Sunday, February 18, 2018

Learning from suffering

What can I learn about suffering?  That has become the spiritual question for me in recent weeks while recovering from my first hospitalization for a serious, complicated illness.

I have reminded myself daily of the inescapable fact that life involves pain and suffering; that millions are suffering around the world; that many people I know have major health challenges; and yet I remain trapped in my own mental delusion that I am unique.

I forget that  my faith teaches that love redeems the horrors of life, and so I reach out to others and welcome their good wishes and prayers, their phone calls and visits. I feel less isolated, which is one of the key aspects of suffering.

What else have I learned? To take each day at a time, refusing to worry about the future.  To appreciate simplicity: the little things I do in my home each day (cooking, e.g.) are important somehow in the bigger picture of my life.  Every task, however humble, has some meaning. I am being tested in mindfulness: full attention to the present moment.

I value the sun, the trees, the flowering azaleas here in Florida, the light as it streams through the window, the music I can access and all the other entertainments that can distract me from my discomfort.

I try to cultivate humility (a tough one) and acceptance of my human frailty. I tell myself, quoting a line from Rilke, that no feeling is final. The present headache or feeling of panic will pass. I have, after all, the most loving and wonderful of caregivers in the presence of my wife Lynn.  If prayer fails, she is there, smiling, comforting, helping me laugh.

And so I remind myself to be grateful for so much, for that fact that I am home healing and not getting (I hope) worse, that I am surrounded by love, that I have faith in God that is being tested and generally found to be solid.

Gratitude--and my sense of being connected to many friends, and to others in pain--are probably the key lessons I am learning.  But the struggle goes on, as it must, day by day.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

peacocks on board: flying pets

The picture of Dexter the peacock pictured in the press recently, lined up at the airport in Newark and being denied admission by the airlines, struck me as incredibly wacky and hilarious--but because of the crazy way some people act.

The article, in the NYTimes (2-4-18) by David Leonhardt, examines the strange policies that have developed allowing patients claiming the need for emotional support animals to board planes.   He says that Delta alone flies about 250,000 animals a year, not counting the ones  in the cargo hold.
People insist that they have a right to their pet pig, snake, bird, dog or cat, irrespective of the wishes (and allergies) of other human passengers.

When United Air said "No" recently to the woman taking Dexter the peacock along, there was much criticism. Few seemed to wonder, as I did, why a large, noisy, dirty bird could possibly provide any emotional support the woman insisted she needed for her flight to L.A.

Isn't there a big element of selfishness involved here, as people know the airlines are looking for extra money and don't bother to verify that the ticket-holder really has a medical need for an animal on board?  That's Leonhardt's point.

My point is, what about getting caring attention from other people? Have we given up on our human connections in turning to animals for support? Some people seem to have forgotten to trust each other or ask for human help.  I am thinking of human charity, sympathy, counseling, etc. rather than the extreme of resorting to a fad like relying on emotional support animals. (Obviously, the truly disabled blind, et al. have legitimate needs for their trained companions.)

I hope Dexter the peacock and his owner will open the door for reform in the airlines' policies of such flying pets.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Reading in a post-fact age

Along with the other disturbing attributes associated with Donald Trump--ignorance, corruption, boorish behavior,and general incompetence--there is his lack of interiority, a point made by Christine Smallwood in an article on the future of serious reading, in a time when the U.S. President does not read, reflect,listen well or care about truth.  He is lazy.

The essay is in the current HARPER's magazine, and asks the key question, "Does reading matter in a post-fact age, when smartphones and social media also distract us from interiority?"

Smallwood quotes near the end a statement of major importance by novelist Don DeLillo:  "If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean what we're talking about when we use the word "identity' has reached an end.  Privacy,  personhood, reading, and thinking are all wrapped up together."

I am applying this insight to my much-delayed reading of a classic English novel from 1953, THE GO-BETWEEN by L. P. Hartley, a beautifully evocative memory piece about an adolescent boy's innocence shattered during a summer in 1980.  In such fiction, we can come closer to another consciousness, and to our own, than in most other ways.

The novel was made into a film in 1973--hard to find but which I located from Korea via Amazon. It stars Alan Bates and Julie Christie, with an imperfect but intelligent screenplay by Harold Pinter, who doesn't make the central (older) narrator clear.  But seeing it lead me quickly back to reading the much more satisfying novel, which I highly recommend--and not merely as an escape from difficult times.   It sums up the essence of DeLillo's excellent point.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The best of times?

It is easy to be a pessimist when we look at this country and the world as we begin a new year: fear of nuclear war, a decline in environmental safeguards, a president who's unstable, incompetent, and worse.

But, as Nicholas Kristof reminds us in today's NYTimes, the year that just ended may have been the best year in the history of humanity.  What??

He takes the big picture and, using the new book by Steven Pinker, cites facts, e.g., a smaller share of the world's people were hungry or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before.  There are more detailed facts about how the number of people living in extreme poverty goes down by 217,000 a day, according to an Oxford economist.

The point is that we need to take a step back from the madness in Washington and the daily news, which focuses on the world's problems, and examine how the quality of life, by and large, seems to be improving, irrespective of politics, nationalism, wars, and refugees in crisis.

So maybe the world is not going to hell after all in 2018--not a bad way to begin the year.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Peace on earth?

As I send Christmas greetings to friends and family, with the usual best wishes for a happy new year, I find this annual tradition an empty, almost pointless ritual. "Peace on earth, good will to men": really?

Anyone aware of what's going on in the world has to be dismayed. We live in a dark time.  The first year of Trumpism is leading to a second, with a tax cut, mainly for the rich, that will add $1 trillion to the U.S. deficit and fail to deal with pressing issues (infrastructure needs, health care, job creation). At the same time, every progressive action on social justice and the environment by the Obama administration is being undone or subverted.

The federal government, under-funded, is not really functioning and so goes the world, wondering how to handle the decline in American leadership.  The result of Trumpism in Europe is clear from the rise of nationalism and right-wing politicians and the immigrant crisis, which continues without enlightened moral leadership.

What do we have to look forward to? More instability, Islamic turmoil, economic uncertainty, sexual harassment scandals, and White House lies and corruption.

So I hope those who see my good wishes for peace in the new year know that it applies locally, to the individual and his or her family, since there is little peace to be found in the wider world.  We think of those people not in the news who are working to help the poor and make goodness happen. Or we turn inward, as we must, to our religious traditions and beliefs, to sustain us in this dark time.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The dangers of social media

Every new technology brings, along with its benefits, side-effects, dangers, or problems, some often not immediately recognized.

In a recent piece in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan singles out studies that show that eighth graders who use social media extensively can increase their risk of depression.   "Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide," he writes.

Smartphones in particular have increased isolation and anxiety in an entire generation while also impairing cognitive functioning.  The article doesn't mention the risk to ADHD youngsters, but I am told by an expert that over-reliance on such devices can be addictive.

A striking insight provided by Sullivan: even when people are avoiding the temptation to check their cell phones, the mere presence of these devices impacts their ability to listen and learn.

The problem of being distracted also concerns Richard Rohr, the Franciscan guru whose daily online meditations I read.  He is concerned about obstacles to being present to the moment and to others.  He says that every religion values the sanctity of the now since reality (God) is to be encountered only in the present.

Today, says Rohr, we have more obstacles to authentic presence than at any time in history.  We carry them in our pockets, "vibrating and notifying us about everything and nothing. . . .Most of our digital and personal conversation is about nothing.  Nothing that matters, nothing that lasts, nothing that's real."  It's possible to waste years in our lives doing such nothings.

I would conclude that we must, as with everything else we invent, use the new media in moderation.  Otherwise we risk missing out on what matters in our own lives.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Making Friends with Death

November in Florida is deceptive: trees show little or no color, and although some leaves fall, most trees (oaks) shed their dead leaves in January but the branches are quickly replenished with new buds, a sign that death and life are inseparable.

But wherever we are, November for many Christians is the month of All Souls, of remembering those who have died, especially in the past year. So my thoughts are reflective, but not morbid, as I try to sort out death as a rebirth.

Stars are constantly dying and being reborn, astronomers tell us, as are cells. In nature the cycle of life and death is played out on every level.  Plants and animals seem to accept this, along with the change of seasons.  As Shakespeare writes, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."  His character, Hamlet, has a hard time accepting this ultimate aspect of nature, as many of us do.

As Richard Rohr says, "Nature fights for life but does not resist dying. Only one species resists this natural process: humans."  Why is this?

The most obvious response is that animals don't know they will die; they live in the constant present, neither looking back nor thinking ahead.  They cannot imagine losing what we have: an ego--and a store of memories and experiences that will vanish when we leave this earth.

Death for us remains a mystery: we wonder what exactly happens and how and when it will occur. No matter how many deaths I witness vicariously in books and movies, no matter how many people I know pass away, my own extinction seems as unique as my self and is the ultimate source of fear in my life. I don't know what kernel of myself will live on--some essence of me will live on, I know--but the true self or soul or whatever we call our spiritual center is a mystery.

I want to believe, with the theologian John S. Dunne, that some super-consciousness will remain as I enter the long sleep; but I can only hope that this might be so. I must face the unknown, ending "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet again) for an eternal something in which, I trust, my identity will survive, even without my body.

How to know all this intellectually and be okay with it emotionally is a great challenge.  Every day we hear of death and easily assume it is happening to others; we forget that death is all around us, not merely waiting at the end of the road, but as a presence within us, an inherent part of life; it coexists in the nature we share with the universe, as we see in the trees of autumn, dying now to be reborn again.

Somehow I have to come to accept all this and be comfortable with it. I have to make death a friend and not my ultimate enemy.