The other day I read an interesting post from Health Care Chaplaincy. As synchronicity would have it, I had earlier that day responded to an online friend’s sharing of a very grave diagnosis. You can read the Health Care Chaplaincy post entitled “Dying to Be Heard” here. Sometimes it seems odd that so much of our inward searching and striving toward meaning and purpose in our lives must rightly involve sharing with other people, family and loved ones as well as relative strangers. I think it is the simple fact of recognizing that we are human and that we each have very different ways of being in the world but there are several important ways in which we connect as humans and by connecting, restore our own humanity as we recognize it and honor it in others.
Ease and dis-ease. What is the real distinction?
Here is a nice YouTube video about one man’s journey through a diagnosis and into the rest of his life. So managing that solitude and intimacy divide is an essential struggle that we face no matter where life’s twists and turns take us. One struggle that a chronic debilitating condition or a terminal illness places in front of a person is the question about how to spend the limited space that is the rest of life. There may be a shift from quantity to quality.
How one’s world begins to shrink or congeal as a result of a diagnosis or a disease progression (in the case of debilitating physical losses or mental or cognitive impairments) is a uniquely individual thing. Shrinking can sometimes bring clarity and freedom. What is a person’s life story and how does it change, if at all, as the result of a life-altering diagnosis? One type of active listening that I learned about during my mediation and facilitation training (and maybe also from reading a few parenting books) is reframing. It can be based on among other things, a listener’s ability to restate what a speaker has said, and to reflect on the feelings and values communicated by the speaker’s words and often their gestures.
I think it is a good idea to not underestimate the power of listening and of being heard. There are many lists, tasks, processes and other guideposts around negotiating grief in our lives, but each of us experiences it differently. Just as we all feel loss in our lives differently, the grief which is the feeling of attending to the grief is unique. The opportunity to be heard and to listen to others is a way of extending compassion to another and recognizing our common humanity in this uncertain thing we call life.
I liked this recent post from SciAm entitled “A Happy Life May Not Be a Meaningful Life.” And no, I didn’t like it just because the authors began the post with a quote from Viktor Frankl, but also because some of what they observe is about happiness as a thing that one gets, something material, defined outside of us. Its relation to meaning in our lives, which is about quality – not quantity, stands in contrast.
What is it that makes sense in our lives and of our lives? I think paying attention to mortality can be an excellent teacher. I will quote from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran:
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one.
. . .
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
The Prophet (1976: Knopf) at 80, 81.
The power of telling and listening to a story is a power to heal. It only requires two of us – a speaker and a listener. Compassion is a core value, fundamental to our interdependence on one another. Life goes on after a difficult diagnosis, but the terms on which we engage often change, sometimes dramatically and other times by degrees. The terms most certainly can change as we reach farther in our lives and deeper. Confronting our own mortality is never easy, but sometimes people do so with incredible grace. You can listen to the late singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s rendering of Bach’s Cantata 82 “Ich Habe Genug” here on youtube. At the time of the recording she knew that her time was limited, due to the progression of breast cancer.
As we learn to approach and embrace the spiritual side of our mortality and attend to dying as a natural event and not as a medical problem to be managed, we can provide the care from the heart. As that quote attributed to many different persons goes “the longest distance known to man is the distance between the head and the heart.” We may be solitary travelers on our own paths, but we are not alone in our hearts.
©Barbara Cashman 2014 www.DenverElderLaw.org