December 18, 2016
You bet I was pumped, the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting on Earth. I practically skated down the hallways of La Lourve, ignoring millions of dollars of art along the way to glimpse this fabled masterpiece. And she looked lovely – if you were one of the lucky ones at the front of the scrum, the rest of us schmoes elbowed each other for air space, raising our cellphones or cameras as high as our arms and toes would allow. “It’s a fake, you idiots,” I yelled to those at the front, “the original has been stolen so often they hang a repro.” They pretended not to hear me, or perhaps I did not say it out loud. Regardless, they continued to click away. Walking slowly back I took my time contemplating the B-pictures I had rushed past in my haste toward the star attraction. Each painting was more brilliant than the next, some by artists I knew nothing about. The Mona Lisa is the most expensive painting in the world, it is also the most Clipart’d, Snapchat’d, Facebook “Liked” and Youtube-shared painting in the world, but is it the best? Is it even Leonardo Da Vinci’s best? It made me question; is popularity ever a measure of quality?
In this age of instant celebrity it should be obvious that popularity can be bought and sold in the time it takes to post a Tweet. Haven’t seen the latest in the Star Wars franchise yet? What’s wrong with you, it is so cleverly marketed that everyone you know has, so what are you waiting for? Popularity is now so cheap they are calling this the “post-fact era,” meaning you can make up any absurd fiction and if any people click your link then it is the truth. Just as Mary Poppins once predicted, “If you sing it loud enough you’ll always sound precocious.”
Despite all this obviousness, in my daily life I still struggle to divorce popularity from quality. Its not my fault, humans are hard wired for approval and affirmation, it is oxygen for the ego. How I salivate upon seeing the “like” stars on my blog posts. Somehow, more stars substitutes for better writing in some deep, dark recess of my brain. Yet the posts I have struggled with the most to write got very few, if any, ‘likes’, though strangely those were the posts which brought for me the most clarity on their respective topics. Popularity is intoxicating, it has a knack for waylaying wisdom, making me forget the real purpose for writing this blog; this blog is about sorting out the muddle of ideas in my head. If my musings occasionally help others to do the same, bonus.
Presently I am trying to maintain that same clarity about a modest showing of my art, a series of oils at a local art supply store. Artist friends from my drawing sessions took the time to go view the pieces, then showered me with praise. I admit, their generosity was intoxicating, a psychological boost up the wazoo, but I must remain guarded. They are more accomplished artists than I am, I see the evidence weekly in their work. I will not let their well meaning flattery carry me away from looking for flaws in my technique. There is no “best”, there is only striving for better. One benefit of being raised in a household where praise was meagre is that you learn to self-evalute very early on in life. You give more weight to your own goals and strive to please your inner ideals rather than feed off compliments from others. I wonder, could clarity of purpose be the definition of humility? Does being humble mean you don’t confuse your own popularity for quality?
July 20, 2015
It is a wedding like none other. The bride changes into a white tee shirt and white sweat pants. She wears no veil, her hair has barely grown back after chemo. Yet she is the healthy one. The groom is helped into a clean hospital gown for the ceremony, then his bed is wheeled into the Quite Room down the hall of the Palliative Care Unit. He is mere days away from his death. The hospital Chaplain begins by reminding everyone gathered that this is not a legal wedding, only a spiritual union. When the Chaplain recites the vows she carefully omits any reference to “Till death do us part”.
Only a month prior I had attended the wedding of my beloved niece, hers was a wedding built upon hope and potentiality. Both of them are young, healthy, and destined to produce beautiful children. Her guests gifted them items which anticipated the future they will pursue together: china sets, furnishings, small appliances. Their vows spoke of leaving behind one kind of life in exchange for beginning anew. Now here I am weeks later crammed into a small room with Mary and John, a few hospital staff and scant family members.
Mary, a woman in her mid-forties, is stage three cancer, on a break from her treatment. She tells me it was John who had nursed her through the worst of it, while he was dealing with his own. As the bride clutches her bouquet with one hand, she weeps uncontrollably when she takes the grooms’ right hand with her own. It feels to me as though this is more a funeral than a wedding.
Then the hospital’s Music Therapist sings and plays on the keyboard the couple’s theme song, Love Me Tender made famous by Elvis Presley. As she sings the plaintive lyrics, Love me long, Never let me go, I wonder why the bride is committing herself to widowhood. Since this is not a legal marriage, she will not benefit financially. There will be no children, no memories forged together, no growing old with each other. Perhaps this wedding is a celebration of a shared past for this middle-aged couple?
But what was that shared past built upon? They met in the waiting room of their oncologist’s office a few years ago. They bonded over shared grief, they shared the same anxiety for an uncertain future. There could not have been much physical passion in the relationship as both were undergoing debilitating treatments. Neither could have afforded vacations together, as cancer robs people of both time and finances. Was it their mutual dependence that they were celebrating in marriage? Was it about gratitude? While traditional marriage contracts end till death do us part, perhaps they have fanciful notions of being united after death in some spiritual paradise?
If so, is love eternal, something that outlives the human body? It made me reflect on the very nature of this most abstract of human emotions. It seems to me that undiluted love is never deliberate. The unlikeliest of people love each other for no apparent reason. But isn’t this type of love without a gain the purest form of love? When I think of the people in my life that I love I cannot give you a reason why I love them, I just do. Sure, I can list a dozen things about them I admire and appreciate, but then I can also list a dozen things about them I wish they could/would change. Pure love is selfless, it neither demands a profit in the future, nor does it borrow from a shared past. Perhaps love in its purest form lives intensely in the present, the here and now.
Far from that being a romantic notion, I think it is entirely rational. There is a reality to the here and now that the past and the future do not enjoy. The past lives entirely in my memory and is subject to revision and forgetting. The future lives in my imagination and it too is variable, swayed by either hope or fear. But the fleeting present has a stability, a centre around which all change happens. Where is that centre located? Is it not within me? Don’t I declutter the present by gravitating to the things I love and I push away the things I don’t. Even in my imaginary future I fear the the things I do not love and I plot to be with all that I do love. Similarly, my strongest memories are of all that I have loved and I try hard to forget the things that brought me pain. Love is the centre around which my past, present and future revolves.
So perhaps John and Mary discovered this fact because of their circumstance. When everything in their lives was stripped away by the cancer, they were left with nothing but the essence: the love at the very core of presence. Perhaps they discovered that eternity is not about everlasting time, rather it is the core around which the past, present and future revolve. This core that lends reality and stability to each fleeting present moment.
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.