Hey, Which Way Is Up?

November 24, 2016


M.C. Esher, Relativity.

M.C. Esher, Relativity.

Okay, I admit I am feeling the whole world is topsy-turvy at the moment, (or should I say topsy-Trumpy?). It is as though Albert Einstein applied for a professorship at M.I.T but Americans gave the job to Sherman Klump instead (The Nutty Professor played by Eddie Murphy). Overnight, common sense and decency have been  replaced with an Orwellian double-speak (Truth is lie, lie is truth). But is this sense of disorientation in the world really anything new? If we are honest, the promised world-view of mothers, of teachers, and of preachers has been challenged routinely since grade school. Hard work and talent don’t always get rewarded; cheaters do prosper; crime pays, sometimes in the billions; and if you are honest and kind chances are good that you will be duped and used dozens of times. So utterly brainwashed are we by a Pollyanna world-view that we spend a lifetime trying to reconcile the reality we daily experience versus “what should have happened.”

I am a firm believer, however, that there has to be something of value to learn from all those disappointments.

I have been thinking lately of the times I unexpectedly lost a job, or when my family was uprooted by a similar wave of misguided jingoism. Sure, it was devastating in the aftermath, with no clear path forward. There was anxiety aplenty over paying bills, and the world seemed scarier because the map with which I navigated through the world was no longer valid. With hindsight I can now see that each of those shakedowns was followed by a of period deep reflection, intense insight, and of charting a new path forward that was better than the one I had been following.

Just the other day in my life drawing session I was reminded of the mechanics of this in a very succinct way. I was feeling very pleased with myself over a portrait I had just completed of the class model. Then a seasoned artist suggested I take that drawing of which I was so so proud, and turn it upside down. When viewed topsy-turvy, to my astonishment, I discovered severals major flaws to which I had been blinded by the good parts. Of course I immediately corrected them and ended up with a better work than I had before. Other artists might view their paintings through a mirror with the same affect. Oh, we do fall in love with the progress we have made in life, don’t we? Problem is, in our smugness we tend to filter out the flaws. The shock of turning things topsy-turvy makes the familiar seem unfamiliar again and we are able to review our social and spiritual progress in a fresh light. It challenges us to work harder, it shakes off complacency.

It made me rethink the way I was feeling about what is happening presently in the world.

As I mature, the brutality of the world accumulates in my consciousness but it shocks me less and less. I wonder if perhaps the wisdom of age owes itself to the same topsy-turvy perspective. I once met a young woman named Maya in the cancer ward, she was barely thirty years of age and still had the gleam in her eyes that only the young possess. She had just been handed a fatal prognosis with the proverbial six-months- to- live. She was struggling to comes to grip with it all. She pleaded, “Does anyone ever make peace with dying?”

Well yes, many elderly people look forward to a graceful exit from a world in which they feel increasing disoriented. A lifetime of accumulated disappointment at the unfairness of the world has permanently torn asunder the map by which they navigated the world in their youth. Now they see life through the rear-view mirror, and the view makes the familiar seem unfamiliar again. The good bits of life no longer obscure the unfairness of the world. Seen in upside perspective, the world appears as the asylum it really is. They are ready to move on. Only the young and foolish want to live forever.

 

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Is Love Eternal?

July 20, 2015


India 347It 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.

 

 


Strong mind, strong body?

Strong mind, strong body?

When Toronto’s combative Mayor announced his cancer diagnosis, a chorus of sympathy arose from supporters (few) and detractors (many) alike. They sang from the same hymn book, so to speak: “He is a fighter, he will beat this.”  It is a sentiment I hear routinely at the cancer hospital from the families of patients. Once upon a time the mind-body connection was the stuff of fairy tale. Yogis trampled upon by herds of elephants and surviving unscathed. Daredevils chained in underwater cages escaping certain deaths. Mind over matter, we were told to our amazement.

Now, the whole notion of mind-body and healing has come to be accepted as mainstream. (Thank you, Deepak Chopra. Take a bow, Miss Oprah). The problem is, in our haste to be enlightened, have we failed to think things through?

Whenever a terminal diagnosis is given, it is warm and fuzzy to believe that  my loved one (or I) will beat the odds because he is strong-willed, or because she has the faith of a saint. We somehow take is as gospel that there is a kind of jihad going on between the body (which is falling apart) and the mind (which is struggling to keep it together). So the logic goes, think postive thoughts, stay cheerful and determined, and this fatal illness will be defeated. What we conveniently ignore is that the body is born with its own destiny: it is in our DNA. Yes, a happy mind is good for your well-being, but worry does not grow tumors in the brain, hatred does not clog up the arteries of the heart. Were wishes indeed powerful enough to overcome DNA, trust me, I would be six-foot four! And if being “young at heart” were enough, Viagra need never have been invented.

Think of all the thousands of hospitals in the world: almost every patient who enters their double doors have some pretty solid reasons to live (children, youth, or simply the universal urge to survive) yet not every patient will leave the hospital alive. I once heard a patient (a Jehovah’s Witness), say to his roommate, (a Hindu), that if he were to accept Jesus as his saviour his cancer would vanish. (Hey buddy, then how come you are also tethered to a chemotherapy IV?) If we could cure ourselves based upon will, or the power of faith, cemeteries need never exist.

Where the mind does have a gigantic clout however, is in our habits, which have everything to do with healing. A mind trained in self-discipline will effortlessly adhere to a medication regime. A self-controlled mind will exercise the body without fuss, it will not struggle to choose nutritionally beneficial foods, and perhaps most importantly, such a mind will shut off when rest is required. If, on the other hand, say your mind fights obesity and fails, perhaps it is powerless to keep its promises to stop drinking into alcoholic stupors (or crack-laced tirades). Seriously, can such a mind be considered “strong” enough to fight a fatal diagnosis? (Are you listening Toronto?)

I am reminded of my late guru, the great Swami Chinmayanda, who, when I met him, was globetrotting with three-quarters of his heart dead. The last cardiologist who examined him exclaimed: Why is this man even alive?  Those of us lucky enough to have observed him closely knew the reason. His was a very strong mind indeed, his discipline was the opposite of that of Toronto’s mayor. He could catnap at will, he could slow his heart rate to almost nothing, make his breathing almost invisible. I had the opportunity to quiz him about his seemingly miraculous control over his body. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “The body will do what it needs to. Rise above it. Don’t get too concerned.” His words sounded abstract at the time, but strangely personal.

Little did I know then that twenty years later I would be in a coma with the same cardiac condition as his. Many factors helped me but key among them were years of training in disciplining my mind. As long the mind is in conflict with the habits of the body, it will bring pain. His words helped me to accept the outcome of the body, whatever it might be. My mind reached a place of quietude which, ironically, calmed my heart rate enough for the body to recover.

Sadly, I have witnessed patients struggle to the bitter end because their mind was never trained to let go of the body. Any kind of conflict is painful, be it the struggle to adapt habits or the conflict to deny the inevitable. They died in greater agony than was necessary.

There is indeed a body-mind synergy but it exists at the foundation of the conscious mind. With practice anyone can learn to access the common foundation of both the body and the mind through ending conflict. In other words by learning to let go gracefully, the miraculous is possible. Though even this has its limits. Ultimately, Swami Chinmayananda’s body succumbed to its destiny. None is immortal. There is nothing any of us can do except learn to be at peace with this. Now that is strength.

 

 

 

 


bird1This was an extraordinary question to be asked from a man who is in the final few days of his life. This is a question that has caused me to pause and reflect upon everything I know.

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.

 


Le Suicide by Edouard Manet.

Le Suicide by Edouard Manet.

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?

 


whomeTom is a life-long smoker and has no intentions of quitting just because he has emphemsyma. He has never exercised in his life, loves his fried foods and lots of it. The more we chat the less respectful he is about my self-care lifestyle. “What, you are trying to live forever?”

No, I say, but before I can finish my sentence he is in the midst of a violent coughing fit and I have to fetch his nurse. In a way he answered his own question, though I doubt if he will understand that. I do not expect to live forever. I do not even expect a normal lifespan given my condition. What I would like though would be to go gracefully and without too much fuss. To that end I take great care of my nutrition, I exercise, I try to sleep well and I meditate. I do everything within my power to ensure quality of death.

Yes, I said quality of death. We are in such denial over death that we prefer to use the term quality of life instead of what we really mean. After all, isn’t quality of life what Tom has been pursuing all his life? He has done precisely whatever made him happy, damn the consequences. “Divine decadence,” as Sally Bowles famously called it. In that iconic song of hers, Life is a cabaret, she speaks of her friend Elsie who lived fast and died young but was the happiest corpse she had ever seen.

All fine and dandy in fiction but statistical research says otherwise. People with a history of alcohol abuse, drug usage, obesity not only die sooner but worse, they have a prolonged and agonized descent into death. Then I meet Angela. As I troll the cancer wards, I see that life is never as simple as that.

Although she is one-third of Tom’s age, Angela is also undergoing the same excruciating  regime of chemo as him. Her skin is a yellow-green, her bald head is wrapped in a scarf. She asks, “Why me?” It is oh so tempting to dismiss Angela as suffering from an overdose of self-pity. After all, isn’t the unspoken half of why me?: “Why not someone else?” But not so fast. Angela is a self-confessed health-nut, a semi-vegetarian, a dance teacher and so she exercises for a living, a non-smoker, a social drinker and has never used even so much as an Asprin, never mind street drugs. When Angela asks, “Why me?”,  I truly have no answer.

Perhaps it is bad genes. Perhaps Angela is plain unlucky, whatever that means. I even had one young woman say to me that she believed her cancer and imminent death were the result of a curse put upon her by someone who hated her. All I can do is shrug my shoulders. Much of death, as well of life, is random, mysterious, follows no logic or reason. Oh, yes, we can weave whatever narrative we feel comfortable with but there are always far too many exceptions to ever explain away everything.

As I walk home I question why is it exactly that I do all the many things I do for my long-term good when realistically, my long-term is not going to be that long? Is it because it makes me feel pious and somehow better than others? Am I as selfish as the people who never move past “Why me?” Perhaps. I also know that my self-care increases my stamina and pain tolerance. People who practice self-care are better able to withstand extreme trauma such as bone marrow transplants or severe heart attacks.

I think at every step of life we have to make a choice: pleasure now or avoid pain later. It is  rarely a clear-cut choice and often I make the wrong one, but overall I opt for the greater good because that is my nature. There is no right or wrong in that. I am no better or worse than Sally Bowles or Tom or Angela. I don’t discount there are statistical probabilities for sickness and death, but ultimately both are random. So instead of asking, Why me?, I prefer to ask, Why not me?

Famous Last Words?

December 2, 2013


A merry widow

A merry widow

“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?


Dream Caused by the Flight of Bees Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Waking by Dali

What is the emotion Salvador Dali captured in this picture?

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?


Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

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.

Smart pagans.

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?

Happy Halloween!


"You have no idea how dreary my life is."

“Oh! You have no idea how dreary my life is.”

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.

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