Monday, December 23, 2013

Meaning Maker or Lesson Learner?

One of the most interesting things that happens when you have been hit by a series of weird medical conditions is that you discover the entire human population tends to divide itself up into two distinct camps--meaning makers and lesson learners.

Meaning makers consistently ask me, "where did these illness come from?"  Sometimes they are digging for biological reasons.  Sometimes, they're searching for metaphysical reasons.  This is the camp I laugh with and say, "I must be burning a lot of Karma."

The lesson-learners are more interested in what I have gleaned from my time in hospitals and rubbing elbows with nurses in the wee hours of the morning.  "What new coping skills have you tried?  Where's the new poetry?"  These are the people I rouse myself to meet intellectually and occasionally creatively.

Now, I'll say right here that both sets of folk mean well. Truly and completely.  They are both trying, through the ancient dance of verbal relationship, to help ease pain.  And the truth of it is, the pain being eased is both mine and their own. Because there is nothing harder in all the world than to sit beside someone going through the proverbial "ringer" and really find that there is nothing, not one jot of discomfort, that they can take and hold on their own.

Even our religious traditions tend to fall into these two camps.  From the Hadith of Islam, we can read one version of meaning making:

"The Messenger of God (Peace be Upon Him) said, No Muslim is afflicted by difficult, continuous pain, anxiety, grief, injury, or depression or even by a thorn with which he is pierced without God making it an atonement for his sin. (37)"  (The Book of Hadith: Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad from the Mishkat al-Masabih) ed. Charles Le Gai Eaton. Watsonville, CA:  The Book Foundation, 2008)

And from the Anguttara Nikaya of Buddhism, this example of lesson learning:

"Just as a capable physician might instantly cure a patient who is in pain and seriously ill; so also, dear sir, whatever one hears of the Buddha's Dharma, be it discourses, mixed prose, explanations or marvelous statements - one's sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair will vanish....all one's plights, fatigue and feverish burning of the heart are allayed." (The Teachings of the Buddha ed. Jack Kornfield.  Boston: Shambhala, 2007.)

I'm going to do a longer sermon for the Poulsbo-based North Kitsap Unitarian Universalist church on this topic, so won't belabor the point here (I'll post the sermon later). If you search any religion from Christianity to the rituals of Wicca, you will usually find strong examples of these two basic ways of approaching the discomfort-side of being an embodied human.  We will always say, in one way or another "there is a reason for this illness" and, provided you don't die from it, ask "what did you learn from it?"

However, there is a state that lies somewhere between these two ideas that is particularly rich when you are the one who is sick.  Or, I should say, it has been rich for me.  It's nothing particularly earth-shaking or complex.

I simply stay present, as much as possible.  Yup.  That's it in a nut-shell.

Watch the clock drag out the hours, but with interest.  Accept the tears of yet another IV line but with interest. Meet each nurse, CNA, doctor, housecleaner, IV pole scanner, shampoo that doubles as body wash, too-small white and blue towels with interest.  Chant in empty waiting rooms, with presence.  Walk after the surgery with perfect heal-toe awareness.  And when it's three AM and your roommate is texting everyone with a phone that beeps with each letter pushed, when the blood-draw woman who lost her home in the cyclone can't quite find the vein, go ahead and grind your teeth and cry and do it with incredible attention.  It makes nothing better. It softens nothing.  It teaches nothing and means exactly nothing.

But it is a way to say,  I am here.  Embodied, hurting, amazed, intrigued, annoyed, scared, bored but here.

Because later, when asked "what did it mean? and what did I learn?" Maybe I will have grown into the answers and can meet another in the dance of verbal relationship that is also a way of healing.


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