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Happily, my copy of Helen M. Luke’s classic, Old Age: Journey into Simplicity survived several thinnings of my bookcase. First purchased in 2012, I highlighted significant passages, filled margins with stars and exclamation points that evidence past AHHHs! However, such richness must have surfeited my taste because of the unread essays on Shakespeare’s Prospero and T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding—To return to a later time, I probably told myself, when calmed down.

That time only came now. Well on the cusp of old age, Luke’s material resonates with my diminishments. Her lifelong play with unseen realities, beneficent and dark, bear the imprint of her Zurich training as a Jungian analyst; she has been through the mill and knows of what she speaks in the concluding chapter on Suffering.

Only life’s untoward barbs constitute authentic suffering; it bruises the psyche, offers course corrections, and deepens wisdom, humility, and honesty. Acceptance is key to this grief process, with its changes. Pseudo-suffering, its opposite, provokes whining, holds out for quick fixes, and pines for robotic living shielded by denial’s comfort. Only authentic suffering builds character that does not diminish, that we carry into the next life.

Her conclusion speaks: When suffering breaks through the small personal context and exposes man to the pain and darkness of life itself, the way is opened to that ultimate state of passion…There completely emptied, as Christ was when He cried, ”My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me,” he may finally come to be filled with the wholeness of God Himself.

For this, I long.

 

As depicted in ancient texts around the world hardship, suffering, and death have always seared experience. Brought to our knees, we learn limits and obey, but today’s Covid-19 knows no historical precedent.

It foists upon our awareness the specter of mortality, tinges outlooks with grief, demands mindfulness as we move through each day, and garbles communication among the experts. Intense is the dislocation from the familiar. It feels like being whipped around in a centrifuge, its switch damaged, or like being abandoned within a Sci-Fi thriller that the author stopped composing. Isolated, leeched of energy, exhausted: such dis-ease psyches like barnacles burrow into hulls of boats. If unaddressed, loss of soul occurs. For some, prayer helps; others observe the recommended CDC precautions and follow the daily posting of numbers. Still others invent safe getaways and maintain significant contacts with Zoom. Belly laughter is key to sanity.

Certainly, this scourge bespeaks of an uncanny wisdom at work. Its outcome still eludes us.

A similar scourge, ILD with Rheumatoid Arthritis, is also shortening my life and demands full consciousness to keep self-pity at bay. Slow is the slippage, but decline is happening. Rather than relapse into denial or rationalization, however, I choose conscious contact with Higher Power through practicing CPA’s Twelve Steps. Central to this practice is the simple prayer: Thy will, not mine, be done—Six one-syllable words that easily slip off the tongue, but ones that empower new élan, new direction, and new joy. It still works, and with each day I’m that much closer to eternal life.

 

It was 1880, the hardest year in the life of Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist in The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), a novella written by Leo Tolstoy. Its depiction of illness morphing into the shock of death has become a classic. Its dynamics find resonance in today’s experience of dying/death, my own, as well.

An injury from a fall and the persistent foul taste in his mouth compel Ivan to seek medical help, but none of the three specialists concur on the cause of his symptoms. Instead, they prescribe ineffective tonics that exacerbate his obsessive thoughts and worsen his pain.

Months pass with Ivan’s body wasting atop his sofa, his face to its back. Slowly, the specter of his death surfaces, and with it, more obsessing for the life he once had: Chief Magistrate of the High Court, bridge player, husband and father, in name only. From isolation and loneliness spur even more painful questions, all unanswered.

Mercifully, two hours before his passing, Ivan hears a different voice from his psyche questioning his fear of death. In its place, there is light. “So that’s what it is! What joy!” exclaims Ivan Ilyich. “Death is finished. It is no more.” Thus he passes.

Within Ivan’s experience, I saw my obsessive thinking, until grounded within the discipline of CPA’s Twelve Steps. His search for a fix for his symptoms recalled my own doctoring and disappointments for years. His depression, self-pity, loneliness, fears, sleepless nights, also mirrored my own, prior to my signing on to hospice eight months ago.

Unlike Ian Ilyich, however, contentment supports the waiting for my true home from whence I came, over eighty-four years ago. Yet, I’ve still much to learn … if allotted the time.

 

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