May 31, 2018
I have an uncle-in-law, the husband of my dad's baby sister, Damien's age, who was recently diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He and my aunt, the same aunt I lived with during my first year of university, are busy raising four kids the age of my own kids.
The family was given the diagnosis two days after my grandmother's funeral service. Emergency brain surgery removed the tumor and now he will undergo a series of aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Like the story of Katherine and Jay Wolf, my aunt and uncle are part of a strong network of friends and family, they are rooted in a life-sustaining faith, they have excellent medical care. They have everything going for them, as far as is possible in such difficulty. But still, how to bear this?
To live is to experience pain, uncertainty, and illness. We're all terminal. What a harsh reality. No wonder humans ask each other and often rail at the Divine, "Is this what it means to be human?!"
For months I was on the waiting list for a digital copy of When Breath Becomes Air. Just days after finishing Hope Heals, a notice popped up in my inbox, the book was available and automatically added to my library loans. (I love digital library loans.)
Round two for another story of loss and illness, this one with decidedly different outcome than healing.
When Breath Becomes Air is a beautifully written memoir of a neurosurgeon who dies of lung cancer in his late thirties, and it's both as hopeful and heartbreaking as life itself.
As I've read these books this spring I've been considering my own mortality, my anxieties, and fears. I consider the fragility of being human. The fragility of every living thing around me. And I consider the physical end we each face. Death.
For even if we are healed once or twice (in truth we are healed many times through our lives, our bodies being miraculous self-healing organisms) the end of the human experience is the same for everyone.
Is it death we fear, or is it being separated from love? Separated from comfort. Alone in our suffering. And then of course there is pain, the physical pain we experience in our diseased and decrepit bodies, and the emotional pain of loss. We fear pain because it hurts. But do we also fear pain because we feel isolated and alone in that experience?
Do we compound our pain because of what we believe in that pain?
And while we're talking about belief, is this how prayer heals some people? Their belief makes it true?
I have so many questions. And I feel compelled to try to find answers in theology and religion, neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy.
But in the end, and in all things, we experience more than we can answer. And our experiences compound the unanswerable in our lives. For a truth-seeker like myself, I have to find something to hold on to, not in esoteric academia (though, intellectually that's where I want to hang out), but in the nitty-gritty of life.
The joy and the pain of being human are bound together like a knotted cord, and what gives meaning to that twisted reality is that we all share it. This is everyone's truth. This is a shared experience.
Some people journey with a strong belief in God, a belief that brings immense comfort and meaning. For others, the comfort and meaning doesn't come from an experience of God, but an experience of shared humanity, and our connection to each other.
I believe the Divine's got you either way, since shared humanity is the modus operandi of the Divine. It is the body of Christ.
Regardless of what we believe, we all die. Maybe the meaning isn't in the set of beliefs you have but in how you live.
In his memoir, Paul Kalanithi, writes "Life is not about avoiding suffering, it's about finding meaning."
For many Christians, salvation is the primary hope of their faith. They find meaning in the hope for a better life after this one and the assurance that a statement of faith in Jesus Christ gains them access to that life.
I don't align myself with that particular telling of the gospel. I don't have a strong belief right now about what happens after this life, it's not where I find meaning.
The primary hope of my faith, the meaning for me is God with us now. God with us because God is in us and through us.
God with us is the incarnation of Divine Spirit in humanity, in Jesus Christ, in you, in me. I believe we're never separated from God, in life or death, but I don't know what that looks like after our human experience on this earth. I'm still figuring out what it means for my present reality.
I believe God is always present, and so wherever I experience presence, or being, I will find God. Past, present, future. In sorrow and joy, in pain and beauty. In that knotted cord of our lives.
The meaning for me is our shared human experience and knowing God in that experience.
I don't need to fear being alone because a Divine Love exists underneath it all, and is present to all, including our pain and suffering. This Divine Love is manifest in our relationships, it's the energy by which we live, move, and have our being. And if I can experience this Love, accept this Love, know this Love, live this Love, maybe it's possible to bear the pain and loss because I have less fear. Not because the circumstance changes but because the experience of that circumstance changes.
Having this mindset or heart-set doesn't take away pain and loss (God, I wish it did), but maybe it makes it redeemable, as we Christians like to say.
I am afraid to publish these words because I will be held accountable (by myself) for them. I am afraid of the pain and loss of life. I confess that at so many points in my life I have hoped to find meaning in a life where I could avoid suffering, through an almost hocus-pocus, magic wand, Disney princess type of faith.
I fear the loss that is to come in my life. My heart aches for the losses experienced by those I love. And it is an act of my will, a spiritual discipline, to look for God in the places I never wanted to know God. Those very places we need to find and know God the most.
to be continued...
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