Saturday, September 30, 2006

Late-Night Thoughts

Many are the wonders of having a physical body. The scent of flowers, the feeling of grass on the soles of one's feet, the taste of a favorite food, a glass of wine, the gaze of one's lover, the feast of looking at art, the crunch of a cucumber. Physical existence offers such breadth of experience, such sensual delight, such a plethora of feelings and sensations building one upon another in a crescendo of stimulation and experience.

And there are the disadvantages, the ways in which the physical becomes burdensome, even painful. A cyst grows on a nerve root in my lower spine, causing incessant contraction of muscles that are like ropes under the physical therapist's fingers. A malfunction in the junction of my esophagus and stomach allows gastric secretions to bubble up and cause me discomfort. My step-dad's pancreas harbors an uncontrollably growing mass. My dog's kidneys failed, and twenty-eight days ago we eased his spirit from his tired old body and placed that beloved furry body in a hole in the earth. The ache which I feel from his absence is like a physical pain, although I know that it is not.

Life offers such contrast, such dichotomy of feeling and experience. Most of us would agree that it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved, yet in that moment of loss it seems the pain will last forever. In the joyousness of health we leap through life and take our bodies' wholeness for granted. And when illness strikes, we long for the carefree days before we felt betrayed by that collection of cells we call our own. But is it truly a betrayal, or simply just another way of being in that body, of embodying our own existence?

Of course, we in the health and medical fields see optimal health---physical, mental, spiritual---as the goal of our work, and the desire of all. But there are those who seem to suffer---often from birth---from afflictions and illnesses over which they have no control. And even those individuals find meaning and purpose in life, often in spite of, or perhaps because of, their suffering.

At birth, our parents hope to see ten toes and fingers, an even number of limbs, hear a healthy cry, and observe us engaging the world with that first magical breath that transforms us from an aquatic cosmonaut to a terrestrial creature with feet on the ground and head in the sky. This long process called life offers such opportunity, such room for growth and transformation, and as parents we hold a vision of life without pain and suffering for our offspring.

But this business of having a body brings with it great risks as well. Illness, suffering, pain, loss, malfunction, death---they are all here with us on our journeys around the sun.

Working as I do with the chronically ill, I see some of the worst things that can happen to a body, the afflictions and struggles which can beset a human on his or her trajectory through this earthly existence. I can only conclude that there is great beauty in life---even in death---and that suffering, in its myriad forms, offers its own stark beauty, its own language of learning and growth. Still, I mourn for those who suffer needlessly, who experience torture, rape, brutality, and other unspeakable indignities, and I hope that even those who suffer so, when released from that suffering, know a peace beyond that which is imaginable for us remaining here on this three-dimensional side of the veil. My hope would be that it is so.

I will take the years offered to me and try to use them well. Pain and suffering be damned, there is nothing else to do but take this life in my own two hands and shape it with the force of my will. On this third ball of dust from the star we call The Sun, our lives unfold as so many stories of bodies and minds and hearts in motion. In pleasure or pain, life is what it is, and we simply take each day and live it as our truth, since no truth can be clearer than the one confonting us in the mirror each morning. And when you look in that mirror tomorrow, what, pray tell, will you say?
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