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 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?
October 28, 2013
Dawn sits behind our building’s front desk surrounded by cobwebs, bats, and a dismembered hand. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she makes the most of her limited space (even the visitor’s log is covered with ghoulish images). She, like most of North America, is participating in a pagan ritual from Northern Europe marking the onset of winter. We now have more hours of dark than light. Foliage is dead and dried. Who can say how harsh the snow storms will be this winter? So the ancients decided to mock their fears instead of being overwhelmed by them.
As I do my rounds at the Palliative Care Unit I am startled by the sound of group laughter emanating from a room with an open door. Normally the Palliative Care Unit is a sombre place. Patients are often doubled-up in pain, relatives keep vigil at the bedside, not knowing what to say or do. The sense of fear, though unspoken, is palpable: is death the end of me? Will I suffer? If there is something beyond, will I forget my loved ones and will they forget me?
And then there is Evelyn, who is the centre of a mini celebration in her room. As I enter with my magazine trolley I dutifully sanitized my hands. “No need,” she laughs. “There is no germ big enough to hurt me now.” Her young visitors laugh at her joke, they are in that mood. Evelyn is in her fifties and she is terminal, but she has not allowed that fact to rob her of her joy. She is so overflowing with it that staff continually stream in and out on the flimsiest excuses.
I have to wonder, what is so unique about Evelyn that she is so underwhelmed by her imminent death? Is she perhaps extremely courageous? I decide no. Courage is a kind of resistance to fear. It involves a strength of will to suppress the fear. As such courage is stoic, serious and focussed. Whereas Evelyn is light and spontaneous. She is without effort of any kind. So what is her secret?
From the decorations in her room I gather she is deeply devout. There is a crucifix on the wall opposite to her, a rosary sits relaxed on her bedside stand. But I don’t think it is faith which is the source of her fearlessness. Faith can give you relief from the symptoms of fear. Much the same way that Evelyn’s medications give her relief from her pain but they cannot cure her cancer. In the same way, faith does not cure fear.
How could it? Faith is required when you do not know for certain. And fear is always about the unknown, the uncertain. Faith and fear are two different reactions to the same unknown. The only possible antidote to fear is utter and complete knowledge. No biggie if you are dealing with run-of-the-mill fear, say fear of that zombie family who just moved in down the hall. They speak a strange language, they smell weird, and they sure have disgusting tastes in food. Here the solution is easy: walk up to them and start a conversation, get to know them and their foreign culture and presto! the fear of the unknown vanishes. But what about fear of the unknowable? Death for example?
In my experience the same technique works splendidly. Fear exists in the mind because it does not bother to ask the right questions. The mind by design is self-centered and so it is very casual about the deaths of strangers far away: that bomb blast in Pakistan, that typhoon in Bali, occupy no more than a second of attention. The mind refuses to dwell on the deaths of the animals the body consumes. It does not hesitate to kill a fly who happens to stray into ‘my space’.
If however the mind is allowed to experience death and dying by proxy, by being around those in the process, the mind gets accustomed to the idea. It begins to see death as normal and natural. It then feels comfortable enough to consider death without condemnation or condonation. In doing so the mind sheds much of its fears. Even though it is still unable to conceive death, it figures out that not all people suffer in death. Some even thrive (such as Evelyn). The mind figures out it does indeed have some control over the whole process, and so it accepts the inevitability of death. Neither does it seek to shun, to deny, to escape the dying of others. It becomes a little less selfish.
Can it be that this self-centeredness of the mind is the true root of all fear? If so, might giving attention to selflessness dissipate much of the fear in daily living?
October 21, 2013
My printer has a mind of its own, I swear. Literally. I swear and swear at it. I even threaten it. Still it refuses to behave. So I slap it a few times. Then I burst out laughing. If cursing out a misbehaving child would never work, just what made me think that it might work for a machine? If violence has never solved problems in human relationships, why would it on inanimate objects? Yet I am not alone in having a dysfunctional relationship with mechanical objects that are designed to make my life more relaxed. DVD players, cable boxes, dishwashers, even faucets and sockets can completely reduce otherwise intelligent and sane adults into hysterics.
One member of my family (who shall remain nameless), while attempting to hang a picture on a wall, famously banged a nail through the gas line. We were without the use of our gas stove for a week. He could negotiate with anyone when it came to business, but anything the least bit mechanical was a no deal.
It is not his fault. Nor mine. Sure, I could easily blame genetics for my disability and shell out hard cash to the professionals to fix things for me, but I am too cheap for that (which really is genetic). Nor do I subscribe to this idea that it is because some people are right-brained (artsy) and others are left-brained ( mathematical). This couldn’t be it because we can find brain surgeons who turn into Inspector Clouseau when assembling a simple Ikea bookshelf.
Besides, something emotional is preventing me from giving up on that printer. It feels as though I am putting down an aging pet who can no longer control its bladder. I feel sorry for the thing. It occurred to me, why not treat it as yet another dysfunctional relationship I need to renegotiate? Surely, can’t the printer be fixed with a little attention and a whole lot of care?
I recognize that the source of my frustration is that I expect non-sentient things to be predictable. To my way of thinking, because machines have no emotions, no feelings, therefore they have no right to be temperamental. But physics would disagree.
Machines are made from metal. And metal has stress, it suffers from tension, it expands and shrinks with the temperature. It behaves differently in the presence of foreigners, no matter how minute, such as dust. In other words machines have every right to be sensitive.
This is something I had failed to respect about them. While I have dedicated much of my life to being responsive to the sensitivity of animals, plants and of course people, I had discounted the sensitivity of machinery. Who knew? I have been a life-long machine bigot.
It has taken me a long while to appreciate that the answer to my frustration with machines lies in my very expectation about them. I expect them to be predictable. They are. They need to be treated in the same particular way for each and every use. They have no capacity to adapt to my moods, or my urgency. They cannot be pressured into working faster because I need it printed yesterday. The paper has to be feed precisely with the same pressure, at the exact same angle each and every time. I think those who negotiate successfully with machines have learned a kind of zen of machinery. In their presence such people maintain an equipoise. Hence machines obey their commands.
I don’t think I was far off the mark in anthropomorphizing machines. I just never took the metaphor far enough. Just as people respond best when you listen well to them, so do machines. And to listen well you need to be silent within yourself during your interaction. Ditto with machines.
Let me go and rescue my printer from the recycle bin. We deserve to give our relationship another chance.
October 7, 2013
“I don’t know who I am anymore,” laments Jacob. A nurse directs his attention to a letter-sized sheet of paper she always keeps in front of him. It contains his full name, the name of the hospital he resides in, the floor and his room number. But these clues do not help Jacob’s disorientation. He has Alzheimer’s. He cannot remember his family. He cannot recall where he was born, or his occupation, or the places he has lived. It seems obvious to state that who we are is about our past. Everything we know about our character, what we believe, the people we love, our skills, the things we like and don’t like, all rely upon our memory. But wait, new research is saying that what we remember may not be what we actually experienced.
Scientists say it is very easy to trick the mind into remembering events that never happened. Elizabeth Loftus carried out an experiment in 1994 in which she was able to convince 25% of her subjects that as children they had once been lost in a shopping mall. She showed them photoshopped images of themselves lost in a mall as proof. The mechanism of memory is highly flawed. Our imaginations, our dreams, even movies can trick our brain into believing we actually experienced an event in the distant past that never happened.
This is why eye witness testimony is notoriusly unreliable. The Innocence Project, thanks to DNA, has freed dozens of men, including Rubin Carter, who were wrongfully-convicted of horrific crimes solely based upon eye witness testimony. It is not that the witnesses were deliberately committing perjury, they genuinely believed they saw Mr. X do whatever he was accused of.
Not only is memory highly suggestible, it remembers differently at different times. Couples when they bicker usually disagree over widely divergent memories of the same events. It is a lot like that Steve Lawerence song from the film Gigi, Oh Yes I remember It Well. “I did the shopping last week,” says one spouse. “No I did,” argues the other. It is not that one or both parties are liars. They truly remember the past differently and the conflict arises because both of them trust the accuracy of his respective memory.
To get conclusive proof of the unreliability of memory, you don’t need experiments. Your dreams are made purely from memory. Anachronism are routine (You are at a family gathering where everyone is as they are today except for your thirty-five-year-old nephew who is three). People and items are mislocated (you dream of your childhood home but the couch is the one you have now). Such errors are routine because in sleep the memory does not have clues from our senses or the collaboration of other people. In waking life we fill the gaps of memory by deduction, we infer, we assume, we trust. Dreams are raw memory and memory is not recollection but re-imagination.
This is the reason why when we fall out with someone close to us, we re-imagine our mutual past to align with the shift in our new opinion of that person. We re-interrupt our mutual relationship so convincingly that we conveniently forget contrary events. We might even swear ’remembering’ them saying and doing things they never actually did. (Isn’t it amazing that every young person who dies tragically was a living saint?)
Which brings me back to Jacob. It may be stating the obvious to say that who we are is about our past, but if our data is unreliable then should we trust our conclusions? Even for those without Alzheimer’s, Jacob’s question is still relevant. Who am I? I believe I know but that belief changes depending on who I am with. Sure, the physical descriptions do not change (race, gender, height) but internally who I am is a flux. The facts of my name and location do not vary from moment to moment and so I do not experience Jacob’s disorientation. But if I am being honest, when I look back over the years to find an answer to who I am, I am as befuddled as Jacob.
At first this notion is scary. Terror is always about the unknown and the unexpected. But once you get comfortable with the uncertainty, it can bring about a flexibility in your relationships. When you acknowledge that your memory might be flawed, you allow the possibility that others may be right in what they remember. When you lose faith in your memory the world is a more nuanced and layered place. I love how infants, who have no past and therefore no concretized definition of who they are, move about with a perpetual sense of discovery and wonder. Might an acknowledgement of the unreliability of our memory allow us to experience some of that astonishment about life?
September 30, 2013
Every once in a while I come across a patient who forces me to re-examine my life and the way I move about within it. Mary is 89, small and fragile. Yet she wields a strength far in excess of anything Mr. Schwarzeneggar can muster. You see, she lives in a complete state of gratitude. In response to my simple inquiry about how she was doing, she became emotional that I, a stranger, cared enough to ask after her. She told me everyone at the hospital was taking such good care of her and,”Do you know, they bring me something to eat every single day.” She could no longer hold back the tears. The very idea that strangers loved her enough to feed her three-meals-a-day was simply overwhelming.
I was captivated. I am used to patients who complain about the meals, the water is not cold enough, the tea is not hot enough. They, like me, have expectations about how they should be treated. We are burdened by entitlement, we are afflicted by our rights. Mary is not. She effortlessly abides in gratitude. And her beauty is overpowering.
At first glance she may appear innocent, even naive. You would be wrong. She is a survivor of a World War, and a refugee from a Communist revolution. She has seen much too much ugliness to be naive. Then what makes this woman so unique? I strive to understand because I think it would be wonderful to experience her ecstatic state of gratitude.
As I attentively listened to her story I realized Mary had dedicated so much of her life to caring for others that now, after eight decades, her ego had been knocked off centre stage. Almost every single sentence she uttered was focused on other people, their needs, their concerns, this despite her own significant difficulties. Don’t get me wrong, her deference to others was not a kind of oppression. I have met people who have been so humiliated, so beaten down that their own needs and desires were suppressed. Such people exude pathos. Mary exudes joy and contentment. This is because she took care of others whom she loved. She put their needs ahead of her own out of choice, not duty.
Over the years I must have spoken to countless people who were angry, frustrated, or depressed because they had suddenly lost the capacity to be independent, useful members of society, but Mary is the only person I have met to express gratitude in that same circumstance. It makes sense. All of us need to feel useful. We need this to survive as much as we need oxygen. The difference with Mary is that even while she lies helpless on a hospital bed, her gratitude rubs off on anyone lucky enough to come into contact with her. We in turn spread that gratitude to others in our lives. Thus wheelchair-bound she contributes to the well being of society at large. No wonder she has none of the self-pity and bitterness common to people newly diagnosed with a debilitating sickness.
Very soon we in Canada will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Once a year we are collectively to be grateful for the bounties of this land, (as opposed to the defeating poverty and endless strife of less fortunate nations). There is something selfish about this type of gratitude; an uncomfortable thank heavens it is them and not us subtext. That may be why we do not grant gratitude is just due. We in the West are told as children: ”Finish your supper clean, there are children starving in India.” Such guilt-induced gratitude is passive and impotent. Whereas pure gratitude, like Mary’s, is empowering because it is born out of an appreciation for others. (By the way, the children of the middle class in India are never guilted into finishing their meals. All leftovers are promptly distributed to the said starving children, who are conveniently at the doorstep.)
It no longer surprises me whenever a homeless man complains about the free meal being served to him by volunteers. I understand it now. Ingratitude is human, ordinary, no effort required. Gratitude on the other hand, takes conscious effort. It requires you look at the glass as half-full, but it is an optimism tempered by constructive action.
Thanks to Mary I get it now: Gratitude is appreciation of the other’s point of view. She has shown me it is worth the effort to do what she has done unconsciously most of her life. I fail gloriously at times, but that is okay. I am grateful for my failures also because they set me up to succeed the next time.
It is against hospital rules for volunteers to touch patients. I did not care. I asked Mary if I could give her a small hug. She has moved me and for that at least I am eternally grateful.
September 16, 2013
Is there such a thing as a bok choy emergency? Seriously, I was in a grocery store, perusing the eggplant and the oddly shaped ginger roots, when a flustered woman elbowed me, “Excuse me, excuse me.” What is the matter? I asked. “I need to get through,” she said, breathlessly. She grabbed a bunch of bok choy and ran to the cashier. Living in a big city, instances of impatience are routine. Don’t these people realize that impatience is the fastest route to a heart attack. I should know. Impatience increases blood pressure, the body is flooded with adrenalin, the day’s pent-up aggression acts out during dreams and one wakes without feeling refreshed.
One could make excuses, the woman may be in a hurry because she has something pressing waiting for her home, though I think impatience is ultimately just habitual. It is ironic that bed-ridden people in hospitals are called patients. Though they have no where to go and nothing to do, the nurses will tell you they are routinely anything but patient.
So what to do? Well this guy walks into his psychiatrist’s office and says, “Doctor, I need to learn patience, and I need it fast.” It is an old joke, I know, but still relevant. We know impatience is not good for us, but we don’t have the patience to cultivate patience. Catch-22 anyone?
In my own struggle with cultivating patience I have found an unlikely ally in calligraphy. Beautiful penmanship cannot be hurried and in cultivating it, one figures out a thing or two about how to acquire beautiful patience. Calligraphy requires careful precision as well as elegance with each minute hand movement. It is the most unforgiving art I have ever practiced. Pencils and charcoals can be erased or smudged over. Stitching can be undone. Clay can be reformed. But misspell ‘then’ for ‘than’ with ink and the whole parchment is useless. In other words, patience is not an option, it is a prerequisite.
I fell in love with calligraphy when I attended an exhibition of Renaissance Art at my local gallery. On display were dozens of 15th century bibles, lovingly hand written by monk-scribes. Capitals were gilded and adorned with intricate drawings. Imagine writing out a whole bible without a single error! One couldn’t help but be in awe of the monk’s patience is executing these works.
I think it was the love and admiration for what is possible with ink and paper, as well the sheer joy I experience in this archaic art form, that has inspired me to cultivate the patience necessary to succeed in calligraphy. I now see that impatience is always a symptom of a lack of love. We hurry because we don’t like what we are doing and so want to get it over with as soon as possible. Perhaps that woman hated shopping, hence her frantic dash for the bok choy. Patients do not want to be sick and can’t wait to be home, hence they are impatient. So can the solution to impatience be to cultivate love in whatever you are doing?
Everyone has the capacity for patience. Everyone has infinite patience when they are doing what they love. But to simulate that when you are being packed into an over crowded subway train is no easy task, but it can be done. I used to find crowds stressful because I could not tolerate people’s thoughtlessness. Now I still notice the casual acts of stupidity but I try to see them as comedic, material for my fiction writing. This may not work for everyone, I know. Each person has to find his own excuse for making the stressful and unpleasant into a labor of love. But the key is being aware of this fact and giving it attention.
Another thing calligraphy has taught me is to temper my desire for perfection with the need to feel joy. Because when you are too focussed on perfection, it saps the joy out of any activity. This is as true for daily life as it is for calligraphy. We get stressed because people don’t behave as we believe they ought to, things don’t go according to our plans. The outcome is not what we imagined. So we either give up that activity, or we soldier on mechanically while watching the clock. This is how impatience becomes habitual, a way of life.
Calligraphy has taught me that while my inner critic is useful for learning and improvement, but at some point I need to silence him. When I look back at the paintings and drawings I did in my youth, I am astounded at the competence. But back then, all I ever saw in them was the imperfections, the mistakes. I am determined not to make the same mistake with calligraphy. Perfection comes with practice, and a lot of joy in the doing. I guess I’ll just have to be patient.
September 3, 2013
Derek sits on a chair by the window, strapped to an IV drip. He longingly gazes out at the city spread out before him and the lake beyond. His immune system has been artificially reduced to zero while stem cells are continually being injected into him. “You know, I can’t talk to my kids about how I feel,” he says sadly. He is of a generation when men did not cry. Dads were the rocks, the ones who shielded the children from fear. Then Derek’s “children” walked into the room. Both were in their thirties and dressed like professionals. They certainly looked like intelligent, worldly people. Yet the father cannot bring himself to express the same fears he had just expressed to me, a total stranger.
I suspect Derek is afraid he might lose the sons’ respect. Were he to confide in his work colleagues or friends, he might be judged as ineffectual or weak. How can he be sure they will not gossip behind his back? So he bottles it all in, until this volunteer in a burgundy uniform appears with a trolley of magazines, and Derek pours his heart out. Only problem is, I am not in a position to do anything concrete for him, his sons are.
I come across variations of this scenario again and again. It seems to me when we enter into a relationship, we are play-acting. Whatever the role: Father/son, brother/sister, friend/friend, there is an unspoken script. We act out our part and hope the audience finds our performance convincing. We don’t get Oscars, but we do get complimented for being “a good father”, “a great sister”, or a “favorite uncle.” But while giving attention to our performance we sometimes neglect or override other more urgent duties.
We hesitate to ask for help that may be outside of the script of the relationship. One of my favorite geriatrics is Simone. She is recovering from a severe fall and she is anxious about how she will cope with day-to-day living once she is discharged. “Don’t you have family?” I ask. “Yes, but I don’t want to bother them. They have enough on their plate.” Her daughters and sons are in their sixties and perhaps could accommodate a change in roles but she is afraid the new roles might feel awkward, and so Simone will likely end up institutionalized, cared for by paid strangers.
Isn’t it ironic that in traditional cultures, where class, caste and gender roles are well defined and strictly adhered to, the people have less of a problem with switching roles as parents age. An Indian boy understands, even as his father is taking care of him, that one day it will be his turn to care for the father. In such places the idea of nursing homes is alien. Can the difference be precisely because the roles there are so rigid, that people see them for what they are, transactional necessities which can be tweaked as needs evolve? We on the other hand are unaware that relationships are role-playing and hence we cannot adapt as easily.
I think assistance is almost a currency. You do someone a ‘favor’ and the receiver feels obliged to pay back in the future. Some people even keep score. There is a sense that if you ask for too many favors from the same person, he or she will feel used and exploited. In other words, you might enter obligation bankruptcy. And so people suffer in silence and perhaps resort to prayer. Isn’t it revealing that when a couple take their wedding vows, the spousal contract specifically states that both parties will aid and assist the other under all circumstances. Apparently love is no guarantee that you may ask for help in need, they are required to swear an oath.
I come from a culture where we have this notion of karma, a kind of bank of favors. I do good deeds for strangers and the Universe deposits them into my account, to be redeemed in times of need. It is a nice idea, but the only problem is that karma requires people to execute those deeds. What if you do not have enough people in your life? The usually explanation given is not to worry, help will come from unexpected places. This again falls back to faith, just like prayer. Don’t get me wrong, I think faith and prayer have a place, but I do not believe in a passive spirituality. Practical problems demand practical solutions. Why not use spirituality to cultivate a support network during the good times, when you don’t need help? Why not have enough faith to have an open dialogue with the people in our lives?
August 5, 2013
Jack sits cheerfully on his bed in the Hematology ward of the cancer hospital. After a successful stem cell transplant, he is soon to be discharged. “I’m going home with a new blood type,” he says with a grin. “I used to be A Positive, now I’m O Negative.” The whole ward is full of people with their bone marrow replaced by that of the donors’ (some of whom are strangers with very different DNA). Very sci-fi, very Invasion of the Body Snatchers!
I can’t help thinking about Jack as I spend time with our newest family member. Almost since the day he was born, my grand-nephew has been the cause of minor family rivalries. His mother’s side see themselves clearly in him, while his father’s side are equally sure his good looks come from us. He himself is uncanny at distinguishing relations from strangers. He is not unique in this. Scientists at the Yale Infant Cognition Centre say all babies come hard-wired with a familial bias. The body is me and those with my DNA are my friends and protectors. This is inborn wisdom. We grow up without questioning it. Now, startling research from the National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project is challenging this notion that our bodies are our own.
Microbes, bacteria and fungi live in key parts of our body, this much was known, but it turns out these organisms are in every part of our bodies and without them we would die. They help fight infections in the lining of the nose, they help digest nutrients in the stomach and intestines, they even help our skin stay healthy by living on its surface. So all of these microorganisms co-exist like this whole other ecosystem within our bodies, feeding off of us, as well as nurturing us. The old idea was: my body is a temple. But now it seem, the body is more like the river that runs besides the temple, with the creatures living in it.
Except that these microorganisms are so numerous that ninety-nine percent of the DNA in and on our bodies is actually microbial DNA, and not mummy’s and daddy’s. There’s millions and millions of these things. So many that when you look into a mirror, the image you are seeing has ten times more microbial cells than human! Mind-blowing stuff. Add to that the fact that even the mitochondrion within our individual cells (the 1%) have their own independent genome, independent to our cell’s nucleus DNA, and it is also much more akin to the DNA of bacteria than to human. (Who knew, there is an Occupy The Body revolution going on).
For me these are more than scientific curios to quote at cocktail parties (though they are impressive conversation fodder). They have further helped me rethink my ‘elitist’ relationship with my body and the world. Is my body mine or ours? Am I in fact an ecosystem, not an individual?
A more healing question might have been: “Who do you belong to?” This changes how we think about illness. The virus within my body is no longer an interloper, but an immigrant that I must help assimilate. There is even evidence that all these little microbes in our bodies also affect our moods and behavior. In which case, does ‘being upset’ really mean an imbalance within this microsystem? Might it explain a sudden feeling of being blue for no good reason?
Embracing this notion of my body as ‘ours’ opens up the whole world. Not only does the issue of race become redundant, but even other species are no longer alien. One feels whole with the grass, the tress and the birds that live in them.
So if I am not the temple’s deity, then who am I? What is my function within this river’s ecosystem? Perhaps, I am the sun: my presence vitalizes this microsystem. That I AM