walked into the room with that typically bored stance of a put-upon teenager. Camera in hand, she snapped about a dozen images in the thirty seconds between her entrance and exit from the room. She had not been taught to put herself in the skin of the artist who painted the Les Nympheas. She did not have the faculty to experience, she could not share his feelings and his moods as he was composing this masterpiece. She is not alone in this; the camera serves to prevent tourists from observing or experiencing the very places and people they have come to see.
I am tempted to remind tourists that people literally died to preserve these art treasures. During the Second World War, one of many atrocities the Germans committed was the plunder of European art. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, or St Petersburg as it is now known, the German army surrounded the city for nearly three years and yet the residents put up a noble fight. They were cut off from all food supplies and electricity, yet they were determined the Germans should not get their hands on the art housed at the Hermitage Museum. The curators removed the canvases from their frames and hid the art in between walls in local homes or buried them in farmers’ fields. The curators hoped that when the city did inevitably fall, these works might be spared. They survived doing this work inside the museum by eating the glue that had held the canvases to their frames. The same happened in Paris. The French too risked their lives to save their treasures because to them it was much more than beautiful pictures they were saving, it was the very soul of Europe.
Of course the billions of digital images we now take so frivolously are destined for that invisible delete bin in cyberspace. We may have a laugh taking a selfie on the cellphone, but the masters delved deep into themselves to retrieve the images they painted. Learning to draw and paint teaches you the path to the unconscious mind. Drawing and painting requires the simultaneous consideration of so many skills (dexterity, tonal understanding, color, perspective, mood and atmosphere) that waking consciousness is not enough. It can only give attention to one thing at a time. However, the sub-conscious is where the fruits of practice and habit reside. The sub-conscious can juggle many things if the conscious has given attention to them in the past. The more you practice art, the better you understand the sub-conscious. So if anyone wants to seriously change her habits, the good and the ugly, she must work at them in the sub-conscious level. (No, Virginia, New Year’s resolutions do not work).
Of course no spiritual introspection is ever possible without understanding these deeper levels. That may be why all religions use art so freely.
I find myself now rediscovering my love for painting. This time round I am not so much concerned with the technique, but art as language. The unconscious mind speaks to itself in images, as anyone who has given attention to dreams can attest. I still love words but I also recognize that words are specific to a time and place, whereas art is universal. Art speaks the language of the collective sub-conscious, the underlying unity of all humanity.
I was very pleased to hear that my grand-nephew has now began drawing lessons after school. He asked his father (my nephew) if he could swap hockey practice for art in the New Year. If I played any small part in that then that is my gift to him.
December 23, 2013
The dinner table looked fabulous. The centerpiece was formal yet festive. The cutlery sparkled and its layout would have made the butler on Downtown Abbey proud. Each dish served tasted exactly as it was supposed to and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Then one of the guests returned from the bathroom and requested a toilet plunger. Never a good thing! Amidst all this sophistication, despite the attention to perfection, the drains chose to back up grease and gunk.
At first it felt like a slap in the face. But the more I thought about it the more grateful I was for this toilet disaster. That night, before I retreated to bed, I sat for a few minutes to empty my mind of the day’s events. This has been my routine for many years and I find it helps me to sleep well. Except on occasions when the day goes all too perfectly. Days when there is an abundance of joy, it is very difficult to turn my back on the day and retreat into the rest of sleep. The mind wants to relive the day. Despite a tired body’s demands, the mind recalls again and again each and every perfect moment.
On this night, even though the evening was a great success otherwise, I was able to shut it out from my mind because of this one mishap. So might there have been a technique for getting a good night’s sleep thrown up the drain along with the debris? Perhaps the secret to unwinding, the trick to falling into effortless sleep might be to find the small failures in the greater successes, the little sadness contained in that triumphant news. Oh I don’t mean one should cultivate an unhealthy pessimism, merely that whenever we desire to unburden the mind, we can use this little trick to stop it from ruminating uncontrollably.
I can’t count how many young cancer patients I have encountered who are fearful of death precisely because they grieve the loss of all the happiness they have previously enjoyed. Not a one of them regrets leaving behind financial worries or the physical misery of old age. It is the love of their families they mourn to leave. It is the absence from their daughter’s graduation, the non-attendance at the son’s wedding that brings emotional pain. Misery is something we forget naturally because our pride forbids us from revisiting old failures. Yet we indulge in what I will call crudely (but aptly) mental masturbation upon the happy successes in our life. Unable to let go of the happy and the beautiful, we then complain: meditation is so, so difficult.
The other day I wished a patient at the hospital a Merry Christmas simply out of polite habit. He glared back at me with a frown and then said, “Everyone is pressuring everyone else to have a perfect Christmas.” He then collapsed exhausted into his bed. I understood his frustration. Christmas, more than any other holiday, is supposed to be greeting card perfect: a light dusting of snow, a warm fire, a cheerful array of gifts under the tree and of course, congenial family sharing quality time together. No wonder Christmas has the highest suicide rate of the year. Many have no one in their lives. Some are too sick or too poor. And those of us who will attempt a Disney celebration will encounter clogged drains and other disasters.
Anyone who has experienced the perfect stillness of the mind will attest that that itself is paradise.
December 2, 2013
“I told you I don’t want to talk about this any more,” Irving shouts into his cellphone, the strain of which unleashes a coughing fit. I hand him a glass of ice water from his lunch tray which, as usual, is uneaten but thoroughly picked over. The old and the sick seldom have good appetites. “And the same to you too!” he shuts off the phone and throws it upon the bed. “Damn gold digger!” A green knot of veins threatens to burst through the paper skin of his neck.
A television is speaking in the background; it is set to one of those 24/7 news channels that continuously run a scroll of the stock market numbers. His red-rimmed lizard eyes dart back and forth catching the scroll. Wiithout looking away he reaches for his vial of pills, but knocks them over. As I pick them up off the floor he again coughs heavily, then apologizes by saying he has been a four-packs-a-day smoker since he was a teenager. Irving is in the end stages of terminal emphysema.
“Doesn’t matter,” he swings his naked legs from the side of the bed like a petulant child. “I’m eighty-six. Its not as if I’d have more years without it.” They are as pale and fragile as dessert grass. After a moments pause, he has another little moan about his wife, with whom he had been quarreling over the phone. “I’m not even dead yet and already she is decorating her next home in her head.” She is much younger than him. I imagine her as a classic trophy wife, all jeweled and coiffed as she escorted him to his soirees with politicians and CEOs. Hard to imagine that this frail Gecko of a man once held sway over the destinies of people like me.
Mid-sentence he is distracted by the television. “Damn, Blackberry is down again.” It turns out a chunk of his fortune is invested in those stocks. By the the time the nurse brings the replacements for his pills, he has clear forgotten about them. “What are these for? I already took my pills.” I remind him that he had not. I rewind the events to when he ended his phone conversation. “Oh that gold digging floozy.” He sets off on another tirade about her, and then back to complaining about the bouncing Blackberry stocks.
By the end my visit the tone of his voice has softened. “Will you come and see me again?” I promise him that I will, and true to my word, I begin my next shift by heading to his floor. I am surprised to see that another man is occupying his room, sleeping in his bed. I locate a nurse and ask if Irving was discharged. “No,” the nurse gives me one of those apologetic, pursed smiles. “He passed away.” As volunteers we expect to lose patients, but we still feel a certain sadness about it. As I walk away I couldn’t help wonder, what were his last words? “That damn gold digger!” or perhaps his last thoughts were about the future of Blackberry? I can’t decide which is sadder: that he is gone, or that he spent his last days and hours stressing the banal?
Death is very rarely (if ever) the way it is in the movies: all angel choir and violin crescendo. More routinely there is a cacophony of arguments, stress, and worries for a future in which you have no part. I think many of us have a fantasy that our last words will be something profound.
“It is very beautiful over there,” said Thomas Edison on the moment of his death. “I see a black light,” reported Victor Hugo. We imagine in our dying breath the mystery of life will be self-evident. Perhaps one may commune with his or her personal god. But as I walk away from Irving’s last place of unrest, I wonder if that is even a realistic expectation?
I mean, many people do not have the same luxury as Irving had had: death will come to many unexpectedly. As it did for a healthy young woman named Soraya Nanji. She was crossing the street on one of the busiest intersections in Toronto. “Well, have a great trip,” she wished her friend on the cellphone. A truck hit her. She was dead.
Over her grave, mourners wished her, “Rest in peace.” And perhaps Irving’s merry widow might raise of glass wishing him the same. But shouldn’t we have wished them that while they were still alive?
November 25, 2013
The hospital was offering CPR training at a nominal rate for its volunteers. Naturally, I signed up. I live with a cardiac survivor and also my neighbor has been hospitalized numerous times with heart issues. I was so grateful for this chance to acquire the skills which may one day save someone’s life that I had not given any thought to the date of the training nor its location. As I sat in class, our jovial instructor began by asking, “Who do we give CPR to?” Before anyone could answer he delivered the punch line, “To dead guys.” Humor was his way of connecting with his students, most of whom were either medical students or foreign-trained physicians awaiting residency. They had seen it all.
He continued his stand-up routine, comparing the symptoms of a heart attacks between men and women. An odd realization ran through me. Not only was this class being held at the hospital where I was treated, it was directly under its Cardiac Critical Care. What is more, the class was held very near to the anniversary of my near-fatal trauma. Something about the confluence of time and place overwhelmed me with an emotion I could not name. It was not anger, his humor was satirical but respectful; how was he to know I was once that dead guy receiving the chest compressions and electric shocks he was joking about. I wasn’t sad; I don’t fear death anymore. In fact I ran through the list of known emotions and eliminated all of them. Yet I felt something. But what?
Is it possible that some emotions are so unique that they cannot be identified?
Lately I find myself thinking a lot about my niece, who at eighteen, suddenly finds herself thrown into adulthood. She has just began university and is living away from home for the first time. Gone is the caring gaze of her parents, gone are the high school teachers who spoon feed knowledge, gone are the childhood friendships the closeness of which is never again to be repeated. This is a niece who shares her uncle’s love for words; yet, when she is asked how she feels, she is at a loss to describe.
I wonder if unidentifiable emotions happen more often than we realize? After all, emotions reside in the Amygdala, a part of the brain inherited from our reptilian past. It was never designed to process the complex nuances of modern urban living. No wonder Torontonians are at a loss for words over the bizarre behavior we witness daily at City Hall (curtsey of a drug-addict, wife-beating, gangster mayor). Over the past six months we have gone through the spectrum of all the usual emotions, and now we are strangely silent. We can’t describe it as numbness, which is an absence of feeling (we definitely feel a fullness of emotion). To call it shock is also inaccurate; shock is a state of medical trauma caused by a lack of blood (and we surely feel a surge of blood when we think about what the mayor has done).
As the news channels go on recounting the salacious events, it occurred to me that “the news” is all about unidentifiable emotions. News is sensational by nature. It intrigues us with tales about tsunamis that sweep over dozens of countries in one swoop. It fascinates us with earthquakes that shatter metropolises as big as New York. The news is only ever about the incredible and the extraordinary, but I wonder if we recognize the novelty of the emotions we feel when we hear about these sensational events. I was too young to recall the JFK assassination but I do remember 9/11. None of us was able to articulate the emotion we were experiencing. The news media did their best to identify the unidentifiable, name the unnameable. In the end all failed. Yet we felt something. But what?
Isn’t it interesting that the question people ask is,”Where were you when John Lenon was shot?” and not, “How did you feel?” This is because our memory cannot file away what it cannot name. The best it can do is recall the events leading up to it and around it.
I am lucky enough to be acquainted with many poets. It seems to me that they dedicate their lives to describing the indescribable. They resort to abstract imagery and metaphors in an attempt to invoke in our memory the freshness of that unidentifiable emotion. Sometimes, if we are lucky, they succeed and we enter the realms of the sublime. But perhaps we stumble into the sublime in daily life but just do not have a name for it?
November 18, 2013
Dillon blushes as he gets up on stage to receive his citation for bravery from the Fire Chief. Being fourteen, almost anything can make him blush, but being called ‘a hero’ is particularly embarrassing. He hears that a lot lately, ever since he went back into his burning house to rescue his baby brother and nine-year-old sister. “I just did what anyone would have done,” he shrugs. But is that true? Would we risk our life for anyone, or only certain people? Or no one at all?
According to geneticists such as J.B.S. Haldane there was nothing altruistic about Dillon’s action. Handane called it kin selection, an extension of the selfish gene idea, he maintained that we are ready to lay down our life for those who share our DNA only because it is a strategic way to ensure its continuance. So Dillon was not being heroic at all: Pretty canny there, Dillon! George Price even came up with an equation to calculate the probability of someone risking his life for another based upon the percentage of shared DNA.
When I listen to such theories I can’t help but remember a dog named Jazz. She was a Border Collie, much like Lassie, and no less heroic. She risked her life to save me. She put up her body as a barrier to shield me from danger. I was only a visitor to her home, I never fed her or took care of her. She certainly had no genetic advantage in leaping to my rescue. Jazz is not the only animal in recorded history to have risked its life for a human. Nor is this phenomena unique to animals.
In 1996 a black teenager named Kiesha Thomas was among the protestors of a neo-Nazi march happening in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The police in riot gear were there to protect the Nazi’s from the protestors who were confined to the other side of the barricades (the US does not have anti-hate laws as other places do). One of the protestors spotted a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm milling among protestors. “Kill the Nazi,” shouted someone and the protestors channelled their anger towards this lone man on their side of the barricades. Kiesha did not know the man but she knew his life was in danger. For all she knew he was perhaps someone who might have harmed her given the chance. Yet she threw herself to shield him from the angry mob. Why? “Because I know what is like to hurt,” she said. She was so familiar with being singled-out and hated that she could not tolerate anyone else subjected to the same. In other words she empathized with him to the millionth degree.
Dillon, Jazz and Kiesha did what we all routinely do when faced with urgent action, they acted out of emotion rather than reason. We do not weigh the pros and cons before we act in an emergency. The intellect and the logic are absent during an adrenaline rush. We do not have time to calculate the Price Equation (even if we understood it). The decision to risk yourself would be an instinctual response, like raising your arm to shield your face. And surely the emotion that drives that instinct is love?
Oh, I don’t mean the cliche of love found on Valentine’s Day cards, or the sentimentality of a Jennifer Aniston movie. I mean an empathy so strong that the sense of the other disappears. In that moment of emergency the division between the other and I disappears. This is not a theoretical or mystical experience, but an emotion each of us is capable of feeling. Dillon experienced it, as did Kiesha, as did Jazz. Each risked his life because of a kind of self-love. Except that his definition of self had broadened to include everyone. A kind of empathy to the millionth degree. It is this emotion that I think deserves inquiry.
So for whom would you risk your life? For me this question is more than cocktail party banter. Through investigation of it, can this emoiton lead me to someplace greater than myself?