Friday, April 23, 2010

marking time

In illness there are no “negative emotions,” only experiences that have to be lived through. . . . The ill person’s suffering should be affirmed, whether or not it can be treated.

-- Arthur W. Frank, At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness

It’s hard to watch a person suffer. Are you just going to sit there and watch? says the voice. What earthly use are you?

Well, perhaps I am no earthly use. Which does not mean that I am no use at all. But my use might be unearthly, my portfolio uncanny.

My ministry is, by definition, to those who have given up cure. If there were a cure for this cancer, that congestion of the heart, this massive insult to the brain, that insurrection of the nervous system, then the client would be somewhere else. The person in the bed is going to die with this disease. Can I help them live with it? (That is what palliative care means.)

“You’re not going to die of this,” a doctor once told me, “You’re going to die of something else.” This was his version of good news. This body, any body, my body, your body, is chock full of mortality. We’ve all got things going on in us that sooner or later could kill us but won’t, because another assassin will get there first. “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that,” says one of Beckett’s clowns, we’re all dying of mortality. But can we live with it? (This is what the care of souls means).

“It’s taking forever,” he says.

By “it” he means his death. He wishes it would hurry up.

“What’s it waiting for? I’m tired.”

It’s a long train of humiliations.

“I want it to be done with.”

We’ve been through this before. He won’t take his life. He once thought he would, and told me that he had acquired the means – but that turned out to be a hoax, a pep-talk to himself.

No one should have to die in pain – that’s one of our mottos, but the remedies aren’t perfect. Each has side-effects that, in the very particular circumstances of one person’s mortal expedition, may be unacceptable. Too often our people must choose between pain and confusion. Some people would rather suffer their pain than let their brains go muddy.

His body has turned malicious. It’s one dirty trick after another. We treated him for tremors, but the medication made him nauseous all the time; withdrawal took weeks, during which he suffered both tremors and nausea.

One of his unacceptable dilemmas has gone out of whack. By night he is incontinent, by day he can’t pee; for two days now he has been in retention. That’s why he’s in the hospital unit today rather than at home.

He has a gift for intimacy. I said to him once that when he dies, God will be very glad to meet him – because he has a tender heart. His close friends visit, and the people who are paid to care for him begin to love him. When he isn’t wishing to die he gets dragged back into life, kicking and screaming, overcome by his talent for attachments.

So he’s not depressed. There is joy in his life, and a wicked sense of humor. But this is not what he presents to me recently. For me he reserves the desolation. I should feel flattered. When I come through the door, the show is over.

“This isn’t a game any more,” he says.

Or maybe it is. A waiting game. And I wait with him. It’s tedious. Tick tock.

“So there’s no joy left in your life.”

I wait.

“You don’t feel like yourself any more."

I wait.

“Robert,” I say, “is there something I should be doing?”

Tick tock.

“No. This is okay. This helps.”

What is this?

Tick tock.

I’m marking time. I’m celebrating his illness. He’s making a song of it, and an audience is required. I’m the audience.

I want to get on stage, of course. I want to play a transformative obligato of my own. I want to change things.

But I’m not invited. It’s his show. He calls the cues.

If I weren’t there, this time would be unmarked. Life is what can’t be rehearsed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

expensive commodity

Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; you have fed him for a lifetime.

-- Anonymous

It’s a popular aphorism. It’s not in the Bible, though some would like to find it there. The people who want to find it in the Bible are the goats of Matthew 25, the ones who want an anti-prooftext for inconvenient obligations to “the least of these members of my family.”

Just because it’s not in the Bible, of course, doesn’t prove it isn’t at least partly true. To save a person from starvation, you must help him both in the short term and in the long term. It’s important to know the difference. If you bring the starving man a fish today, you haven’t accomplished much if you have to bring another fish tomorrow. But there’s little point in teaching a man to fish if – well, there are a whole lot of presuppositions to this educational program, without which it’s nonsense.

Teaching a man to fish – let’s flesh that out. Placing in everyone’s hands the infrastructure of opportunity, that’s what teaching a man to fish means. In America we don’t guarantee happiness; but we guarantee the pursuit of happiness. Though we don’t guarantee success, we guarantee hope. It sounds so simple, and inspiring. But hope is an expensive commodity: look at what is presupposed.

You must save the man from starvation: that’s what the fish is about. Then, having preserved his life, you must save him from helplessness: that’s what the education is about. S = FE. Salvation is the product of food and education. If either term is zero, there is zero salvation.

Until he knows how to fish, the man must be fed. There’s no point in teaching him to fish if he starves to death before he graduates.

There have to be teachers. People who know how to fish, but also how to explain fishing to others, must be compensated for leaving their poles and bait, and dedicating themselves to pedagogy.

There has to be a reliable supply of fish. The river hasn’t been diverted to irrigate desert golf courses. The pond wasn’t drained to fill back-yard swimming pools. The Megalithic Fish-Stick Company hasn’t over-harvested the species to extinction, and Foulblot Industries hasn’t poisoned the stock with unnatural sludge. These interests will no doubt protest against our restrictions.

The tools of fishery must be available. If bamboo and worms don’t naturally occur in profusion, they must be available at a reasonable price. (When we say “Reasonable,” we mean that the fisherman can buy what he needs without putting his future in hock, and All-Glutinous Bank will not repossess his gear in the first lean season.)

It’s assumed that thieves of the blue or the white collar won’t be stealing the catch or the tools. We have therefore taxed ourselves to support a police force for prevention of theft, a court for bringing malefactors to justice, and a jail for the serving out of sentences.

It’s assumed that if the man catches more fish than he needs for the day, he can preserve the product or sell it for profit. There is therefore salt or refrigeration to preserve a surplus, and there is a well-policed market where the day’s prices are fairly determined. The Blutocrats won’t be permitted to put him out of business by flooding the market.

This teaching of a man to fish is a damned expensive proposition. It requires a community of institutions and mutual loyalties. It requires an ethic of the Common Good – the Invisible Hand’s more idiomatic name. We have to invest resources in our aspiring fisherman for a considerable period of time; it’s not obvious when we will reach the break-even point on our investment, though sooner or later, on average, it happens.

It ain’t no free lunch, this teaching of a man to fish. And it ain’t natural. If anyone in nature manages to catch a fish, with his hands or his teeth or his toenails, everybody else tears fish and fisherman to pieces if they can, trying to get a piece of his action. The most brutal then takes all. If people don’t act this way, it’s because they’ve become unnatural. They’ve learned that they don’t like being alone with their food.

Human beings have for the most part from the very beginning behaved unnaturally. This is a good thing, because it allows more of us to eat and survive, setting aside surpluses and arranging recreation, making art and doing philosophy. It turns out that we don’t just grab what we want, not most of the time. We invent fictions called property and law, justice and generosity, and our unnatural behavior makes life something more than a food fight.

So let’s teach the least of these members of Yeshua’s family to fish – after we have fed them. But teaching them to fish is harder and more expensive that simply feeding them.

From now on, certain people are forbidden to speak of teaching and fishing. The free lunch crowd, the grab everything that ain’t bolted down and run for the hills gang, the give me everything I want right now and never send the bill cabal, the balance the budget by cutting taxes club, the goats of Matthew 25 – they don’t know what it means to teach a man to fish.

Hey you. Just shut up.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

merrie band

He makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do.

-- Plato, Symposium*

Socrates was a flute-player of no mean skill. He could seduce with music, but he is more famous for seduction with his words.

I once traveled across the continent to spend two weeks with a teacher of performance. He let me join his studio, where he taught how infinite space could be bound in a nutshell. I learned to be as large or as small as I chose. I learned that if I needed a costume or a set I didn’t deserve them. No need for lights camera action: it was I who would turn on the lights. Or not. If I needed a script, I did not deserve one. I could never be lost, because the air, this sound, that light, the landscape in that window or this object close to hand right now, were more story than could be exhausted before night fell.

He stopped once, as palpable ideas swung round his head like pendants of a mobile, interrupted in their orbits. I’m sorry, he said. I’ve spoiled you now. You’ll never see the theatre again as you used to. You can’t go back. No, I’m not sorry, he said. You’re spoiled.

And I was.

Yeshua, they say, walked the streets, the hills and seasides, and drew people to himself. The rules of folklore require us to number his merrie band at twelve; but scripture makes it clear that they were more than twelve. He spoiled them. They could never go back to the farm, to the fishing-boat, to the tax office, once they had roused the sleeping power within them. Why fish for fish, when you can fish for souls?

Once, when they had lost everything and betrayed the cause, they tried to go home. On the road to an otherwise unheralded place, they talked with a stranger about what they were leaving behind. Honoring the commandment of hospitality to sojourners (“for we were sojourners in the land of Egypt”), they broke bread with him, and saw who he was. Then they understood that they could not leave him, for even the mode of their despair had been changed.

The first democracy put Socrates to death. He was too much for them. How can we levy taxes, they said, and hold festivals, and conduct wars, when the people are taught to hate their lives, and the wise are shown to be foolish, and the worse is made to appear the better cause? This is not the orderly process of citizenship. We already know, they said, how to live, and who is wise, and what is better. Better be happy about it. The realm needs happy people, and those who long to live differently are its enemies.

So Socrates was a corrupter of youth. He spoiled them. He made them long for something better. He made pictures in the mind – or did he play the tunes? – of justice and virtue, truth and beauty, beside which every law and proposition, poem and painting looked tawdry. These youth could never look at their elders again in the same way. And the elders weren’t used to being looked at this way, the new way learned by youth. They wouldn’t kill the children, so they killed the piper who had taken their minds.

Yeshua too corrupted the youth. He took them from their useful labors, and set them to wandering the streets and the hillsides, confessing that they ought not to have lived as before. They rehearsed a better kingdom, where lions and lambs lay down together. Where there was darkness, they turned on a great light, and in that light the shabbiness of the mighty was revealed. The newly naked wise and mighty struck back of course.

Today the name of Pontius Pilate is shorthand for the false innocence of bureaucrats. Meletus, Anytus and Lycon are known only as weaklings who could not abide honesty. The words they tried to suppress have “gone viral;” spreading from soul to soul with the speed of light.

John Lennon is supposed to have said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. That, as far as I can tell, would be true of eternal life as well. It’s never what we expect, as we fix our eyes on noble purposes or their failure. It’s something that slips in at the periphery, the corner of the eye, like that stranger traveling the road with us, to whom we confide our troubles.

The Divine Domain is the last thing we expect. It’s what we didn’t plan for, and we’re slow to recognize it. Socrates taught that writing is false, and his pupil immortalized him in books. Yeshua, who spoke scripture from his heart to the illiterate and desperate, was crowned hero of a new scripture. But when we see it, we are spoiled for mere mortality. We can’t go back, because Emmaus isn’t what it used to be. It has changed. We are changed. He is risen.

*trans. Benjamin Jowett