Talking to a colleague today whose mother is dying after a serious stroke a couple of months back. Such a rich, meaningful and deep journey – to be with a parent as they complete their life’s journey and prepare to die. So many layers of meaning, emotion and learning to be processed as one witnesses death first hand, realises that your generation will be next, and begins to grieve the loss of a parent.
So rich, we agreed. And so much practical stuff to sort out!
Who will visit and at what time so that visits are spread – not too much and not too little? Who organises which care team, who sorts out which bit of banking, admin and shopping. How does the immediate family, kids and partner, get sorted out when (in my colleague’s case) she is flying to Ireland every fortnight to be with mum. At such a poignant and emotional time, it’s weird how much practical stuff there is to sort out.
The dance of being and doing:
And this, it seems to me, is a pattern of life. The pattern is brought very much to the fore at these heightened times of crisis, life, death and deep emotion. But it is there the whole time. That dance, the tension, between turning attention inwards to the mysterious and deep journey of the psyche through a human life, and then outwards to the everyday task, chores and necessities is very old. It is universal.
Mathew Fox, the American priest and theologian reminds us that we must attend to the inner life for the outer life to be of merit. For him the inward journey is the source, ultimately of all true power and impact in the outer world. But then he would say that wouldn’t he, he is a theologian after all.
Many other writers on vocation, life purpose and the search for meaning, suggest likewise – that unless and until we pay sustained and quality attention to our inner life, our outer accomplishments, however substantial and well regarded by others, will feel shallow and empty to us. Our outer accomplishments may tick many boxes, but at some point in our life we must ask ourselves, whose boxes are they ticking? Are these mine, do they accord with the deepest truths of my being and the yearnings of my soul?
I remember when my dad was dying, finding the contrast between what was going on behind his front door, and the world carrying on its business just outside, both shocking and humorous. As he lay in the living room on his deathbed, slowly entering the next phase of life, our experience was emotional, powerful, sacred. And then I had to pop out to buy pads or salves or drugs from the chemist. I had to negotiate complicated parking restrictions in Golders Green and late night opening hours and cash machines.
At times I remember looking out from his living room, the room in which he died, and seeing the world go by, and reflecting that each time I pass any house at any time I simply have no idea whatsoever what is going on inside the door. I became rather awed and humbled at the thought that the whole immensity and profundity of human life – birth, old age, death, love, hate, wonder and misery – was, of course, unfolding, behind any given door at any given time. I had a wonderful sense of the everyday profundity and richness of experience – heartache, joy, despair, communion.
Recalling the deeply personal amidst the public necessities of everyday life:
The street is a public space, so we tend, or perhaps we choose, not to see such things. The workplace, the business district, the train station are even more public. And as we pass the thousands of people squashed up on the tube, or rushing to get their seat on the 18.45 out of Paddington, again we tend, or perhaps choose, not to see such things.
After all, there is just so much shit to do. Everyday there are emails, and bills, and deadlines, and shopping, and kids bedtimes, and holidays to arrange and DIY and meals to cook, and movies to watch, and friends to see (do we really ‘see’ them?)
This tension, this dance of different modes of life, never goes away, nor is it meant to. We could even (at a stretch!) relate it to different sides of the brain – the left hemisphere, logical, rational, goal oriented, linear. And the right side – abiding in the realm of emotion, imagination, interconnection, dreams and images. Or different archetypal energies arising in life – the masculine and feminine, yin and yang, Apollo and Dynonisus. The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield eloquently summed up this dynamic in his book, “After the ecstasy the laundry”. Even after peak spiritual experience, a feeling of oneness and unity with the cosmos, there remains the sense of stuff that needs doing.
Being and doing as part of a sacred whole:
Wishing to resolve the dance or make it go away is in itself more stuff to do. The wish, as long as it manifests as some kind of goal, is itself a product of ‘stuff to do’ thinking – it is task, a challenge, a requirement.
To learn to rest in and wonder at the flow between the two – between the energy of doing stuff, and the sheer inexplicable, mysterious unfolding bizarre sacredness of the whole process. Perhaps this is one thing we need to cultivate. To see it all as a single totality – life itself, and to glimpse its inherent sacredness without trying to resolves a thing. Perhaps this.
And when a parent is in front of us dying perhaps this is all we can do.
When a being who brought our life into this world, is preparing to leave their own. When, despite the trips to the chemist, there really is nothing practical that really needs doing, perhaps that is both all we can do, and simultaneously everything that needs to be done.