A Week to Live (attempt 3)
“Limited” – Carl Sandburg
I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go
fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust
and all the men and women laughing in the diners and sleepers
shall pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going
and he answers: “Omaha.”
It’s really just a matter of perspective—of how limited, narrow and short-sighted our view of this life is versus how broad and inclusive and far-sighted it is.
How can we truly love and value this life, how can truly love and value another human being properly, if we’re living as though life goes on forever, if we’re living as though death has no chance of happening to us or others any time soon, if our sight and our perspective are so fixed and limited that we can’t see further than the next bend or our own feelings and ego and we’re living and loving as though we’re all just hurtling along going to Omaha?
It’s only when we begin to lift our sight and our thinking out of the morass and the muck and start glimpsing the bigger picture of what’s going on, that we start to develop the clarity and the urgency and the courage to begin truly valuing and loving others and this life properly.
“You see these people? All of us . . . and all the people alive in the world today—A hundred years from now we’ll all be dead. That is impermanence.”
(from the motion picture “Little Buddha”)
It’s just not possible to truly love this life and to truly love another and live that relationship as something alive and deeply meaningful if we don’t have perspective, if we’re one of the many who live their lives as if they’ll never die, as if death will never touch them or tap them on the shoulder.
“The traditional ideologies that used to disguise and absorb anxiety and neuroses have fallen away and modern ideologies are just too thin to contain it. So here we have modern man: increasingly slumping onto analysts’ couches, making pilgrimages to psychological guru-centers, joining therapy groups, and filling larger and larger numbers of mental hospital beds. When we say neurosis represents the truth of life we mean that life is an overwhelming problem for an animal free of instinct.
“The individual has to protect himself against the world, and he can do this only as any other animal would: by narrowing down the world, shutting off experience, developing an obliviousness both to the terrors of the world and to his own anxieties. Otherwise he would be crippled for action. Repression, denial, and self-deception are normal self-protection and creative self-restriction. In a real sense it is man’s natural substitute for instinct. The great boon of repression and denial are that they make it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.
“Nature has protected the lower animals by endowing them with instincts. It is very simple: Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to. They live in a very tiny world, a very small sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their noses and shuts everything else out.
“But look at man, the impossible creature. Here nature seems to have thrown caution to the wind along with the programmed instincts. She created an animal with a brain completely exposed to the full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience. Not only in front of his nose, in his ‘umwelt,’ but in many other ‘umweltsen.’ He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species. He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows. He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden than man bears. He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect. His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, but closer to him and all the more strange. Every thing is a problem.
“Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the equanimity to live on this planet. And so the core of psychodynamics, the formation of human character, is a study in human self-limitation and in the terrifying costs of that limitation.
“The psychologist Otto Rank has a perfect, key term for this natural human talent: he calls it “partialization” and very rightly sees that life is impossible without it. What we call the typical well-adjusted massman has just this capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action. The “normal” man bites off what he can chew and digest of life, and no more. Men aren’t built to be gods, to take in the whole world; they are built like other creatures, to take in the piece of ground in front of their noses. Gods can take in the whole of creation because they alone can make sense of it, know what it is all about and for. But as soon as man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death then he is in real trouble. Most men spare themselves this trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives just as their society maps these problems out for them. They ‘tranquilize themselves on the trivial‘—so they can lead ‘normal’ lives.” (Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death,” pp. 50-51, 177-178.)
Or as Schopenhauer put it:
“Limitation always makes for happiness. We are happy in proportion as our range of vision, our sphere of work, our points of contact with the world, are restricted and circumscribed. We are more likely to feel worried and anxious if these limits are wide; for it means that our cares, desires and terrors are increased and intensified. That is why the so-called “blind” are not as unhappy as we might be inclined to suppose” (“Counsels and Maxims,” section 6, pg. 21).
To truly live, and more importantly, to truly love—to live and love as if we’re dying—requires that we take the blinders off, that we courageously begin removing the scales from our eyes, that we become more courageous and curious about facing ourselves and our fears and start clearing out all the denial, reactivity, self-deception, control issues, discursive delusive thought-patterns, self-defeating and self-sabotaging reactions, and the silly sense of self-importance and pride and entitlement (ego)—that massive chip that resides right there squarely on our shoulder—that gets us stuck in life and that stubbornly, obstinately keeps us there.
To love another truly means to love as if we and they are dying, as if we and they only had days or weeks to live. (And I will keep writing and repeating this until I get it through my own thick head and heart most of all!) It means to love with no armor, no defenses, no denial. And so instead of continuing living on auto-pilot and as if life goes on forever, instead of continuing to avoid facing ourselves, we start becoming courageous and curious enough to begin working through all of the dross and manure and self-blindness within us and we begin living like a real psychospiritual warrior with some real perspective, a psychospiritual warrior who knows that he or she and those he or she loves will all one day die.
And the sooner we start convincing ourselves of this and living and acting like this, the better for us and for those around us. Because our lives are that precious and that precarious and fragile. . . . Such truly is our lot. . . .
“Calm Before the Storm” – Mary Baine Campbell
Between the Brattle and the bookstore
A hundred yards of wet brick pavement
Fancy with yellow leaves: I wore
A red jacket, carried a red umbrella
Had a little fever, had a little cough
Was alive, passed a newspaper box
Saw no wars in the headlines
Had no bad news from the doctor
Not yet, was alive, was in love
Had waterproof boots on, it was only
A few yards to the bookstore
On an autumn night, the bookstore
Full of good books and yellow light, I was
Still alive, there was no news yet
Of the terminal illness, there were no wars
In the headlines, I have always
Loved the fall the beautiful dead
Bodies of the leaves scattered
On the battlefield of earth and my own
The calm before the storm could also be called the unawareness or the sleep-walking before the storm; the denial before the storm. If we want to truly live and love, we have to wake up. We have to learn how to awaken and then stay awake. Because to be awake is to be alive! We have to snap out of our respective psychological and emotional and intellectual slumbers. We have to jar and jolt and rouse ourselves. We have to hit ourselves over the head with a bag of bricks (figuratively) while there’s still time, and get our own attention, before life does it for us and it’s too late to make some real changes. We have to live our lives with a much greater sense of urgency and clarity, with a real and tangible sense of how quickly things could change for the worse, how quickly those we claim to love could be lost forever.
If we want to Love, we have to get perspective. And keep it. We must begin living like we’re dying, like we only had a month or a week to live—or that those we claim to love only have a week or a month to live.
And this cannot be just some sort of mere intellectual exercise, something we do only abstractly or only occasionally and haphazardly. It must be something that we actually live daily, minute to minute, that we immerse ourselves in, that we actually and tangibly put into play and practice consistently, no different than meditation, or yoga, or however else we choose to center and ground ourselves—for what else is going to ground and center us more properly than a living ongoing realization that we’re all not just going to Omaha?—that we’re all fragile, perishable creatures awaiting a car crash or a heart attack or some terrible terminal news from the doctor?
Understanding that we and those around us (especially those we claim to love and cherish) may have as little as only a week to live must become much, much more than a mere mental exercise or intellectual understanding or word game. It must become the actual basis for our decision-making and our next act or actions—the reason behind all of the words in our next conversation or email, the motivating force behind all of our thoughts and how we see ourselves and others, the very heartbeat of our next interaction with a friend or lover or family member.
We must immerse ourselves in this realization, let it become blood in us.
We must not just talk and write about this, we must act on this and live it everywhere and all the time.
Life is short. Time is a gift. It could all change for the worse in an instant. Try really living like that for a day or a week. Try going through life with those glasses on for a week. Try keeping that in mind every time we interact with another, every time we talk, every time we’re tempted to make some discursive, garrulous demand, every time we’re tempted to get angry with another or be dismissive of him or her. If we’re being dismissive of another knowing fully well that truly that other person could die today or tomorrow, that that person could be smashed to bits in an accident or in some other way end up helpless and near-lifeless in a hospital bed, then we’ve at least we’ve thought things through properly. At least we won’t be living and loving in denial. At least we won’t be living blind. At least we will have had to have faced ourselves and dealt with our own issues, won’t we?
In this world
Hate never dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the Way,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
You too will pass away.
Knowing this, how can you quarrel?
When we live and love and make decisions as though life goes on forever, when we live and love and make choices as if we have some personal dispensation or some get out of death and dying free card, we live badly. Make no mistake about it, we live badly. Very badly. The moment you or I forget that we are beings who will die, who could at any moment, out of the blue, turn cold and die, or that in a matter of weeks or days (as improbable and as gimmicky as it may seem) we or a loved one could get a terminal diagnosis or end up crumpled in a car wreck on an expressway—the moment we close our eyes and our minds and, most importantly, our hearts to this possibility and dismiss it as possible but not probable—we begin to live and love badly.
Only death sets things in order—or forces us to set things right. Only death forces us to live honestly, more courageously, authentically, and with greater clarity. Only death forces us to get over ourselves and our pettiness and resistances and to open our hearts. —And the immediate prospect of death, the honest blunt confrontation with it, opens our hearts not gently, but by taking a can opener to it and ripping the top and bottom and then sides off of our heart, off of all of the defensive walls, pettiness, resistances, and clutter surrounding and armoring our heart, instantly junking all of this, and exposing us completely and utterly once and for all. Only death does this. Only death forces us to the quick and to declare ourselves once and for all, as it did Jack/C. S. Lewis in the motion picture “Shadowlands” (a beautiful, luminous film; one I whole-heartedly recommend!)—
Jack: “Yesterday, a friend of mine, a very brave good woman collapsed in terrible pain. One minute she was fit and well…and the next minute she was in agony. Now she’s in a hospital, and this morning I was told she’s suffering from cancer. Why? If you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer. You can’t bear it. You want to take their suffering onto yourself. . . . It’s unthinkable. . . . (pausing) . . . How could Joy have been my wife? I’d have to love her, wouldn’t I? I’d have to care more for her than for anyone else in this world. I’d have to be suffering the torments of the damned. The prospect of losing her… I just want her to be well again, you see. . . . What a dangerous world we live in. . . .”
Warnie: “You’ve been up all night. Why don’t you get some sleep?”
Jack: “No. I can’t sleep. . . . It’s all too soon, you see. I just haven’t had time, that’s all.”
Warnie: “Time for what?”
Jack: “I don’t know. To talk, to say things.”
Warnie: “It doesn’t take long.”
Jack: “No, I suppose not. Whatever it is, I should just say it. You must be right, Warnie. . . . But it’s difficult, you see.”
(All the more reason to do it.)
(Jack goes into the hospital room to see Joy)
Joy: “Jack, I have to know how bad it is. They won’t tell me.”
Jack: “That’s because they’re not sure themselves.”
Jack: “I don’t know any more than they do.”
Joy: “Before Douglas (her 9-year old son) gets here, I need to know.”
Jack: “…They say you’re going to die.”
Joy: “Okay. Yes. Thank you. . . . (pausing, reflecting) . . . Jack, you seem different. You look at me properly now.”
Jack: “Didn’t I before?”
Joy: “Not properly.”
Jack: “I don’t want to lose you. I’ve only just realized that.
Joy: “I don’t want to be lost.”
Jack: “It’s all come too soon, you see? I didn’t have any idea. . . . (pausing) . . . I want to marry you, Joy. I want to marry you before God and the world.”
Joy: “—Make an honest woman out of me?”
Jack: “Not you. It’s me who hasn’t been honest. Look what it takes to make me see sense.”
Joy: “You think I’ve overdone it?”
Jack: (with tears) . . . “Please don’t leave me, Joy . . . . (composing himself, kneeling beside her at her bedside) . . . . Will you marry this foolish, frightened old man, who needs you more than he can bear to say, who loves you even though he hardly knows how? . . . ”
Every significant decision we make should be made like this—in this light . . . as if we’re dying, as if we only had a week or a month to live; as if the other person were dying, as if the other person were stricken and lying in a hospital bed and only had a week or a month to live. That’s the only way we see and treat each other properly, as beings who are dying. How much cursed pettiness and resentment, self-importance and resistance would be dropped then? “Love is what’s left after all of the selfishness has been removed from a relationship.” How much of our nonsense and defensiveness would be dropped or softened instantly if we were really able to begin thinking like this? How much of our daily defensiveness and bad decisions could be rooted out if we were able to flash far enough forward and consult with our deathbed version of our self and ask him or her what we really wish we’d have done right now—whether on our deathbed we will have wished right now in this moment that we would have acted out of love or fear, played it safe or opened ourselves to love and suffering, chosen comfort or courage, taken the easy way or the more difficult way, opened our heart or shut it down even more stubbornly, loved even more deeply and courageously and vulnerably, or reactively checked out once again, gone numb, and opted for a smaller, frightened life without the possibility of real intimacy, love, contact and growth?
“The confrontation with death—and the reprieve from it—makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful. . . . Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we’d never die.” (Abraham Maslow, from a letter written while recuperating from a heart attack)
And if we can’t yet make decisions like this, with a honest awareness of death and our own mortality, then we would be wise to learn how to double check our significant life decisions as soon as possible by passing them through this filter—the “as if we’re dying” or “as if we and the other person only had a week or month to live” filter.
And if you have any doubts as to the wisdom of all of this, then just watch the TV and look at the faces and listen to the words of all the of the people walking around shell-shocked after a natural disaster. Or go to an oncology office or hospice ward and look at the faces of those who are now fighting for their lives or who have just gotten a terminal diagnosis. There but for the grace of God go you and I. For now. If we’re lucky. Look at their stunned and color-drained faces. Their faces now drained of color and fight because they were living a lie, a life based upon the lie of an endless supply of tomorrows. They were living and loving in denial, as if life went on forever, as if death wouldn’t happen to them, as if it didn’t apply to them, as if death would never touch them, and so unavoidably and inadvertently and unknowingly they were living and loving in many ways badly.
But now death has touched them. And touched them sharply, deeply, irrevocably. It’s gashed them. Wounded them. Eviscerated them unflinchingly, mercilessly. And that sharp sickle- or scythe-like touch has set them straight; it’s leveled the castles of sand that they had built on the shakiest and flimsiest of ground. All of the fight and resistance and ego and cursed pettiness has been instantaneously drained from their bodies. What are they resisting and holding onto now? They’ve had the rugged pulled out from beneath them. Their entire life has been irrevocably upended. They’ve been humbled, emptied of all of their pretensions and denial. Their lives have become clearinghouses. They are groundless.
What things are they wishing now that they would have done differently?
What things are they wishing now that they could do differently if they had more time?
There but for the grace of God go you or I. And only temporarily.
Again . . . The confrontation with death—and the reprieve from it—makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. Life has never looked more beautiful. Death and its ever-present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we’d never die.
“Why love if losing hurts so much?” asks C. S. Lewis at the end of “Shadowlands.” “I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived. And twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: As a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
When we live and love in denial—when we live and love as emotional children in adult bodies—we choose safety. We choose to close the heart and protect our soft spot; we choose safety and a life without love.
But when we choose to live and love as grown-ups and on life’s terms, then we also choose suffering, we choose vulnerability, we choose to courageously and heroically open ourselves and our heart; we consciously decide to live and love as if we and others might turn cold and die at any time. And so we live and love much better, much more deeply and truly, much more fearlessly and courageously.
After all, what other point is there to all of this? To stay comfortable, safe, and tepid? To aggrandize and glorify ourselves? To stay untouched? No one gets out of here alive. Only the love we have given is real. Only the love we have given and received here is real. Everything else is an illusion and a waste of time and life and life’s energy. So why not learn how to live and love with greater intensity, clarity, courage, determination, and urgency while there’s still time?
Why live and die an unlived and loveless life?