Bright Beings

It’s cold; there can be no doubt of that. And wet, although today has been drier; we even had a bit of sunshine this morning. The forecast is for a nor’easter this weekend with s very cold rain instead of snow.

A couple of days ago I read a post on the blog,  A New Day: Living Life Almost Gracefully. The post, Lost, addressed the author’s experience of watching a friend, struggling with dementia, become lost while attending a church service. Woven into the narrative was the theme of finding oneself increasingly vigilant, watching for changes in friends and self, alert for evidence of illness.

This post set me to thinking about what Foucault might now have called our hyper-vigilant society. We have been conditioned to constantly scan our environment for threats, including terrorism and violence, even though violent crime has been decreasing for some time, and foreign instigated terrorism is actually quite rare here.  We are bombarded with demands to safeguard our children from low risk events, and encouragement to monitor ourselves for signs of illness. We are instructed to constantly be on the lookout for trouble, and these demands surely add to our stress and unhappiness.

I imagine paying closer attention to one’s health goes with aging. I remember my elders’ talk seemed increasingly concentrated on bodily and cognitive concerns as they settled into their seventies and eighties. As a youth this made little sense to me; indeed, I found it boring. Now that I am rapidly approaching the ages they were as they sat around the farmhouse table, and as my friends and colleagues also age, I find my own attention drawn to health concerns;  my polio harmed body needs my thoughtful attention and care.

Still, I wonder whether we, as a culture, have conflated illness with terrorism. There can be no doubt that serious illness like cancer and dementia are frightening, yet they have taken on an increasingly symbolic aura, becoming the polio of our present day. As Susan Sontag noted regarding tuberculosis, cancer and dementia now shape our collective imaginations, along with images of mass violence, reflecting our cultural anxiety about a world in which our personal and species’ survival has become increasingly questionable.

Dementia and cancer are serious concerns, threatening a wasting away of mind and/or body, and  in the case of dementia, a forgetting of all we hold precious. Each is seen to lurk, terrorist like, slowly doing harm until springing fully grown into our awareness, so well-developed that too often there is nothing to be done. These imaginal beings reflect historical truths: until recently both were essentially untreatable, while ignoring the gains that have been made in cancer treatment, and the growing promise of new treatments for dementia. They also reflect the likely outcome if we continue to ignore and deny the profound environmental and spiritual crisis facing our planet.

As I read Pat’s thoughtful consideration of aging and threat, I thought about the inevitability of illness and death, and how both have become highly moralized in U.S. culture,  joining poverty and misfortune as symbols of personal and group moral failure, an attribution that furthers our social myths concerning wealth and work, but flies in the face of much evidence regarding the working of natural and social systems.

Each time I am asked to aid someone I am reminded that no matter how challenging our lives have been, we are each bright spirits. We are inevitably burdened by trauma and illness, and impacted by violence, conditions that may hide our radiance even from ourselves. When I look deeply I am reminded that we, and all living beings, are on this splendidly beautiful Earth together, that we are pilgrims who have been given the opportunity to truly see that we are each radiant beings who deserve solace and comfort, and that the journey, and the opportunity, passes quickly. Surely we would do well to be alert and watchful for opportunities to be kind and of service, and to remember Pat’s words:

But the truth is that I am going to lose mental and physical capacities – I already have. And I don’t know what the future will bring forth. All I can do is have faith that I will adjust in a mostly graceful fashion, and will find meaning and pleasure in my remaining days. I sure hope so.



7 thoughts on “Bright Beings

  1. Thanks for stimulating more thinking on my part about the social fear that is being instilled in people, especially parents about their children. I have grieved that my granddaughters have missed out on so many wonderful experiences of investigating the world all by themselves because their parents feared something bad would happen to them. I am going to have think through the questions about the role of the brain in prompting us to respond to the threats of aging, the role of the brain in mitigating that fear with rational thought, and the role social media plays in shaping our thinking.

    1. Pat, such big thoughts! All kidding aside, don’t you wish there were many more people sharing our wonderings? As to the media, I suspect they are largely incapable of being useful as they make their money by being sensational rather than helpful. Oh, my! I seem in a mood! Anyway, I am still hoping, and working for change. It is good to know you are as well! It is good to have your companionship on this journey.

  2. I find it puzzling that we so often think of aging, illness, and death as undeserved and unnatural. Obviously, no one avoids all these things. Why is it so difficult to accept them? Think of how much anxiety we would spare ourselves. The more I open up to Buddhist philosophy on this, the more I see the frantic drive in the other direction and all the angst it generates. Illness is not terrorism. Disease is not evil. Bacteria and viruses are living beings, too, promoting their own lifespans. I guess I just don’t think human beings are the “elite” in nature and meant to have special treatment. I don’t believe in the view that humans are the gods’ favorite. It seems a lot more peaceful to let go of all that.

    1. Oh, we’re not all that unique! I, have to admit that I dread more illness and decline. I also grieve our lack of models for being part of a much larger process than ourselves. It seems we live in the worst of dreams right now. And yes, may we let all the hubris go and enjoy our lives and the lives of others, even those very difference from our own.

  3. thank you for this reflection, Michael!
    so many symptoms we are having
    distracting us from recognizing
    & experiencing the possible wonders
    available in this sweet, short life 🙂

    1. Priscilla, I wonder how many people hold life dear, knowing that the lives of others are woven tightly into those of our own. I wonder how indifference can become a way of life in the face of so much that inspires awe and wonder.

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