To struggle is ‘To progress with difficulty.’ None of us knows if we’ll face greater struggle in the future than we’ve faced already, but Whitman’s poetic expression hits the nail on the head: as long as we live we face the possibility of struggle—to progress with difficulty.
We even set challenges for ourselves—like climbing mountains.
There’s a riveting story about one such climber of the most challenging mountains, Aaron Ralston, 27, who was hiking alone in a canyon in Utah when a big boulder fell into the crevice he was moving through and pinned his right arm. He was trapped. After five days in that untenable position, after consuming his supply of water and food, he used a pocketknife to amputate his own right arm and free himself.
The food and water had been consumed, but not his zest for living.
After severing his arm below the elbow, he applied a tourniquet, then, with his left hand, he proceeded to rappel to the bottom of Blue John Canyon. Then he hiked alone until he found other hikers who helped him, and a helicopter came to the rescue.
There’s an intimate relationship between the idea of a survivor and our notion of hero. Survivors become folk heroes.
The story of Aaron Ralston has a myth-like dimension, like the Titan, Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and was punished by Zeus by being chained to a rock on a mountain, and he had his liver eaten by an Eagle. At night his liver grew back–he survived to live another day, and go through the ordeal once again.
Sometimes life feels like an ordeal to be endured. Job is the prime example.
Aaron Ralston’s story has a mythical dimension—the word Promethean fits; he was defiant in the face of overwhelming odds.
Survival stories capture our imagination because we’re all in the process of surviving, day to day. Most of us won’t be faced with the magnitude of Ralston’s challenging episode; but we’re all capable of imagining ourselves in some kind of situation that requires more from us than we’ve ever yet had to give.
Survivor shows on television–so called ‘reality shows,’–are among the most popular offerings. I haven’t watched any of them, but I’m interested in their popularity. They seem contrived, and sometimes even offensive. I’ve seen the ads, showing a group of people living on an island in competitive situations, eating grubs and bugs, eliminating one member, week by week, using what looks like a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog process of elimination.
Another kind of survivor show is about women who want to marry a rich young bachelor; one by one they are eliminated until the lucky woman wins the man. (Be careful what you ask for!) Then there are the shows about handsome young bachelors who want to marry the beautiful rich young woman, with only one survivor to tie the knot. I guess it’s the human version of the alpha wolf who rules over the pack.
The American Idol is a popular show for teenagers where the young people struggle to be the last contestant standing, after the television audience votes for their favorite, week after week, to determine the ultimate survivor, the new American Idol.
I’ll mention only one more–the show about a densely populated jungle-like island—the island of Manhattan, ruled over by a rich king with a big red lion-like mane; young wanna-be apprentices tremble at his feet as he growls and carries on, terrorizing job applicants, like some stone-age monster. Then he says the thing the islanders fear more than anything else: You’re fired! The king, being ruler of the jungle, destroys all hope. I’ve never actually watched the show, so maybe I shouldn’t judge. I only know it’s about jungle-like survival.
It reminds me of a favorite New Yorker cartoon I saw man years ago and wish I had saved. The cartoon shows a picture of a mother saying good-bye to her adolescent son; they’re standing together in the jungle, he’s dressed in a Tarzan-like outfit. The caption says, “Be careful, son, it’s like a city out there.”
There’s something that attracts us to survivor stories because we so easily identify with people who are struggling to survive–to move through the ordeal of living, and to savor the joy of loving.
The theme of survival runs through the mythology in the Bible. After the Genesis creation myth everything that follows is about survival. The story says, ‘on the seventh day he rested.’ Then came the eighth day—the one we’re living.
On the eighth day, Adam and Eve are evicted from paradise. They are condemned to death, preceded by an existence that amounts to mere survival under punishing conditions of poverty and depravation.
Then there’s the story of their children, Cain and Abel. Cain, the person in the Biblical myth who was born in a natural way, kills the second person, his brother Abel. The story of Cain and Abel is the first survivor story. Abel was eliminated, violently. As a punishment, God condemns Cain to live, putting a mark on him as a sign to everyone else that he should not be put to death. He has to live! He has to spend his life wandering the earth, an outcast, shunned.
Then there’s the Noah story: Noah and his family survived while all the rest of the people of the earth perished in the flood. Daniel survives the lion den. Jesus, the story says, survived the crucifixion—the stone was rolled away and he ascended to heaven. The underlying theme of Biblical mythology is survival!
There is a heroic quality to every person’s life, including yours and mine. Mythology speaks to us because it tells stories with which we can identify, stories in which we find ourselves and feel ourselves. There’s something liberating about those feelings—that’s why mythological stories were written and passed down from generation to generation.
But there’s an important difference between the hero and the survivor.
I once heard a Holocaust survivor who was being held up as a hero by a clergy study group in which I was participating, say, “Don’t call me a hero. I’m a survivor. By calling me a hero you’re trying to make me something I’m not; I stole bread from others to stay alive; I’m no hero; I’m a survivor!”
“Truth is beauty, and beauty truth.”
We have our own stories of survival: we survive the deaths of loved ones; we survive divorces and diseases and bad decisions; we survive the loss of jobs, the loss of friends; we survive the loss of youth, the loss of stamina and mobility. We survive the depression that results from such losses, and we might have to survive a clinical depression, as described by William Styron in his very moving account of the deep depression into which he had been plunged, Darkness Visible.
This is has been a long preface to a very brief survival story”
A couple of weeks ago Diana Bell handed me a most amazing book about survival, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby. “You’ve got to read this” she said. So I did; and I want to tell you about it.
Jean-Dominique Bauby survived a rare stroke to his brain stem that resulted in locked-in syndrome: his entire body was completely and permanently paralyzed, except for one small muscle—his left eye-lid, which he used to blink out letters to form words, which accumulated into paragraphs, and into a book—his final testament and affirmation.
His book is a moving memoir that allowed him to escape from his locked-in syndrome, and to keep his connection with the people he loved, and to send his message to the world, in spite of the non-functioning body into which he was locked.
At the time of his brain-stem stroke, Bauby was a 43-year old editor-in-chief of a magazine in Paris. He was father of two young children, ages 8 and 10. He died a few months after completing the book—two days after it was published.
It’s a survival story. He blinked out each letter of every word, liberating himself from the diving-bell prison into which he was confined. By writing, he said he was able to move like a butterfly, fluttering from one exotic thought to another; free to roam, free to stop to think. One moment he would land on a flower-like memory, filled with a sense of deep love and appreciation for his children, for the life he had lived. He would fly to the memory of meals prepared and eaten, to places he had visited, love he had made.
He describes much of it, and simply alludes to the rest—less is more. He realized that he didn’t need to describe it all—he could leave a lot to the reader’s imagination. What would you be thinking of ‘in there?’
His carefully, painstakingly crafted words reveal his wit and wisdom–his passion for life. He doesn’t lose his sense of humor. He’s even able to laugh at himself—at the improbable position into which he has been plunged. The ability to laugh at it, in some moments at least, may be the most important part of one’s sense of humor—the part that is most liberating.
He woke up after 20 days in a coma, kept alive with what we refer to as heroics… machines for breathing, tubes inserted for feeding, and so forth. Not long ago anyone who suffered a brain-stem stroke would have died with minutes.
The miracle isn’t so much that Bauby survived—the miracle is the way he was able to express himself in such delicate detail—he was able to substitute his failed voice and speak from the depths of the darkness making it clear to his family and caretakers that his mind was not impaired—that his brain was working fine, and his memory was perfect. He did it all with ‘the blink of an eye.’
He wrote himself out of his prison. He wrote about the anger he was feeling. He wrote about the sadness he felt when he realized he would no longer be able to hug his children or banter with them, playing with words, exchanging humor.
His book is like a message from ‘the other side,’ or from the mid-way point between life and death, between living and dying: “Out of the depths I have cried,” said the Psalmist.
Carefully—painstakingly–he conveys the joy he still feels, and the love he feels for his children, and the appreciation he feels for his family and his friends who remain at his side throughout his ordeal.
He’s able to write because someone was available to recite the alphabet over and over, waiting for ‘the blink of an eye.’ The blink says, “Stop, that’s the one.” Thus he was able to make contact with those around him, to be liberated from the dark confines in the ‘diving bell.’ It was a way he could stay in touch with himself–the different self he has become. His writing is a form of therapy–he was writing for himself as much as he wrote for us. Good gifts always work both ways.
Let me share a taste of the meal he prepared for us. Try reading the first sentence one word at a time, almost one letter at a time, just to get the feel of it.
He wrote: “Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children’s drawings, posters…the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock.”
“…a cerebrovascular accident took my brain stem out of action. In the past, it was known as a ‘massive stroke,’ and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as ‘locked-in syndrome.’ Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move. In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.”
“My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly.”
“My main task now is to compose the first of these bedridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher’s emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter.”
(During the first few weeks) “No one had yet given me an accurate picture of my situation, and I clung to the certainty, based on bits and pieces I had overheard, that I would very quickly recover movement and speech.”
He didn’t recover the movement he hoped for; he didn’t recover his ability to speak the way he used to speak. But he used what limited movement he had to put words together that would allow him to move through the days; he found a new voice, letter by letter, word by word. He was limited, as we all are, and he reminded us that we’re all trying to make the best of what we have to work with—that’s life; his life, my life, your life.
Shurwin Nuland said it so well: “To read this most extraordinary of narratives is to discover the luminosity within a courageous man’s mind. His incomparable final gift to us is a heartbreaking and yet glorious testament to the wrenching beauty of the human spirit.”
Jean Dominique Bauby was able to find meaning in the life he was living following the brain-stem stroke—he was able to discover new meanings in the living of that life.
People ask, “What’s the meaning of life?” I don’t find the question very useful. What I do find useful is the possibility of being able to share my life; what I do find useful is the possibility of being able to experience life in a deep way, beyond definitions about life, beyond philosophies about life, beyond religious pronouncements about life and about death.
The meaning of life is discovered in the experience of the life. Simply because we exist, however, does not mean we’re getting the experience of it, in the sense I mean. It’s about having a sense of appreciation for that life, and realizing that sense of appreciation in some moments. We can’t do that in every moment of our lives; but we can stop, Sabbath-like, to savor a moment—to be completely in the moment.
Having a rich experience of life is about finding a new depth of meaning each day with the help of family, friends, loved ones and the people with whom I work; it’s about finding new depths of meaning with the help of music, the visual arts, poetry and literature and a pure, unadulterated moment with Nature.
What I do find meaningful is the possibility of discovering a depth of appreciation I haven’t yet realized—to reach heights of joy and happiness; to reach depths of pathos, to feel a sense of compassion that breaks through the locked-in syndrome with which I would otherwise be living if I didn’t have access to those emotions and to that depth.
That’s why Jean-Dominique Bauby’s story hits home for me—not so much because of what he said, but the fact that he said it; the fact that his voice was released from its confinement—liberated. By so doing, he reminds us that we’re all connected as human beings—no matter what differences there are on the surface.
Love connects us. Hatreds divide us. Love connects us to other persons, and love connects us to the deeper, essential self, and gives us a hint of God, and that little hint is enough—it must be enough…otherwise we invent religious systems that divide us one from another…systems which lock us into the narrow confines of a religiously-generated syndrome that borders on a kind of collective insanity.
Hatred is rampant in the world. Hatred divides us, not only from one another, but it divides us in another way—it divides us from that essential Being in which we live and move and have our existence—something beyond our capacity to imagine or explain, but a Power or Force which we feel in the deepest moments of life. Maybe that’s what Divinity is, after all.
So I’m thankful to Jean-Dominique Bauby for reminding me, and allowing me to remind you, that there’s a heroic quality to your life by virtue of the fact that you have survived, that you are in the process of surviving. Yes, there will be more challenges in your life and mine in the days and years ahead, of course.
“Now understand me well, it is provided in the essence of things that from the fruition of any success, no matter what, comes forth something to make greater struggle necessary.”
May we find ways to encourage one another in the living of these days, in the living of this one precious life we’ve been given. Jean-Dominique Bauby provides an appropriate close to the sermon, with the words he spelled out to close his book: “Does the cosmos contain keys for opening my diving bell? We must keep looking. I’ll be off for now.”