A while ago I read some blogs by Oliver Burkeman, author and columnist for the British Guardian. Burkeman takes the unusual view, compared with much contemporary thinking anyway, that there can be happiness in not thinking positively all the time. That negative thinking has its own rewards.
In the aftermath of the disappearance of the Malaysia Airline flight MH370 Burkeman wrote an article on hope after he’d heard a reporter state that hope shouldn’t be given up of finding the plane and its passengers alive. Burkeman’s position is that living in hope can be a narrowing experience, and that giving up hope can be an ultimate in letting go.
Reading this brought me back to the mid-eighties, sitting in the paediatric oncology ward of the Prince of Wales Children’s Hospital (now Sydney Children’s Hospital) with my young daughter who had been diagnosed with childhood leukaemia.
After this diagnosis we – my partner, our daughter and our two little boys, one a little kindergartner of 4, the other new-born – walked the tightrope of hope and despair, on the one hand staying bright and happy so that we didn’t sink into a futureless pit of despair, on the other hand seeing, and understanding, unflinchingly, a dark future of loss.
I was never able to buy into the “a cure might be just around the corner” and “if only we keep thinking positively and pray enough she won’t die” and “to think about death is to give up” kind of thinking. We were lucky, with this kind of leukaemia there was a 75% survival rate for children, better than some childhood cancers, worse than others, so my daughter had a reasonable chance of cure. But the reality of any cancer ward, paediatric and adult, is that people die there every day, children die there every day, and but for the grace of God, it could be my child.
Would that mean that the parents of the children who died had not hoped enough? Had not prayed hard enough, invoked the name of God strongly enough, lit enough candles, thought the right thoughts, visualised enough light for their child or themselves? Resisted the illness, or fought it hard enough? Or the unthinkable, that they had allowed themselves to consider the possibility of death?
Imagine the guilt of that, you do everything possible to keep your beloved child alive – you meditate, you do touch for health hands on healing, you pray, you flood with light, you allow chemotherapy, people across the state and the country are praying, you never give up hope … and still your beloved child dies?
Or has a recurrence of the illness? As our daughter had.
The only way for me to live with this was to allow for both life and death. To carry the tension, the paradox of life and death. And, at Easter 1989, after her relapse and just before the bone marrow transplant that was to save her life, I truly understood the words – Death, where is thy victory, Death, where is thy sting? (from Corinthians and so beautifully sung in Handel’s Messiah). I can still see where I was and what I was doing when I reached that understanding.
It was through this that I understood the permanence of the soul and impermanence of the body. Of non-attachment, and letting go. Of letting be.
It was through this that I understood that perfect healing comes through death.
It was through this that I first learned about mindfulness, because if we constantly live in one realm, even that of hope, we are not present to Now.
To live in hope, at the exclusion of all else, to only set our minds to what we want and desire, cuts us off from so many other possibilities. Equally, to live only in despair and grief is to cut ourselves off from other possibilities. The kind of hope and positive thinking that almost becomes mandatory after a serious diagnosis or other tragedy, is a form of prayer that dictates what we want. It does not allow for change and growth and learning. It does not allow for us to plumb the depths of our humanity in grief and anger, joy and gratitude … and all the other human emotions.
To be truly present is to allow for life, and for death, for hope and despair, for joy and sadness, and whatever life might bring. To be truly present is to allow the paradox, the chaos and disorder of life alongside all its beauty and joy.