I find myself keep coming back to a question that my body posed to my mind during the conversations we shared after the operation for bowel cancer and before we decided whether or not to proceed with chemotherapy [see ‘Listening and Deciding’]. My body asked: “Why am I doing this to myself?” i.e. ‘why is a part of my body, the cancer, seeking to damage the body itself, and possibly bring about its death?’ It’s as if my body was at war with itself. Why?
One answer is that I don’t know, and I doubt anybody does. But I’m aware that my body is not alone in behaving thus: my mind often chooses a course of action that it knows is unwise, so does my heart and even my soul. I seem to possess this self-destructive capacity within me. And again, I wonder why?
Another answer is that our bodies seem created to decay, run down, cease to function. It is simply the reality of the matter that our bodies die. Death may be internally caused, as with cancer, or externally, as with an accident, but it will inevitably come. And this is true of all of creation: all things come to an end, everything has its ‘sell by’ date. Why?
I’m reminded of the hymn ‘Abide with me’ and its line; “Change and decay in all around I see,” written by a man dying of tuberculosis as he watched the glories of the setting sun.
We are each of us going to die one day, and we find the notion difficult to take, sufficiently so that we spend a good deal of our lives ignoring its reality. And again, I wonder why? Is there something within us that rebels against the finiteness of everything, and especially of oneself? It might simply be an unwillingness, or an inability to accept that ‘I’ will one day cease to exist. But I’ve come to suspect that its something other than that.
I have for a long time been fascinated by the idea of consciousness: the inner life that goes on inside our heads and which we think of as our ‘real’ selves as opposed to the external image we present to the world. There is a spectrum of consciousness in our inner world, ranging from rational, problem solving thinking at one end, through feelings & relationships, and our sensory awareness interpreting the external world, into our use, at the other end of the spectrum, of imagination and intuition that take us beyond the objective 3D world, and where we dream, have visions, listen to music, appreciate art, and literature, can enter altered states and encounter mystery.
All parts of the spectrum appear to be ‘wired into’ the human brain and can be accessed by most of us, and there seems no obvious reason why we should not accept them all as equally genuine and basically reliable: which in itself is pretty astonishing! They provide us with a fascinating set of tools which we can use to negotiate and make meaning of life, and the trick is surely to trust that we need the full range of options to maximise life and to learn to use all of those on offer rather than assuming that a favoured tool should be used for almost everything.
I’m reminded of some words of Zoe Heller: “Increasingly, I regard my atheism as a regrettable limitation. It seems to me that my lack of faith is not, as I once thought, a triumph of the rational mind, but rather, a failure of the imagination – an inability to tolerate mystery: a species in fact of neurosis.” Our imaginations, dreams, spiritual experience, take us beyond the rational and the physical and show us something more, which amongst other things, fuels a sense that death is not the end. We trust our rational consciousness to deal with life’s practical problems, are we not invited to trust the imaginative end of our consciousness spectrum to access wisdom beyond where our rational knowing can take us? Indeed is that not why its there?
Suppose that we assumed that death is a part of the plan rather than a sign of the failure or absence of a plan, where might that take us? What creative part might death play in such a plan? How about these for a starter? It makes life precious: our most precious gift; it focuses our attention upon the here and now with an element of urgency; it encourages creativity; and it makes us yearn for something eternal, something beyond ourselves.
Suppose that we took on board Deepak Chopra’s sense that every life is framed by two mysteries: birth and death. But we only consider one of them, birth, as a miracle. The reality, I suspect, is that death is equally a miracle. Maybe we should view death as a gateway into something beyond, just as birth was? Do you know the story of the twins in the womb?
In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”
The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”
Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”
Perhaps the primary part of the body’s task is to provide a context in which we can grow and then to let us go: to send us out into what comes next, just like a wise parent. Life is certainly constantly teaching us to learn to let go and to embrace the new, the different, the other., and we might reasonably wonder why? It seems to be the way we grow. And life is full of these little deaths, as if it was preparing us for………….for what? Maybe for death and for what will seem like a final letting go: although hopefully by then we will have learnt that it will be a letting go into something new, and that we can trust that it will be alright.
John’s Gospel has a vision of Jesus being a part of God from the beginning, before His incarnation as a human being, and then of being reunited with God after suffering, death and resurrection. I sense that this is the vision for each of the rest of us too: in this as in much else Jesus shows us the way. We come from God at our birth and return to God at our death.
I’ve been finding this line of thinking increasingly persuasive for some time, and am grateful that my body’s question has challenged me to try to articulate it in words. Even as I write though I am aware that I cant prove that what I say is true. Proof in a rational sense is simply not the primary language of this sort of reflection. I am trusting here in my intuition and my personal spiritual experience, on the basis of which I’m happy to say that I confidently trust that there is truth in what I am saying. It’s not the whole truth, it cant be, but its true enough to be trustworthy. Trusting in this I can move forward in faith, and whatever else I need to know will, I know from experience, surely be shown me in due course provided I stay open.