Wednesday, April 29, 2015

As Large as Our Vision

Five years ago, give or take one in either direction, I read “The Book of Disquiet” by the Portuguese philosophical novelist Pessoa. I only remember one line and I probably understand it wrong. Still that being said, after all these years the phrase that still bounces around my mind is: “We are as large as our vision.” Or something like that. For the past week or so I have been dealing with a sty on my sinister eye. Besides the slight mar on the Mona Lisa-like beauty of my face, it has been among the smallest of tragedies at home or abroad. While it is only a minor annoyance, a slight pain, the sty has decreased my field of vision, forcing me to rely heavily on my right eye, which can see about as well as a near-sighted mole. For the past week my world has become fuzzy, thin, and small. In turn I have found myself cranky and short, irritable and small. To see small is to see with damaged vision, too tight to take it all in, too fuzzy for focus, and as our vision shrinks we diminish along with it. Depending on our gaze, the world is either a tiny place or else a cosmos endlessly complicated, interwoven, and huge. A small world is one of problems; a large world is full of potential. A small world is a world of weakness, a large world one of strength. Small worlds contain only pain, large worlds make space for relief, small worlds only know suffering, large worlds know meaning within and beyond the suffering. May we always see large and in turn may we grow to meet our vision. Grow to trust in the strength of others, to hope for wholeness beyond the brokenness, and to see our patients and their families as massive as they truly are. May we be large enough to bear another’s burden just long enough to help them see their ability to carry it themselves.
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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Beat of Life and Death

I used to think of my car as an island of good tunes in a sea of pop-y nonsense. The car used to be home to Dylan and the Dead, the Stones and the Talking Heads. Since my child got old enough to have an opinion, I would pay to hear Lloyd Price and sitting through a Smokey Robinson tune would be a miracle. Nowadays Hugh cries if he can’t listen to the ubiquitous songs, the Katy Perry and Taylor Swift anthems which are spread thin across every platform from radio to TV commercials. The top forty garbage that lays like a blanket over the media world, the songs we are subject to hear a hundred times a day. It’s a shame but no surprise Hugh likes this stuff. Humans are designed to be drawn to the familiar. The average heart beats between 60 and 120 beats per minute. This is the cadence of the quickening rhythm of life. I have been told that nearly every popular piece of music, every tune that resonates with large swaths of the population, matches this magic rhythm of 60 to 120 beats per minute. Something happens to us when we hear music with this beat, a familiarity as the outside matches the inside; the harmony of the heart and human experience, the beat and the body, overlap. Music that lands in that mystic 60 to 120 beats per minute, is the anthem of life, and that draws us to it. A dying person’s heartbeat can become erratic and chaotic, prone to sudden changes and shifts, the rhythm out of sync with that song of life. The heartbeat of the dying is dissonant, less the polished notes of a symphony and more the harsh wail of a car alarm. While the sweet spot of 60 to 120 beats is accessible to all, the heartbeat of the dying is in not nearly as familiar, not nearly as pleasing. The heartbeat of the dying is not a top 40 pop song, it’s Miles Davis not Britney Spears. We are drawn to the comfortable, fall easily into the simple and familiar, but we can find a strange beauty in the eerie, erratic rhythm at the end of a life. The song of death can carry a meaning and power all its own. Our task is to smooth out the shrill notes, to make sense of the noise. When we do our jobs right, when things go as we wish them to go, our patients and families can find meaning in the end of a life. We can help people move confidently along the rhythm of death. It is our blessing and our charge to help our patients and their families to find beauty in the final heartbeats, and music in our last moments.
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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cracks in the Plaster

Google Image Search (I think this picture is from Dr. Who)
Two year olds make interesting theologians. Sometime before we moved in to our home, probably in a springtime downpour, water had crept its way into the corner of my boy’s bedroom and left its mark on the ceiling. A small spider web of cracks in the plaster reaches out in every direction. Just a little imperfection in the paint, a crack in the plaster. Every so often he will look up at this small crack, point and say: “Jesus coming.” Meaning in two year old speak that Jesus is going to, or has already entered his room through this crack in the ceiling. It’s hard to know where he picked this theological tid bit up. It might have been that somewhere along the way, as so many kids do, Hugh got Santa confused with Christ and as many fewer kids do, the chimney confused with a crack in his ceiling. That could be, but like so many fathers, I’m sure my child is a prodigy and perhaps there is more to this observation than is immediately apparent. While our home is older, for the most part it’s in very good shape. There are a few spots of chipped paint, maybe a window or two that could use a good cleaning, or even replacing. The furnace is ancient, but still works. Yet for the most part the house is in good shape. So what draws my son’s eye to this one, small imperfection, and what makes him associate it with how he understands the divine? Why would his new mind place the transcendent in the broken? Perhaps because that is the place where goodness, where what binds all of us together and makes us better than ourselves alone, is made most apparent. We miss the beauty in the smooth, the blessing in the unbroken, the joy in the working. When things function as they should, when traffic flows, when our bodies are strong, our work productive, there is a holiness to that harmony, but one which remains in the background, hidden from site. It has slipped through our fingers. If we want to really see the holy, touch the sacred, we must go to the broken. We must sit in the hospital room, hold the hand of the dying, wipe the tears of the bereaved. It is there in the brokenness that the best of who we are and who we can be together becomes palpable. It is in our care for each other through the pain that the transcendent is made tangible. It is in the broken places, through the cracks in everything, that the light gets in.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Bullet in the Back of God

This one is political feel free to skip it if you want The murder of Walter L. Scott was a crime on us all. The system, the system by which we survive, by which society is allowed to grow and thrive, is a good system, and the most important part of it is the police. The police allow us to put aside the eye for eyes, to beat our swords into plowshares, to live by love, trusting that when things go wrong a dispassionate third party exists to sort things out. This has allowed violence to drop to its lowest point in the entire course of human history. We truly live in a beautiful time, and police, courts, elected officials, and every other part of our system allows for that. The system works by working for all, and if it doesn’t, becomes useless for all. The man who murdered Walter L. Scott took eight shots not just at the man but at the system, and in turn all of us. One shot rang out, it tore through Walter L. Scott’s back, and it ripped through our lies. Another shot rang out, the bullet puncturing Walter’s side, and it put a tear through our trust. A third shot rang out, it whizzed over Walter’s head putting at risk everyone in the neighborhood and everyone in the country. The murderer’s gun sang a fourth time. This bullet entered Walter’s arm, exited his hands. He would never hold his children again. We lost grip on our children’s future. A fifth shot missed again, digging itself in the wall of a nearby building as it dug itself into the foundations of our laws. The gun was fired again and Walter fell to the ground no place left to run. Hopefully we can no longer evade the truth. A seventh shot again in the back, tracing old lines from years of beatings and abuse, the racism that is part of all of our skin no matter how much we deny it. The eighth brutal shot flew from the murderer’s gun. It silenced his heart and made all of ours scream, and left a bullet hole in the back of God. Walter was murdered that day. Along with his death, our system and our society was wounded. Death’s grasp on the individual is strong, but we are stronger together. As a society we can heal the wound, we can become whole again, though the scars must remain to remind us. We can emerge stronger and better, but Walter is still dead and his family will still grieve, and that is a horror and a tragedy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Grace before the Garden

*Google image search
Imagine the Last Supper: friends are gathered, food and drink are served. If everything went right, and I suppose it did, that night the upper room rang with laughter and arguments, tears and sighs, the sounds any gathering of true friends and true family. As with any good gathering, there is that point, that golden moment, where you wish it would never end. I imagine it was at that moment, at that time, where all Jesus wanted to do was have one more glass of wine, one more laugh, one more embrace with his friends. It was at that moment he had to go to the garden. From that point on everything would be different, and I imagine he relished those final moments in that upper room with those he loved. Our lives are full of these final moments, most much more mundane than the Last Supper. The last drink at a party, the last day of a vacation, the last dance at a wedding. These final moments of joy are bittersweet; we savor the instant knowing that it is fleeting and hoping it or something like it will come again. There are final moments of gravity also: the last moment before a child gets on the school bus for the first time, the last class in an education, the last day of a long and meaningful career. These moments shake and form our lives, and among them is the last breath of a loved one’s life. Final moments come to us all. We may keep them at bay for as long as possible, but the night has to end, the career will see itself through, our lives cannot be lived for eternity. When we do our jobs right, when all things work together for the benefit of those in our care, we allow others to live these last moments. To suck the marrow from final moments, to see them in brilliant color, and hold those last instances forever. In that way, final moments can exist in beautiful stillness, forever.