I won't lie. This morning I had a big man cry over at the clinic.
It was partially the steroids, partly the fear of things to come.
But San and my oncology team came through for me again ...
Holding my hand, showing their love,
And that has made all the difference.
Thank all of you for your good wishes and strong prayers,
thank you for your support of our family.
There will be more scans, more blood work, and likely more chemo,
But for now, for today, we celebrate this important victory.
This morning I awoke at my usual time – 5:45 a.m. From the Lazyboy chair in our Great Room where I sleep I admired the colorful oranges and apricots and light baby blues of another splendid Arizona dawn assembling itself for our viewing pleasure throughout the now ever-brightening and impossibly wide morning skies. I took a deep breath and held it, then released it slowly.
I give thanks for the breath of life. My life.
So it is that I begin the day by engaging in one of my spiritual “assignments.” That assignment is simply to take at least a few minutes every day and every night to muse over what readers of this blog will recognize as “the Big It” – the meaning of life and my small place in it. It’s a question large enough to occupy a lifetime of inquiry and although I have yet to fully answer it, the headwork involved in exploring it is good headwork to do.
Why take on this assignment? Because somewhere between “the Big It” that brought me to this heavenly sphere and the “Great Whoosh” that will one day move my energy, my soul, my story, and whatever I have learned on this blue planet back into the whirled concerns of our expanding Cosmos, we are here for an evolutionary purpose, yes, but one that is more complicated than simple reproduction.
If that were all we were supposed to do we wouldn’t need the language tools, the ability to collaborate, and/or the intellectual curiosities that have made humans ask – from the beginning of time until now and surely after we are long part of the fossil record – who we are and what we are doing out here among the stars, and to story – whether in narratives of faith or in narratives of advanced theoretical physics – our answers to those eternal questions.
It might be hubris, I know. It might be myth. It might be a primitive form of accounting for complex things before we had enough science. It might be a fool’s errand dreamt up by priests to bend the knees of kings. It might be a big fairy tale with a surprise (!) apocalyptic ending designed to scare hell out of sinners and empower crusaders. Or not. I don’t know. Surely it has been all of those things. And surely that is not all there is to it.
What I do know is that when I consider my life without faith in a grander purpose to being here – however small my own role in it – that what’s left are only the vague outlines of an unfulfilled inner life, a soulless emptiness, and accompanying sense of absolute absurdity left to show for it. I’m afraid that just isn’t good enough.
Without that guiding assignment to shape the purpose of my inquiries, my “philosophical investigations,” and to launch the life narrative I live within and want to see play out in its entirety, these 59 years would have been something other than these 59 years, at least as I have known them.
I would have lived a life, yes, a different life, yes, and maybe even a full and happy life, yes, but it would have not have been a life or a quest premised on the idea that I have something important to find out, that you and I speaking and listening together can figure it out, and that the singular human tools of language and communication were given to me, and to us, for that reason.
But that is just me. And my answer is just my answer. I know it is neither perceived by some of my colleagues as consistent with my training as a critical scholar nor is it universally shared.
How do I know it is not universally shared? Because as a pesky roving ethnographer who is always on the job one question I take into the world is “what is the most profound thing you have learned?” I ask this question to anyone I think will answer it.
Over the years I’ve gotten some truly unusual responses (which, given the question is understandable). I’ve also gotten some amazingly thoughtful ones. Hugh Downs answered it with a smart paper on immortality. I could go on.
But I’ve also gotten one answer from a very good man, one of the most intellectually accomplished good men I have known, that left me perfectly speechless. That man is/was Donald Johanson, the anthropologist who discovered the old buried bones of “Lucy” back when she was the sole evidence of the earth’s oldest human. Without hesitation, Don looked at me with a wry smile over our properly made 3:1 ratio gin-to-dry-vermouth martinis, and said, simply: “we are utterly and finally alone.”
As I say, I was speechless. His answer was not at all what I expected.
In the existential space of that felt speechlessness I realized what he believed was not what I believed. We are not alone. I guess I had been moving toward a full acceptance of that conclusion for some time, but it took the starkness of the claim and Don’s lack of any uncertainty about the truth of it to cause a series of symbolic alignments to not so much be raised against his position (for who among us ultimately knows the whole truth and, after all, I had asked him for his answer) as instead to suddenly snap into place mine.
I thanked Don for his answer even though I disagreed with him. One lesson about creativity – and if you think about it my question is all about finding resources for creative thought – is the idea that good communication is not always about reaching agreement or consensus or the absence of conflict. It can be about learning to accept – even to celebrate – a diversity of opinions that both challenge and affirm your own perspective. Or that bring to it a way of thinking and being you’ve never considered.
We all have theories we test in the world and even the strangest of them are probably true somewhere, for someone. But more importantly these theories are the tools we use to pursue our own philosophical investigations, or what Kenneth Burke calls “equipment for living.” Once again, these tools of language and communication deliver not only insight, but resources for creativity.
My pal Eric Eisenberg, another accomplished sage like Don but in Eric’s case more of a Zen master, responded to my question some years ago this way: “to seek God’s handiwork in all things.” I recall Eric’s words when I examine natural artifacts with my own eyes and hands, or when I visit a sacred place made by other human beings for meditation or prayer.
Viewing our relationship to persons, places, and things as part of the mystery, as part of our quest to understand the pattern if not the patternmaker, I have acquired what at best is a layman’s appreciation for the architectonics of deep structures. Couple that appreciation with Gregory Bateson’s observation that all communication is “pattern recognition” and I am thoroughly humbled and awed and truly thankful for being alive in a world of such breathtaking interconnected beauty.
I am also picking up on the overnight clues left for me on my visual doorstep, clues left for all of us in the ineffable patterns of nature. Clues that teach us to accept that we are part of nature, part of the overall ineffable pattern, part of God’s handiwork, even part of Don Johanson’s existential take on it and Hugh Downs’ vision of an immortality we have already achieved but may not want. For nature knows no contradictions. Every answer is part of a greater whole.
So I gave thanks for “another day of livin,” and, after naming the names of those I know who can use a helping/healing hand, I make coffee. There was a little pain in my back and abdomen, but not too bad a pain, and swallowing the Gabapentin and a couple of short-term oxyCs made it all go away in fairly short order. I smiled.
It’s going to be a great day.