Think and Thank - Part I
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught; – Percy Bysshe Shelley
There are moments in life which represent in chillingly stark reality the existential crises of living. They arrive all of a sudden without any notice but leave behind long-lasting marks, the very thought of which conjures up unforgettable images. Recently, I passed through one such moment. It taught me, also, a necessary lesson of life: Think and Thank. And this is what I’m going to talk about in this essay after a gap of some six weeks which kept me out of circulation.
Once I stepped into my eighties, I was advised by good friends to substantially revise my definition of illnesses which need medical attention. I must learn to take into my daily stride, I was told, aches and pains arising from long-lingering companions like lumber stenosis, joint pains, number game of hypertension, sodium deficiency et al. As for as possible, I have lived on fairly amicable terms with such afflictions. I’ve also learned a new tool to diagnose most of the ills that the human frame, at my age, is prey to. The key to describe them is by the omnibus term ARD. You may wonder what this magic formula is. It stands for Age Related Degeneration. When does this inexorable process begin? To tell the truth, it begins after the completion of the first day of our life. Thereafter, it goes on and on inexorably till the last day when we receive the call from our Maker. The only trouble is that after you cross the Biblical three-score-and-ten limit, it gets accelerated.
Lately, a more disturbing development occurred. About a month ago, I got up one fine morning to discover that that I couldn’t see anything with one of my eyes. My loving son immediately rushed me to the local doctor who advised us to go to St. Michael’s Hospital, in downtown Toronto. After almost two days of very thorough investigations it was found that the rupture of a blood vessel in the eye had been responsible for accumulation of blood behind the retina. The medical name for the condition is macular degeneration – the price one pays for aging. As the accumulated blood clears, there is a good chance of some degree of vision being restored. However, that will take time. It could be months and still it may not be full and complete recovery. (President Mitterrand, you’ll recall, was wise. He didn’t quantify when he said give time some time!)
How do you cope with such a medical condition? Besides my family, a pillar of support has been a very close internet friend whom I won’t name lest it should embarrass him. When he enquired why I had, of late, been out of circulation on the Boloji network, I explained the trouble in some detail. In all profound wisdom that comes with years of positive thinking, he asked me to think of all that I still have instead of describing what I don’t have.
That let me to prepare a list of all that I have – all my tangible and intangible assets and the innumerable blessings of God. I made a sort of Profit and Loss statement of Life lived so far. It showed I have overwhelmingly far more assets than liabilities. Then I thought of the Psalm 139:17. “How precious are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand”.
I must also record the tremendous encouragement I received from my family. My wife who is far more practical a person than I am, didn’t let me get in the dumps. My son, most particularly, was like a granite pillar of strength to me. He spared no effort to arrange the very best medical advice. Extremely encouraging were the following two pieces my daughter culled from her library.
“There is a very old Sufi story”, the first one read, “about a man whose son captured a strong, beautiful, wild horse, and all the neighbors told the man how fortunate he was. The man patiently replied, ‘We will see.’ One day the horse threw the son who broke his leg, and all the neighbors told the man how cursed he was that the son had ever found the horse. Again the man answered, ‘We will see.’
Soon after the son broke his leg, soldiers came to the village and took away all the able-bodied young men, but the son was spared. When the man’s friend’s told him how lucky the broken leg was, the man would say: ‘We will see.’”
Also, allow me to share the following case study – described in the first person by the person who suffered from the condition – which will indeed be a source of inspiration for many.
“I got ductal carcinoma in sit, a type of breast cancer in 2001. Since it was detected very early, a simple mastectomy meant no chemotherapy or radiation. I was lucky. My greater challenge was that at during that time my mother was in the last stages of breast cancer. The poignancy of our parallel paths held for me many life lessons. Most important of which was the need to make peace with the fragility and vulnerability of our human condition.
Major gifts emerged from this period. Grace and gratitude; and the willingness to open up to vulnerability. Vulnerability is my willingness to live life openly even though that means opening up to pain as well. It is well worth the risk, for in opening up I also receive love and experience Grace. I understand that life is about learning to embrace imperfection and the unexpected, even while I strive for better balance, strength and success.
If I am comfortable with my vulnerability, it can become my gift to the world. If I share my story simply and honestly, without judging another, or myself I am creating a space that allows others to become more comfortable with their own fallibility to be more accepting of their challenges. Vulnerability does not ask for sympathy. In fact, humor can be its great plus point.
Allowing me to be vulnerable is also an act of love and compassion toward myself. I hold myself close and I say, ‘It’s OK. It is OK. Whatever is, is OK.
I am most vulnerable around love. I have found a way around that though. I realize that the more I love, the vaster I become, and less vulnerable I am to hurt. If it had not been for cancer and other life changing experiences, I would have wasted too many precious years thinking that being careful around love would protect me from hurt.
As I grow older, I see a new area of vulnerability emerging. It is health and an aging body. I feel vulnerable when I realize that there are so many things that I cannot do so easily now, that I tire quicker, recover slower, and chances are this is an ongoing graph. I am vulnerable to sickness and to death in a way that is much more palpable now. Chances are I will lose more friends than I will make. I will certainly lose old friends, unless of course they lose me first! Therefore, I am vulnerable to loneliness as well, unless of course I befriend aloneness!
So once again, I come back to learning to embrace all that is… injuries, wounds and loss, sickness, age and death… aloneness, crowds and emptiness. I am walking the path recognized two thousand five hundred years back by Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha. And cancer introduced me to this path. It also taught me to see immeasurable Grace and good fortune. It taught me to take everything as life’s gifts and with laughter and with tears, and with bread and good wine, share it with all who will sit at my table.
Thank you cancer. Thank you God. Thank you life.”
And when man stands face to face the real human condition – its, fragility, its vulnerability and its unpredictability – he learns to thank his Maker for his innumerable gifts that in his vainglorious moments he took for granted. Then dawns an attitude of self-surrender and a feeling of gratitude to the Maker for all He has given and also comes the urge to work for other less fortunately placed in life. These two together, help him fight back depressive thoughts of supposed loss.
Gratitude – may also call it thankfulness or gratefulness – is a feeling or attitude in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received. The experience of gratitude has, historically, been a vital attribute of all world religions, and has been considered extensively by almost all moral philosophers.
Gratitude is viewed as a prized human propensity in the Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish traditions.
In Judaism, gratitude is an essential part of the act of worship and a part of every aspect of a worshiper’s life. According to the Hebrew worldview, all things come from God and because of this, gratitude is extremely important to the followers of Judaism. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with the idea of gratitude.
Gratitude molds and shapes the entire Christian life. Martin Luther referred to gratitude as “The basic Christian attitude” and it is still referred to as “the heart of the gospel.” God is seen as the selfless giver of all good things and because of this, there is a great sense of indebtedness that enables Christians to share a common bond, shaping all aspects of a follower’s life. Gratitude in Christianity is an acknowledgment of God’s generosity that inspires Christians to shape their own thoughts and actions around such ideals. Instead of simply a sentimental feeling, Christian gratitude is regarded as a virtue that shapes our emotions and conduct.
The Islamic sacred text, the Q’uran, is filled with the idea of gratitude. Islam encourages its followers to be grateful and express thanks to God in all circumstances. A traditional Islamic saying states that, “The first who will be summoned to paradise are those who have praised God in every circumstance”.Sura 14 in the Q’uran says that those who are grateful will be given more by God. The prophet Muhammad also said, “Gratitude for the abundance you have received is the best insurance that the abundance will continue”.
The soul-elevating hymns of Sikh gurus repeatedly remind us how there are so many things to remember with profound thanks. First and foremost, the very gift of human life after millions and millions of incarnations. How fortunate we are to be granted this gift of life and health as a conscious being, dwelling in God in this sacred body temple, and then within a millisecond, in the grand scheme of this creation, this life has passed like a spark in the night. The more we learn to dwell in gratitude in each moment that we are here together, to serve each other in thankful remembrance of the One within everyone, the greater will be our impact and our legacy in this earthly realm.
Message of Vedanta
Above all, the best way to chip away the hard-wired ignorance that compels us to seek wholeness and happiness outside our self is to go back to Vedanta. As Arthur Schopenhauer famously stated: “in the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Vedanta. It has been the solace of my life – it will be the solace of my death.”
But finding the changeless amid the changing and placing our sense of fulfillment, security and joy upon that is the real key to making life work. One of the most sobering but important realizations we gain from Vedanta is simply this: the objective world/maya is not set up to fulfil you. It’s set up to frustrate and break you until you wake up to the true nature of your Self; until you realize that the subjective reality – that which is You – transcends the objective. When you know who you are and really assimilate that knowledge into the core of your being, you’re free of whatever drift is going on around – and indeed within – you. Phenomenal reality is governed by its own set of laws and an unfathomable chain of interrelated causes and effects over which we have no control whatever.
The main cause of human suffering is expecting reality to conform to our likes and dislikes and our notions of what it should be. However, life doesn’t at all care what we like or dislike. Its unfolding is completely impersonal. It does what it does, based upon the nature of the field. Vedanta is for mature minds, advising us to get with the system and bring ourselves and our lives and actions in harmony with the nature of the field (dharma) and our own nature (svadharma), or else be ground down by life and suffer accordingly.
Life isn’t about what ‘I’ want; it’s about aligning myself with what life wants. The field of life is bigger than the little human ego and has no qualms in grinding that little ego to bits. Suffering drives us to seek an end to suffering, to seek liberation from the pain. The solution is not to try to control maya and try to match it up to our likes and dislikes – which are always changing anyway. That’s a fool’s game and it never works for very long.
Image (c) gettyimages.com
Continued to “Living for Others”