I flew into Boston from Brazil in the first half of last March and landed in a blizzard. It was early Sunday morning. The friends who were coming to pick me up couldn’t make it in all the snow, so I took a bus to Boston South Station and summoned the elevator to take me up several floors to the big Departures lounge from where I could take a bus to Springfield.
When the elevator doors opened, there was an old man on the floor, skinny, head half hidden under a large woolen skull cap, asleep, belongings in a shopping cart alongside him. He didn’t wake up as the doors opened and my luggage rolled in; he didn’t wake up when I left.
I heard a silent voice addressing me: “You have no right to be cynical.”
The words stayed for a long time. Mostly I thought that they were pointing to my relative comfort and security in comparison to others, admonishing me not to give in to disappointment or pessimism, reminding me to be grateful.
Being grateful, or experiencing great-fullness, as Br. David Steindl-Rast likes to put it, is a practice I appreciate more and more every day. But like blessed (as in I am so blessed!), safe space (as in I need a safe space), and similar terms, it’s become a cliché, and inside I’ve detected an insidious, burgeoning allergy to cliches, especially faddish ones. This perfidious allergy causes me to question assumptions and seek companionship with others who do the same.
So I was very moved by the latest exchange between Charles Eisenstein and Benjamin Life. You can access this through Substack or subscribe directly to Eisenstein’s teachings and get them via email. Eisenstein talks about what happens when we look at photos from the past, the nostalgia we indulge in, and how confusing it could be to look at past images through the lens of the present:
“… [m]emories change as I change, and, to some extent, I rewrite the past in correspondence with who I am becoming. Aspects of the past that had been invisible at the time that I hadn’t noticed come into my awareness. Maybe these photographs can actually help that. They can break through the illusions I have about the past.”
Specifically, he talked about people with dementia. “Thinking of my own unprocessed grief that is brought up when I look at these old photographs, maybe the last phase of life is actually a time when the imperative of the soul to process and integrate everything becomes so overwhelming that you withdraw from your current environment and revisit and process again and again and again all of these episodes from the past and feel all of the things that you didn’t get a chance to feel back then because you were distracted or addicted or preoccupied. And now that your creative functions in the world are diminishing, it’s time to look at all of those things again.”
In other words, even dementia has value.
Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, I was moved by his refusal to fully accept current assumptions that dementia is all about limitations, mental debilitation, and the lack of normal functioning. It could be all those—and something else may be at play here. What we see as pathology may also be soul work.
It may also result in an enhanced palate. I spent some hours with Frank Ostaseski 4 days ago, teacher and leader in end-of-life care. It’s no secret that Frank had suffered a series of strokes that, among other things, have affected his vision; he has described that in various interviews.
It was while we were talking on the deck of his houseboat, drinking coffee and munching on pastries, that I realized what a flavoring his experiences have given him. I lived with Bernie for 3 years after his severe stroke, no one has to tell me of how stroke can physically disable us and take away capabilities—and they can also give us a new flavor.
So, if the old flavor was one of strength, action, and leadership, the new flavor brings other spices into the mix. Not just hot red pepper, which Bernie loved so much it stayed perpetually on the dining table, but also rosemary, cinnamon, and even arrowroot, for a deeper, richer, more flavorful dish.
And if service to the world has been very important to you till now, that newer, fuller flavor is just as much in service. Perhaps not as forcefully as before, with our vows, enthusiasm, passion, greater energy and determination, but finer now, more mature, imbued with love and curiosity, as Frank put it to me, both fueling one another.
Here is this unexpected new flavor. Did you know life could be like that? Did you know the meal could taste like that? Did you know that this meal could have its own deliciousness?
I woke up this morning to news about war in Israel and Gaza once again. I’m told that the US media isn’t showing the half of it, so it’s time to tune into Israeli newspapers and TV. May everyone be well.
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