We flee from sadness.

We flee from sadness.  Attempts to discuss sadness are often deflected by people unable, apparently, to tolerate their own fears of loss and distress. In families with illness, our children and intimates are often shielded from the sadness that is a common partner of loss. Some of us do not wish to express sadness around our children, fearing that their trust and faith in a safe or good world will be harmed.

As parents we may believe that children who know of grief or danger will suffer unnecessarily. Sadness, from such a point of view, is a trauma to be avoided. How often is a child who expresses sadness met with the simple, quiet acceptance of a parental hug? More often we point out why a child need not feel so sad, or we propose a plan of action so that sadness won’t happen again. Often, with divorce, for example, the parents attempts to speak no ill or the other parent, regardless of their behavior, leave children confused as to why any divorce took place or either parent is upset or angry.

It can be easier to devise strategies to cope with guilt than it is simply to sit still with sadness. I see many people in grief who tell me that their mourning was often compounded by friends’ and families’ desires communicated in more or less subtle ways for them to “move on.”

In our culture, the work of mourning is attempted through a vocabulary of affects—anxiety, depression, angst, stress, and the like—that locates the source of anguish in our individual body or mind rather than in the community, environment, or transcendent order in which we also live.  What is there about the mourning process that seems so essential? How can it be used to facilitate the healing of we and our families who are touched by illness?

There are so many painters, musicians, writers, and other artists whose work flourished in spite of, and possibly owing to, their physical afflictions and other experiences of loss and grieving. Why would this not also be true of we who are less artistically gifted? Are not richer relationships,

accomplishments in the face of great odds, experiences of joy and humor, battles for social justice, taking a stand for one’s own dignity, and the simple satisfaction of making it through the day also creative possibilities that we may realize as a sort of pentimento of grief.

There are dangers implicit in our concept and worship of health. Illness is not only inevitable but, in some ways, necessary in our culture. Yes, the messiness and pain of illness erupt into the sunlit clarity of the taken-for-grantedness of daily life like a ragged man at a politician’s ball. But illness is one of the few remaining humble and personal forces to oppose the powerful social ideals of health, adaptation, and productivity Without illness as a grave reminder, our personal and social fantasies of mastery and wealth might recognize no limit. It is possible, however, that a  sense of the sacred and of fundamental good has a more significant impact on his or her life than parents and family.

Religious, spiritual, and archetypal meanings are among the few resources that anyone of us may seek use when serious illness enters our lives. Religious and spiritual concerns can inform any of us in matters ranging from the meaning and cause of illness, suffering, and death to specific religious practices.

But modernization and its accompanying attitudes have undercut the plausibility of religious belief for many. But it has not removed the sources of distress that elicit them. Human beings continue to be stricken by death, illness, poverty, war. Unfortunately, we lack the taken for granted stories, mythologies, and beliefs that made these facts of life easier to bear. We no longer live as if the wounded healers such as Gilgamesh, Jesus, or Moses are alive among or above us.


From a traditional religious perspective, illness and death are symptoms that reflect humanity’s continued fall from a pre-Eden golden age.  The presence of physical suffering is  an outward display and reminder of the distress and distance from perfection and wholeness that all humans share. The sight of a physically ill person ought to evoke the wish to harbor, comfort, and heal. Our communal failure to do so, whether as a result of inadequate insurance, support programs, fear, or any other reason demonstrates, from a spiritual orientation, that we are all ill. The religious attitude is important, because it calls us to witness and care for the suffering other as we wish to be healed ourselves.

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At the limit of our being…

The topic I chose to write about today emerged in a quite wonderful way. This morning I was looking through some quotations to add to the “Others Words” section of www.robertshuman.com. I chose a selection from Sarah Bakewell’s book, “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others”.

She discusses Karl Jasper’s concept of what is translated as border conditions, extreme situations, often of life and death, and including illness or the guilt of unbearable choices. Bakewell suggests that Jasper was drawn to the topic because of his own life. He was burdened since childhood with a potentially fatal heart condition that he expected might strike him down at any moment. Emphysema also required him to consciously breathe as he spoke, husbanding his energy from both conditions to live and to work.

Later in the evening I was reading the second book of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume autobiographical novel, “My Struggle”. And there was a passage discussing Karl Jasper and border conditions!

Although over twenty-five hundred pages in total, I’ll finish Knausgaard, reading others in between. Knausgaard is now one of those writers whose new books I’ll look for and whom I’ll read as much as they write. Others in that category are Haruki Murakami, Richard Powers, Neal Stephenson, William Volmann, especially his Seven Arrows novels exploring the encounter of Europeans with the Native People of North America beginning with Icelandic settlers a thousand years ago, John Crowley author of “Little, Big”, W.G. Sebald, who unfortunately died too young several years ago, and China Mieville among others. What do these authors have in common? Interesting ideas, distinctive voices, and not always well written dialogue.

In fact, I would not be surprised if two or three of them are hypergraphic.  And each is a world creator. Several in the science fiction/fantasy sense, but also in making something mysterious of our “real world.”

As the anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend writes in “Against Method”, “We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit.” That is what each of these authors does. When I read them I am brought into another consciousness because of not just what they write, but how.

Anyway back to border conditions, the alleged reason for writing this post. Here are the two quotes.

From Knausgaard: “I nodded, pulled the sheets from the sleeve, stubbed out my cigarette, and began to read. It was the opening of the essay I had been looking for when I went through his manuscript. It was based on Karl Jaspers’s concept of Grenzsituationen, border situations. The point where life is lived at maximum intensity, the antithesis of everyday life, in other words, close to death.”

And from Blackwell: “Jaspers focused on what he called Grenzsituationen — border situations, or limit situations. These are the moments when one finds oneself constrained or boxed in by what is happening, but at the same time pushed by these events towards the limits or outer edge of normal experience. For example, you might have to make a life-or-death choice, or something might remind you suddenly of your mortality, or some event may make you realise that you have to accept the burden of responsibility for what you do… Although they are hard to bear, these are puzzles in our existence, and thus open the door to philosophising. We cannot solve them by thinking in the abstract; they must be lived, and in the end we make our choices with our entire being. They are existential situations.”

In borderline situations, such as our encounters with serious illness and disability,  we begin  to experience the familiarity of the “real” world as increasingly “unreal.” We question our values and are forced to confront the meaningfulness of our lives. In such conditions, we discover whether we are who we wish ourselves to be.

    

 

 

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Practice makes…


Perfectionism ought to be one of the first “shoulds” we give up as we experience the jumbles and fumbles of chronic illness and disability. Can we do anything “right?” Are there plans that do not go awry? Once ill or disabled or aging, even the most simple of acts we did “perfectly” well from tying shoes to holding forks to walking might be a series of unforced errors and mishaps. 

                (Man Proposes, God Disposes is an 1864 oil-on-canvas painting by Edwin                  Landseer. The work was inspired by the search for Franklin’s lost expedition                        which disappeared in the Arctic after 1845)

And this does not even include the more complex tasks at work or at home, including sports and relationships, we do not even begin or become harshly self-critical when we are not able to perform them “perfectly.” It is quite arrogant or a delusion to imagine perfection is within the realm of the humanly possible.

After all, God created the heaven and earth, the animals, Adam and Eve in six days, pronounced it “good,” not perfect, but good and on the seventh day, rested. Immediately, problems. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood. Oy! If God himself needs to promise, with the sign of the rainbow, that he will not destroy all humans because of his frustration with the imperfect beings he created, how can we presume to get angry at ourselves for our imperfectly lived lives.

David Winnicott, the great British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, introduced many concepts we still value today. Good enough parenting, transitional object, holding environment are all terms he introduced into the culture of child rearing and find applicability in all of our lives whether with children or not.

The good enough parent is one who provides the child with “optimal frustration,” that is experiences with limits. When the child reacts with tears, anger, or collapse, the mature parent does not rage, walk away, or give in. She calmly holds the line. Better the child gets practice in a world that often does not deliver what he wants in the secure and ultimately forgiving arms of a parent than all of a sudden confront unprepared and unpracticed a far less benign world.

Illness gives us a chance to be good enough parents to ourselves, to face our many limits, some unexpected and others too familiar, with neither rage, collapse, or abandoning ambitions. We can meet our falls and failures with equanimity and grace. We are going to get a lot of practice at imperfection.

A saying commonly associated with the Jesuits taken from The Imitation of Christ by the German cleric Thomas à Kempis  is “Man proposes, God disposes.” Many of us add, “God willing,” when we propose a future action or outcome. “Not my will, but thine.” All these phrases suggest limits on our ability to influence events. It is so universal an acknowledgement in traditional teaching that we may give it the status of a law as firm as Newton’s. In fact, Gurdjieff gives it a name, “Second, or denying, force.”

We make a plan, to drink more water, for example. Immediately all kinds of events, ranging from external distractions to internal moods or preoccupations “conspire” to foil my efforts. We are probably much better of when we suggest to ourselves and when evaluating others in or out of our family who provide us with care and comfort, “Practice makes pleasure or better, not perfect.”

 

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And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other

Much of our suffering is unnecessary. Maybe we have met with a doctor and we are frustrated, perhaps even angry. He has sent too little time with us or she has given us inadequate information. Whatever it might be, we go off dissatisfied. We carry our complaint for the next several days, repeating the story to our friends and to ourselves, newly aggrieved each time. And our listeners reinforce our sense of rightful indignation.

Unfortunately, we forget that each time we get agitated we are reacting to an event that is no longer present. Our past memory is similar to our worries about an imaginary future. Both are examples of resentment,  adrenalized refeeling. Both are types of suffering, both unnecessary.

Take the story of two monks newly arrived at a river. A pregnant woman is waiting on the bank, in need of assistance to cross. Brother Ben reminds Brother Dan that they are not to touch even the cloak of a woman. Dan nods to Ben and proceeds to offer his strong arms to the young lady and carries her across. Ben cannot believe his eyes.

After putting the woman down on the opposite shore, the monks go on their way, Ben shaking his head and muttering to himself. Nearing the end of their journey, he finally turns to his old friend and asks, “How could you have broken your vows?” “My friend,” replies Dan. “I put her down miles ago while you still carry her.”

Brother Ben’s initial reaction is understandable, but his continued obsession with his fellow monk’s deed is a self inflicted wound. So it is with many of our emotional reactions. If we simply acknowledged our first responses to unexpected events-anger or anxiety, for example, and then put them down, that is what it is. We are human, and some degree of reactivity is to be expected.

But when we turn it over in our minds, getting angry again and again, especially when no constructive action is the result, then we are left with adrenaline ashes. “And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other,” Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount. Or, more colloquially,”Turn the other cheek.”

One meaning that suggests to me is to shift one’s consciousness from a reactive state to one of calm, presence, and choice–the being of Brother Dan, both at the moment he picked up the woman and when he responded to Brother Ben.

There are several things we can do at those moments to facilitate one response rather than another. Of course, the more we practice before events occur, the greater probability we can be mindful during these difficult moments. The foundation of all emotional management is to breathe diaphragmatically. A second practice is to remember the transience of all things. It is sad and true that our lives are brief and no matter what we do, for any and all of us, we will pass. With that perspective, how much is a particular situation worth being upset about?

  A third effort is to remind ourselves that we actually know little of the circumstances of the person with whom we are upset. We are likely blind to whatever pain she is in or what he was thinking that led to his behavior.

What do we know of ourselves? Imagine how much less we know of another. Again recalling Jesus’ words, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Remember how little control we have of our own state and, therefore, be wary of judging another.

Fourth, recite a prayer like the 23rd psalm or lyrics like Dylan’s “My Back Pages” or “Amazing Grace” or write your own reminder of the peace of unknowing. Finally, and importantly, imagine the fact and energy of our suffering, doing some good in some way for ourselves,  others, and the world.

 

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Who is family?

Many burdens fall our families as we live with chronic illness, aside from the obvious ones of increased demands upon resources of money, time, and physical energy. An unexpected stress is the issue raised by chronic illness of family membership and participation. Questions of who is in or out are more important than they seem at first glance.

When I have asked people whom they consider to be family, the common response is, “It depends.” In a conversation with Sheila, I gave a quick definition of family as “people whom I particularly care about and toward whom I feel greater obligation than others.” I added that I am more intimate with many friends than I am with some family members, but that I am likely to assume greater responsibility for the latter in times of crisis or need.

Sheila, on the other hand, stressed qualities interdependence and intimacy in characterizing family She was put off by my term “obligation” because it implies acting from a sense of duty rather than out of what she called a “wish.” Discussions about who is a member of the family are not of minor importance: they can influence in crucial ways both the nature of the illness experience of the person diagnosed and the possibility of illness among others as well.

Some of us consider certain people who are related by neither blood nor marriage to be family and expect from them a reciprocity of feelings and responsibilities. Godparents and unofficial uncles and aunts quite often have this status.  Thinking of a family as a fixed entity hides its diversity and flexibility and the ways in which family members function within and between networks. It plays down individual differences within a family— as well as the rich connections that many people have with a number of different families—and impose on it concepts that often do not resonate with the ways in which its members make sense of how they live.

I find the more concrete images and metaphors of braids, ladders, tapestries, and gardens helpful. in working with individuals, couples, and families. Questions about current and older friendships and acquaintances are often as helpful as ones about family of origin, particularly when families must identify potential sources of short- and long-term support. Relatives frequently give enormous help in times of acute crisis, but their visits may be intermittent if they live far away. Families may want and need to use friends who are more nearby.

To the Romans of classical times, familia referred to the “‘house and all belonging to it.’  Just as many families do today, Roman families also considered domesticated animals to be a part of the family. Relationships between children and their dogs, cats, or horses, and memories of those ties, can easily generate more emotion and meaning than the connections between siblings.  

“What is the right thing to do?” and, “What kind of person (father, mother, son, daughter) do I wish to be?” are moral questions. In the course of everyday life, our behavior implicitly poses such questions, with little reflection on our part. It is through the answers we receive, from others as well as ourselves, that our character, self, and family are formed.

Our families are the places where we first learn and express our character. My family is a social space where we learn and practice ways of caring, making sense of what is worthy of honor, and confronting shame. In our families we learn, or not, from each other a sense of fairness, reciprocity, generosity, and commitment.

In most people’s encounters with chronic illness, making moral judgments is not an abstract process.  The arguments that break out between family members, between friends, and even within ourselves, are usually ambiguous and more crucial to living through the illness experience than the thinner cases discussed in medical and ethical journals. In our families, decisions are made and actions taken that may not in the best economic interests of either individual family members or the family as a whole. Parents willingly make monetary sacrifices for the sake of their children. Many of us and our family members give up our own needs for individual achievement or remain in difficult relationships for the sake of more vulnerable others. We are not, from the point of view of economic theory, “rational actors.”

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Texture of time

For individuals and families living with chronic illness, the experience of the present is likely to acquire a texture much different from what prevailed before diagnosis. Illness disrupts the large and small tides and rhythms that we hold onto amid the flux of our lives. Our lifelong patterns of sleeping, waking, eating, and defecation are often disturbed. This is no minor matter. Moods and emotions, fatigue and morale are closely linked to the assurance of the regular satisfaction of our most basic needs.

Interrogation and torture, or periods of battle or natural disaster that interrupt, threaten, or deprive individuals of their accustomed schedules, often produce powerful and lasting effects. Indeed, as patients have long complained, the strict routines of waking, feeding, and temperature-taking in many hospitals can produce, even if not intentionally, a state of passivity, disorientation and dependency.  

The structure of time within which  our families live may be rendered uninhabitable by chronic illness. No longer does the expected follow the anticipated, as it did before illness arrived on the scene. And when the rhythms of our lives are altered, the very nature of our existence can become problematic. The “I” of “Who am I?” is no longer the same. The activities during which time passed quickly and through which aspects of our identities were affirmed—a favorite hobby, the play of sex, cooking for a party—now take “forever,” if they are enjoyed at all.

Not only may those of us with illness suffer from the stretching of time, but those with whom we share our  lives are often deprived as well. Our  family members of all ages may be called upon to rise to the occasion or to take on certain roles before they ordinarily would have been expected to—or after.

Most of us  take for granted a normal progression of the life cycle. We expect that increasing accomplishments and engagements in the world will gradually give way, over some seventy or eighty years, to lessening involvement with its desires and demands and a coming to terms with death. As a consequence of illness, the timelines for meeting the challenges or confronting the crises that characterize personal, family, and cultural stages and cycles of all kinds are frequently extended, compromised, neglected, or seen as completely unattainable.

We may not think about the patterns of time in which we live until we get sick. It may seem that we  have both more and less time. It takes me more time to get simple things done, and I feel like I probably have less time to do what I really care about, because this illness is progressive. And one hell of a nuisance. I wake up when everyone else is sleeping, and I’m just so exhausted when the rest of the family is ready to go. My body’s getting worse, and I have more time to think about it. There are fewer places where I can go, because it takes me longer to get there. I once had goals and plans. And I was proud of that fact. I wasn’t just a guy who did stuff on the spur of the moment. I did it because it made sense in terms of what I wanted to accomplish for my family and for myself. But without those goals, or at least the possibility of getting them, I’m not sure who I am or who I’m supposed to be.”

The time frame in which we  live  is wrenched out of shape. What is included on the canvas of the present changes. The future may lap at the margin of the next twenty-four hours, or even closer, whereas before illness brushed one’s life it could extend out some months or even years away.

The attempt to live “one day at a time” serves different motives and different functions as illness and circumstances change. For the same each of us and ur families, it can be either a defense against ongoing discomfort or a style of coping that momentarily relieves suffering. At other times, it may help deflect thoughts about anticipated losses or inspire people to focus on using the present moment as richly as possible. For one individual, “I take it one day at a time” is a proud announcement. For someone else, it is a weary sigh of resignation. And as I meditate each day. I may notice that both thoughts are present and called my own.

 

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Fear is imagination wrongly used.

We are probably better off at this point to imagine his road ahead, illness or not, as a journey. The term originally meant the distance one could travel in one day. We could also reminyz4Pc1FTiZNs8z1EhNZqocVJho7d ourselves of Lao-tse’s dictum, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” And we could take one further “step,” and imagine what lies  ahead less as “serious,” meaning heavy and grave and more as a series, from which the sanskrit word sutra comes, one bead after another upon a string. For that is, in fact, the only way we can live, one step, one breath, one beat after another.

Despite our fears of what may lie ahead, we have a choice of how to use the power of our imagination. For thousands of years, seekers in all traditions and faiths have understood that what we picture or hear in our minds’ eyes and ears has the ability to  generate bodily responses consistent with those images. It is true of sexual arousal as we picture our partner’s body, hearing ghost stories around a campfire, reading  news stories of  horrific crimes or natural disasters. Whether lust, terror, or empathy, we often respond  “as if” the  event were happening right now to us. If used to increase interest in and compassion for  the lives of others unknown to us, the capacity for moral imagination is wonderful.  

But when we recall again and again some wrong done to us, we harm ourselves with resentment from the French, “ressentiment,” or refeeling. The injury results from the fact that we are reacting to something not, or no longer taking place, as if it were in the present. That might be one definition of delusion. In some traditions, the attachment of myself or my identity to an object, whether of the imagination or the senses, is called a form of “identification.” I have reduced the whole of my being to a passing fragment of desire, my being with a temporary “I.” I have traded gold for lead.

One practice Orthodox monks used to strengthen themselves against being carried  away by unwanted thoughts was to visualize a crossroad which led east to one village, west to another. One had small nicely painted homes spaced along dry roads with well tended gardens and contented beasts grazing in lush pasture. The homes of the second village were ill kempt with leaky roofs and set in weed choked lots. Paths were muddy, animals irritable with the lack of good feed and care. The monks were to see, smell, travel to these villages as spiritual exercises.

When at a crossroads of his daily spiritual work, confronted by fear or desire or unsure of a course of action, a monk was to recall as vividly possible these village scenes, knowing what train of thought or action was likely to lead him to the village he knew to be the better. There is an immediacy and power in selected images to defend against those generated by fear. Like against like, “spiritual homeopathy,” if you will.    

Anxiety about the unknown future whether before or after diagnosis is, of course, to be expected, but we do well to limit it. All too often, for example, we are told what a diagnosis should or will  mean for us—in terms of treatment, disability, changes in lifestyle. But who is to say? A well known story recounts the tale of a  farmer blessed with healthy sons and beautiful daughters, fertile land and bountiful crops. Admired by his neighbors for his current and future prosperity, he responds humbly, “We shall see.”

A year later a gang of robbers raids the village, quickly plundering the farmer whose wealth is visible to their rapacious eyes. Consoled by the villagers for his terrible reversal of fortune, the now near impoverished man calmly replies, “We shall see.”

Five harvests pass and  the raiders return naturally heading first to the farm where they previously had looted so thoroughly. Now its reduced state is worth neaher their time nor trouble and mad with frustrated greed they proceed to mercilessly pillage the surrounding farms. When his neighbors arrive to exclaim how lucky he was to avoid their devastation, he says truthfully with heart open to his fellows’ pain, “We shall see.”

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Like the waters of a flood…

It is not possible to memorialize the sufferings of each of us or our families. Maybe something useful is to approach loss from a variety of angles, reminding us how far, wide, and deep the damage may spread. floods-IndiaLike the waters of a flood, illness can penetrate everywhere, leaving little untouched and rendering much unrecoverable. How is it possible, one may ask as the toll mounts, that any of our lives can in any way recover.

The experience of loss, after all, is at the core of being human. Gods take what they want from mortals and then leave them— abandoned, broken, sometimes ecstatic, always changed. Asked who his masters were, Freud answered: “The Greek tragedies.” We often forget that Oedipus’s story was one of abandonment and exile from beginning to end. A central myth of classical culture is that of the maiden Persephone, abducted into the underworld by Hades.

As grief fills Persephone’s abandoned mother, the goddess Demeter, the earth dries up, unable to bear a harvest. Humankind itself is threatened with disaster. Although Zeus prevails upon his brother Hades to release her daughter, Demeter is unable to feel joy. Persephone must return to the underworld for a full season each year.

The meetings of god and man are often followed by separation. In the Christian faith, God is broken in a most terrible way and followers are bereft. The Bible is filled with stories of war and loss, Israelites are enslaved, children slaughtered by the angel of the Lord. The anticipation and reality of loss is bred in our bones.

“We have to find ways to handle the experience of perpetually grieving, of never being out of grief,” commented one psychotherapist who works with HIV groups. Perhaps those who live with or alongside life-threatening illness are not so different from others, for all of us, whether conscious of it or not, are surrounded by sorrow. Are many of the signs of physical distress characterized as illness—somatization, anxiety, depression, and so on—expressions of that sorrow? Is illness itself a form of grieving?

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Am I responsible for my illness?

Yes. But first let me clarify what I mean by responsibility. It is simply the ability to respond with attention and care in an ongoing way to whatever the fates have delivered to me. Who else but I?

Did I “cause” my illness? It is possible, but very unlikely. Most illnesses are multifactorial in their causation. Genetics plays a large role in much disease. Is there any evidence that attitudes of optimism or pessimism cause conditions like cancer? Actually very little. Is there any evidence that particular attitudes more or less likely to result in cure? Actually very little.

Perhaps a better way of understanding this is to say that I am responsible for my illness in the same way that I am responsible for taking care of my children or my marriage or any other relationship I have.  I should be attentive. I should be respectful. I should be kind.

I ought to pay some attention and consideration to the words of others when they point out that I may be doing things that make my condition better or worse. At the same time I shall be wary of where my information or suggestions come from. I am responsible in deciding which foods I eat. Whether it is how and where I breathe, whether it is water, plant, or animal. And perhaps most importantly the food of impressions, what sort of sensory impressions and ideas I open myself to and reflect upon.

In most religious traditions and societies there is an age of responsibility ranging from early to late adolescence when one is seen as able and expected to perform religious or social duties. The etymology of responsibility or responsible is quite interesting. The word is rooted in old French back to Latin to turn toward and hear and hear again. So there is something to the idea that one is responsible if one has heard several times the command not simply by accident.

Most importantly, if we take the idea of a colony of beings constituting the person we seem to be, we need a “responsible” self  to act and “speak” with authority and maintain harmonious relationships among our many selves.

 

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The Portuguese man of war…

From Wikipedia: The Portuguese man of war  is not a single multicellular organism but a colonial organism made up of specialized minute individual organisms called zooids. These zooids are attached to one another and physiologically integrated to the extent that they cannot survive independently and function as if they were an individual organism.

And so are we. We are flowing rivers, rippling streams, transforming with each breath. We are legion. Our being, or beings as we shall see, is different as are the beings of all and everything in relation to us. And illness conjures up different beings and different worlds.

For example, the being of stairs and our being with stairs has particular qualities and meanings, most of them unconscious, when we are young and learning to navigate them safely. Stairs are physical challenges to be “conquered” literally one step at a time. They are also places of risk and potentially fall or injury which might bring parental scolding or comfort or both. Stairs may lead to the hospital.

They are sources of pride. They are places to sit and hide, perhaps to overhear adult conversation or spy on grown ups’ behavior, parties, misdeeds. The tops and bottoms of stairs have different feeling and even moods. For a child a stairway is a path to mystery, through which sounds descend or rise from and to top or bottom, or it is a journey to the warm and welcoming smell of a kitchen below or an apartment above where grandparents live.

For me, when I was eight or so, our stairway was a place of ambush where I could wait silently until my brother passed by and I leapt upon him. Outside, as well as inside, for some others they might be shelves for mail, flower pots, sneakers, and boots. Banisters are slides in some homes, stairs an indoor playground. This is just a fraction of what a staircase is for a child and its being has deep roots spread widely in memory, sense, feeling, physical and intellectual. And this is just a fraction of the stairway being of my youth.

As adults, our stairways are generally not particularly special. If I live in a home without one, however, a part of me may miss it, may hunger for it, without any conscious nostalgia on my part. Its absence may drive me to look for a house with two floors. I might feel irritation, get into irrational fights with my partner independent of home design, but evoked by something that awakes “stairway being,” with as much reality as any other “I” perceived to be myself. And I do not mean this metaphorically. The stairway being will look like me, except for highly differentiated, distinct yet meshed networks of reaction. He will be one of a number of beings, all with different memories, needs, desires.

Another powerful example for many of us are “food beings.” “I” love ice cream. I often describe it as a food of the gods. It can be eaten by people of all ages, with or without teeth, and invariability people are happier for it. It also contains many of the basic pleasure food groups–sugar, fat, chocolate and caffeine. It supplies quick energy. Continue reading

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