Having the opportunity, which I consider blessed, to work with dying people in the role of Chaplain, has given me insight into the experience of mistakes, or sins if you will. We think in terms, of course, of a hierarchy of mistakes. Overindulging in a dessert is not in the same league as sleeping with your neighbor’s husband.
photo credit – Steven Kreuch
It’s the latter category of mistake, and much worse, that rises up to haunt people on their deathbed. We do know right from wrong and when we have wronged another we will be uncomfortable until we have atoned, in whatever way is possible for us to do so. Conscience is expressed as early as toddlerhood, as every mom and dad will confirm.
photo credit – Maria Spinella
We can, and do, get away with denial, suppression, and other kinds of mental gymnastics for sometimes many decades. What I’m telling you most emphatically is that the deathbed (or car, or plane, or ambulance) is the place where the bill comes due. If we ignore it, in my educated opinion, it will come due again and again beyond this life in one form or another.
I’m not trying to induce guilt or shame here, quite the opposite. The operating system of the universe, and the human psyche as part of it, is founded on law. Believing that guilt and shame are the point, as some religious traditions do, is like thinking that hunger is the point rather than the nourishment of the body.
At one stage in my career, some of the dying patients I worked with had been brought to the hospital from a maximum-security prison. What came up for them as they faced death were sins like murder, drug dealing, child molesting, and other serious offenses to their fellowmen.
It was not uncommon for these individuals, the ones who had committed the most serious “mistakes”, to rationalize, minimize, blame the victim, or out-right deny their culpability. It was as though taking ownership of what they had done, and setting foot on a path toward redemption, was just too frightening. These situations called for a different style of ministry before we could even get to remorse. They needed to realize that their prison was of their own making.
Some souls had to tell their story often, with their versions challenged, until they came to a place where they were tuned into the pain of another, where they questioned their own thinking. I got to see what people are like when they “turned on their own lightbulb.” This was new territory for them – taking responsibility for themselves, their thoughts, and actions.Some of them let grace in when their human tale was almost over. Sadly, some died in torment. This is what the metaphor “hell” describes.
By contrast, war veterans, who had been expected to kill as part of their job, felt remorse and torment readily; often it had stalked them for years. It was possible, once again by listening to the story, to lead them toward greater peace before death.
The twinges of conscience that we experience as guilt, or it’s deeper, darker cousin shame, are like the warning lights on your dashboard – ignore them at your peril.
photo credit – Maria Spinella
The point for us everyday folks is that recognition and acceptance, as soon as possible after the act, of our responsibility for atonement, will save us from most of our deathbed angst. As is taught in the 12 Step programs, making amends on a regular basis will keep our psychic home in order.
You always have the opportunity to listen to your true nature. When you take advantage of that, you’ll thrive. So make an intention, set aside time and space, to experience the peace of the examined life while you still have earthly time.
This is not to say you’ll run out of time. For all eternity you’ll be offered chances to change your thinking, your attitudes, your actions. Peace is within, why wait?
I was ruminating for a week over an entirely different blog topic when I came across this quote and knew what I needed to write about.
” Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The quote was in an article in The Atlantic magazine by Jessica Francis Kane, author of acclaimed short-story collection This Close. Jessica Kane also wrote a novel, The Report, and a collection of stories Bending Heaven. In the Atlantic column series, By Heart, Kane wrote of the importance of this quote to her life and her achievements. I can see why. These words are about to become important in my life. As Ms Kane did, I may write them on an index card and affix it to my bathroom mirror.
As a writer, I can’t overstate the importance of Perseverance. In fact, whatever the creative endeavor, if this quality is not present, you won’t get it done. Apathy and lethargy are among the antonyms for perseverance but inertia, distraction, and procrastination (not listed) are my obstacles to “getting it done”. I’m never apathetic, in other words I always care. I don’t suffer from lethargy, which I think of as a disinclination to move at all.
But I will move as if through jello, put unimportant things first, and put off until tomorrow, then tomorrow, then tomorrow…
This is where the words of Marcus Aurelius come in. It’s the mind’s focus on “the story of me” and “my problems” that lead us into inertia, distraction, and procrastination. If we can clear the table, so to speak, of all the things in the way of creative blossoming, what’s left is the clarity and peace of mind that foster inventiveness, originality, and even brilliance. We can Persevere, move in a forward direction and never give up, whatever our dream may be.
I’ve made many dreams come true in my life. My current dream sometimes feels like it won’t come to fruition until pigs fly. Then I remember that all my big dreams felt like that while they were in the process of coming true.
Perhaps this farm was a family’s dream that they thought would never come true. (I’ve shopped there and it’s wonderful!)
Yes, dreams get broken, changed, even shattered. How can we know why things happen the way they do? We can’t. Yet if we believe in our work and Persevere, heart, mind, body, and spirit committed to the effort, incrementally we’ll see our dream take shape. Along the way we may be re-directed many times, by rejection, criticism, failures. We must always be paying attention to discern the next right thing.
The writer Anne Lamott has a wildly popular non-fiction book called “Bird by Bird” (always on my bedside table) which is a reference to how we keep from being overwhelmed by obstacles to creativity, how we keep our focus on the task at hand. Her advice is the perfect counterpoint to the quote from Marcus Aurelius – a marriage between the practical and the spiritual. We focus first, getting out of our own way, and then inspiration emerges. It was there all the time.
“In the ensuing months, she thought much about the way in which a stranger can finger your life: this man, who knows nothing of her, nor she of him, until both arrive at the fatal grid reference, which has always lain in wait. And now the man is gone…
Consequences by Penelope Lively
I’ve been reflecting on the Boston bombings and their aftermath in the 2 weeks since the attack on an American city and it’s people. Like most folks, I cannot get my mind around what might make two men so young act without conscience or any apparent remorse against the city where they had made their home.
I am well aware of hypocrisy, intrigue, incompetence, and stagnation – a laundry list of flaws in our American system. Yet, the avenues to respond to the acts by our government with which we do not agree are at our disposal at any time. Non-violent civil disobedience, strikes, referendums, blogs, editorials, class-action suits, documentary film making… All of these and many others have been used effectively to allow dissenting voices to be heard and, sometimes, if we’re persistent and courageous, change in a positive direction does occur. Why might these two young men, one with a tiny daughter, choose extreme violence (and inevitable prison or death) to express their anger over the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Experts of all kinds are studying the trajectory of the lives of the suspects in the Boston bombings in the hopes of preventing future attacks from “self-radicalized” terrorists. A corollary to this is the question – How do we live our lives knowing we can’t be certain of safety anywhere, or at anytime? Are the cities of the world to live under a perpetually menacing cloud?
Photo credit – Pete Spurrier
For some in Boston, with their assumptive world shattered, activities will be curtailed and life will never be the same. Certainly, this is true for the families who lost a loved one and the people who were gravely injured. There are many ways in which random acts of violence or mere carelessness can irrevocably alter lives. That said, the festive quality of the targeted event and the horrific injuries focused the world’s attention on Boston. This is trauma of great magnitude, to the families of all concerned, victims and perpetrators.
The random traumatic events and situations that have occurred in my life, and they are many, I could not have predicted or defended against before the fact. Illness, predators, accidents, and consequences to me of someone eles’s behavior– to each of these I could only respond with the resources cultivated in me. It’s vital that I’ve always felt myself to be firmly seated in some community of fellow travelers. This began and ends with my family, both my family of origin and the family my husband and I created.
Beyond that I’ve been a part of a changing array of communities. Communities, like governments, are a flawed but necessary underpinning of human society. We all watched the people of Boston come together to respond to the wound it sustained on 4/15. Families, friends, leaders, and the public at large have been marshaling their resources to respond to what for some people will be a continuously evolving “new normal” as they recover and adapt to their injuries and losses.
The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” has been on my mind as I think of the young people growing up in the Boston of today. The way in which tragedy has united the people of this passionate city is essential to the post trauma recovery of all it’s people, most especially the young. Wherever you live, teach acceptance, neighborliness, and caring to the people in your daily life. Young people are always looking for heroes. The ones they find in their own school, neighborhood, town, and city make the most difference in their lives. You really don’t know when and in what way you may one day need each other. Be a hero.
Photo credit – Aram Boghosian
Imagine that you know you’re in the last few weeks of your life. There is a point at which the dying pull within themselves to do the work of dying. Just before that, there is often a desire for deeper connection to loved ones, even those who are estranged. The examination of one’s life to uncover the meaning of it is almost universal among the dying. The arena where this search for meaning is carried out is in relationship, to one’s family, community, and humanity.
If the pursuit of ego-based desires dominated one’s life there is usually dissatisfaction, remorse, and even despair.
The accumulation of more, bigger, better, newer, higher status, or more exclusive possessions rarely brings satisfaction at the end of life. Neither does having been attractive based on physical appearance, money, power, or even knowledge or an education. The appeal of these external measures of worth and happiness falls away like the discarded skin of a snake. One is left naked to contemplate the question “Did it make a difference that I lived?”
There can be clarity during this time of life that is like no other. Provided that pain is controlled, there is nothing to obscure our awareness of what really matters to us. We have the opportunity to make the most of the time we have left.
You are unlikely to meet anyone who is entirely free of ego-driven behavior. The ego is who we think we are, after all. The operative word here is think. Who we truly are can be found in the spaces between our thoughts. Those individuals who are able to link themselves to a purpose apart from their own ego are in the realm of Being. If not all the time, then enough of the time to make a difference in the world.
One need not have achieved fame to make a positive difference.
It’s possible in your own family and community to name individuals who do not allow themselves to be derailed by the pursuit of ego-based desires. There are people whose intention is to sustain, nurture, or encourage humanity and connection. They hold these values above self-aggrandizement. Spiritual purpose supports life and growth. Some neighbors of my youth propagated a magnificent garden, with not only a grand variety of flowers but also a gazebo, a pond, a bridge, and a wishing well. This childless couple freely allowed neighborhood kids to unleash their imagination in this idyll. They may not have been able to articulate their purpose. They simply lived it, making an incalculable difference in my life and in the lives of uncounted others.
Why is desire so often confused with purpose? Obtaining what we desire requires us to have goals, plans, and vision – to have our “ducks in a row” so to speak. We are engaged in purposeful activity much of our lives.
There comes a time, however, when coming of age provides an opening to a larger vision of oneself. Why make a judgement about anyone’s purpose? To answer that question we need to ask another. On what does the world’s well-being depend? Seriousness of purpose implies caring beyond self. Cynicism and apathy are not compatible with commitment to the human community. They are the moral equivalent of letting weeds grow wild in the garden. When goals, plans, and visions are linked to caring beyond self, nobility is achieved. I define nobility as characterized by courage, generosity, and honor. Nobility is the natural outgrowth of of the marriage of spiritual purpose and uncompromising humanity.
Discerning a spirit-guided purpose for ourselves shapes choices in a way that’s in harmony with the environment and our fellow men. Our lifestyle, habits, and how we interact with others determine our chances for lasting fulfillment. The decisions individuals make in these areas also matter on a cosmic scale. We do well to take a look at why we are here while we still have time.
“When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
In this space I have written about tragic events from the news before. On a site dedicated to survivors of trauma, it sometimes is the responsible thing to do. Always, it is a sacred trust to attempt to find words for the unspeakable.
This is the fourth day since the massacre of 27 people, 20 of them young children, in Newtown, CT. Also, in the same place and time, the suicide of the young perpetrator of this atrocity. Clearly four days is not enough to get one’s mind around the enormity of this crime against children and their protectors. There may never be enough time to accept, let alone understand, the motive for such unspeakable violence.
In the hours since the first bits of news came out of Newtown, I’ve looked, as many have, for a place in my mind to comprehend the slaughter of 20 young children, 6 teachers, and the mother of the troubled young man who also took his own life. I found no such place. What I have found is room in my heart for deep and abiding Sorrow. Yes, there is anger as well but Sorrow is what settles on me like a winter cloak. I think of the delight I took in my own three children and that I now experience with my grandchild. That delight is denied to the families of the victims. It lives only in memory.
On this fourth day something has changed in me. If there is any acceptance at all, it is in coming to terms with the inevitability of Sorrow.
I can feel it somewhere between by throat and my gut, as if one can locate Sorrow in a space. Also on this fourth day, as one with the luxury of some distance from the events, I ask myself What Now? The answer to that question has many layers, as does the deconstruction of the tragedy itself. As a citizen, I need to answer, as our President so eloquently said, How can we do better than THIS? We must do better in the arena of mental health assessment and treatment, we must do better in the area of weapons proliferation, we must do better in identifying and helping at risk families fractured by divorce, mental illness, and isolation.
In Newtown it has been inspiring to see faith communities step forward and offer leadership, support, and comfort. The seeds of such destruction as visited Newtown four days ago are, after all, a spiritual problem. In response, people of all faiths, and of no faith, are all asking the same question – What does Love look like now? This is a question to be answered in the here and now, but also as we move forward as a society. The heightened awareness of our connectedness, our responsibility to each other, must not be allowed to fade away. The memory of 28 people who died violently in the most normal of communities, depends on keeping our awareness alive. Sorrow thus can be a powerful motivator for change in the direction of a saner, a safer, society.