Monday, July 26, 2010

Crying is Good Practice

    It’s July 23.  I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes.  I just finished listening to a special radio program honoring Daniel Schorr.  He was the senior news analyst at NPR and he died this morning.
   I enjoyed listening to many of his commentaries on what was happening on the world stage.  I came to  appreciate his ‘long view’, and though it wasn’t really a ‘shocking surprise’ to hear of his death…he was 93, after all… still, I watched myself go through an interesting set of thoughts and feelings as I realized how much I would miss his calm, patient style helping me to make sense of troubling news events.

  Remembering Daniel Schorr

Image: DanielSchorr_from Flickr_ByMichaelFoleyPhotography   I appreciated him because he’d seen and lived through so much change and because he was a ‘walking history book’, so often having a historical reference from the past that correlated with something he was reporting on in the present.  He’d lived through difficult times in our country and retained his integrity, humor and good will.  There was always something reassuring about Mr. Schorr’s commentary, because it affirmed the cyclical nature of things, and the ability of a person to live through and learn from those cycles.   It said something about what arises and passes, and what endures.
   When I heard the news of his death, I was in my kitchen.  I let out an “ohhhh”  …just standing there hearing his distinctive voice in my mind.    I was stunned, and lost in reverie for a bit.  It was announced that there’d be a special broadcast in an hour, so I fixed my dinner in time to sit down and listen.
   There were many excerpts of a long interview with him that took place 3 years ago on his 90th birthday.    I learned he was nearly arrested for refusing to reveal his sources; that he saw Berlin before, during and after he Wall; he had collaborated with a rock musician he’d never heard of named Frank Zappa, who admired him enough to invite him to speak to his audience, (on stage, at the Warner Theater!) about the importance of voting!  And at 92, he was asked ‘what’s lost in using social media like Twitter?’ His reply: “What we lose is editing!  The discipline that should go with being able to communicate is gone.”  Still, right after that, he turned to Scott Simon and asked, on air, “Ok, how do I do it?”, and gave it a try!

Practicing Loss  

   Anyway….by the end of the tribute broadcast, I was crying. I mean I was crying like something broke loose.  And I thought “Why am I crying?”… He was 93!  He was going to die at some point, sooner than later.  I knew it. Everybody knew it. And besides, jeeze, I didn’t even know him!”  Well I just gave myself permission to go ahead and cry, because I know by now, that I was doing something useful.   
   What I was doing was ‘practicing loss’.   Last month I wrote about the necessity of loss…now I’m suggesting how we can engage the lessons in the loss…and to do that, first we have to feel the loss. What I’m most interested in here is the ‘first up’ human response when we’re faced with any kind of loss. What do we do?  Most often the first thing we do is *cling*.  It’s just what we do…it’s one of the oldest “distress recordings” in our minds, and we all have it.  It’s like a song that plays, and the title is… “Don’t Go!”

Go Ahead and Cry   

Image: (don't)Cry_from Flickr_ByPedroKlien
   Every day, we encounter dozens of opportunities to notice losses…. Something happens that we don’t want or didn’t anticipate, we lose a chance at something, we miss a phone call, we forget an important meeting, we didn’t get the job, or the interview, we don’t make the team, we get ‘bad’ news about our health, our grades, our bank account, our teeth!  Every day we’re wading through floodwaters of things coming apart, breaking down, not working out, fading away.   Do I sound ‘pessimistic’?  I’m not.  I’m just reminding myself (and you) of the nature of things as they are. 
   How often do we see young ones crying about losing something, and some well-meaning adult tries to   stop the crying by distracting them with toys, games, food, TV, etc.  This teaches us early on to distract ourselves from the pain of loss….and we lose the chance to practice being with one of the deeper lessons of human existence, namely, that everything comes and goes!  Nothing lasts forever (not even this article)! What if all these little ‘losses’ are practice sessions for the bigger ones?   Of course we ignore lots of these daily losses.  It’s practical, as adults, to do this.  But it’s good to be aware when the backlog is getting high.
   So where am I going with this?  Well, when I was sitting there tonight crying about how I won’t have Daniel Schorr’s particular take on things to reassure or amuse me anymore,  I was realizing that I was taking an opportunity to let myself feel loss.  I was practicing how to be with loss and death.  That my backlogged ‘bubble’ of past and anticipated losses was swelling and this one somehow just pressed hard enough to make it burst.  So, I had a cry and restored the balance for a while.
   This is what I want to say.  I think it’s a really good idea for us to go ahead and notice when we feel sadness about losing something, whether it’s a moment of fleeting beauty in the woods or the breaking of a favorite teacup, or the loss of a trusted news analyst.  Just feel the feelings, and don’t listen to the voice that says  “that’s nothing to cry about”.  Go ahead and cry.

The Joy of Feeling
Here’s a story that happened to me once after a long meditation retreat:
     I had just broken silence and I was sitting on a large rock near a pond, with another retreatant.  We’d taken a walk together, still tentative about speaking, and were taking in the beauty and the stillness of the trees, water, rocks.  She took a breath and said “I know that all of this,” (and she gestured to the nature all around) “all of it will someday pass away, will no longer exist. And     somehow, I just can’t bear it.”   

    I was startled and deeply moved by what she said.  It was a good teaching for me because, first, I realized that part of my enjoyment of the beauty was the subtle belief that it would be there forever and unchanged-- and there she was reminding me that it wasn’t any more permanent than anything else!  And so I was a bit miffed with her for ‘ruining’ my reverie.  Then I heard the second part of what she said… the “I can’t bear it” part…and I understood that she didn’t ‘like’ the  idea of impermanence any more than I did in that moment.  And then, because all of this was occurring in the singularly clear mind-space that can arise after long periods of silence, there was a quality of just noticing this whole train of thought.   And this gave rise to tears and a sense of deep compassion for the human desire for security, for being safe from harm and free from loss.

    We can’t be free from loss.  So practicing with all the small ones is a great way to prepare for meeting death.   My mother used to tell me so often, “You wear your heart on your sleeve.”  She wanted to protect me from pain and loss, I know.   But in my life I’ve come to believe in ‘wearing’ this trembling heart of mine, and to trust in the things that keep it open, and soft and receptive.   Yes, it hurts to do this     sometimes.  But I have a trust in my heart’s ability to heal.   For me, the joy and compassion and peace that arise from feeling so deeply are worth the price.

Image:DiffuseHeart_fromFlickr_byFxgeek   What about you? What makes your heart tremble?   I’d like to know…use the comment link below.

Until next time,

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010

Monday, July 12, 2010

It's Not O.K. to Call It 'Suicide'

I want to write about something today that is controversial and deeply touching.  It’s a subject that grows more important as many factors in our death-defying culture spin further away from rationality and toward fear-mongering and greed.  I’m talking about people in severely challenging and terminal health situations who want to preserve their right to refuse “heroic” (invasive) medical procedures which would essentially prolong their suffering.   I want to use the preferred and correct terminology for this, “ Aid in Dying”,  contrasted with the term that the media likes to use…the one that grabs everyone’s attention: “Assisted Suicide”.
I found these words contrasting the two from
Dr. James Lieberman in Psychiatric News, a publication of the American Psychiatric Association: He refers to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act as DWDA.
  1. “The suicidal patient has no terminal illness but wants to die; the DWDA patient has a terminal illness and wants to live.
  2. Typical suicides bring shock and tragedy to families and friends; DWDA deaths are peaceful and supported by loved ones.
  3. Typical suicides are secretive and often impulsive and violent. Death in DWDA is planned; it changes only timing in a minor way, but adds control in a major and socially approved way.
  4. Suicide is an expression of despair and futility; DWDA is a form of affirmation and empowerment.”
  Barbara Coombs Lee sums it up in her blog:  “…suicide is the self-destructive impulse of a person who has every reason and ability to live. Aid in dying is the self-affirming decision of a person who cannot choose to live, and can only choose the manner of an imminent death.”

Against the Law?
In the 1970’s, the laws about suicide, which used to be illegal, changed.  This was both because of advances in psychiatry and psychology, and a reasonable desire to update wording  to reflect America’s independence from ‘the crown’. (two hundred years late!)  (Citizens were ‘owned’ by the King and the crime was destruction of property.)  
  As a young person in the 60’s, the idea of suicide being against the law always puzzled  me…you couldn’t put someone in jail who had already taken their own life so why was it a crime?  Who would be punished?
In religious terms, it was clearly against the faith I was brought up in, and made a little more sense to me from a logical standpoint.  Since I was brought up to believe that a person had a soul, which persisted after death and which was aimed toward heaven, I could see a chain of consequences there.   If committing suicide was a mortal sin, it would prevent someone from going to heaven.  ( I didn’t think it was fair, but that’s another article…)
  Socially, I was most aware of a deep sense of shamefulness around this subject.  It certainly wasn’t the ubiquitous topic of conversation back then as it is (sadly) now.  But it did happen, and when I overheard my mother or other adults talking about someone who taken their own life, it was in hushed and secret tones…and there was shamefulness connected with it.  It was confusing…but I knew I wasn’t supposed to  ask about it so I didn’t.

The Hemlock Society
The legal changes were a progressive step for the time…but there were people who saw more deeply into potential issues that the updated law still did not address.  Derek Humphry founded the Hemlock Society in 1980, 5 years after the death of his first wife from inoperable bone cancer. He helped her to end her life when the pain and indignity of her illness became too much for her to bear. 
  He wrote a book about this experience and formed the Society which was dedicated to informing, assisting and supporting people with the same kind of painful dilemma, supporting their Right to Die.  His work is directly responsible for the current law we have here in Oregon which allows for Physician’s Aid in Dying.   The Hemlock Society merged twice with other groups and all of them are now merged into the Oregon based “Compassion and Choices” headed by Barbara Coombs Lee.   (
Visit the Compassion and Choices website).  They are an excellent resource for information, support and legal advocacy around end-of-life choices. I am proud to give financially to their efforts (Donate to Compassion and Choices)
Seeking Ethical Progress

So much has happened, socially, legally and spiritually over the last 2 to 3 decades.  People are thinking deeply about this, and now there is more compassionate and intelligent dialogue about it.  Buddhists, Christians, Pagans, Muslims and more—no matter who we are, there is a good chance we will have some exposure to this kind of choice and it will move us into uncomfortable, yet growth producing conversations, arguments and decisions. 
  Medicine has ‘advanced’ to the degree that procedures can be implemented which will ‘save the body’ or ‘prevent death’ more than ever before.  But the problem is that these procedures too often do not  enhance life.  Oregon recognizes a person’s right to plan for a dignified death when the circumstances would unduly prolong suffering. The media feeds us sensational stories and persists in calling this dignified procedure 'suicide'.    This is why I want to share those contrasting words with you.
  I feel concern when I hear more and more stories of people, mainly elders, who, despite their best efforts to be clear and informed, have somehow ended up in exactly the positions they tried so hard to avoid:  a stroke, heart attack, or sometimes even a doctor’s appointment which requires communication among several specialists who don’t take the time to act as a team with the family. Any of these situations can result in a spouse or family member caring for someone who is no longer able to do the most basic self care, is in unremitting pain, has no hope of recovery, whose quality of life is extremely poor, whose medical care consists of one painful, egregiously invasive procedure after another.  Often there is horrifying financial expense.   This is so much a product of our denial of death, along with the culture of corporate greed that has grown up around medicine. 
  The times we live in and the choices and experiences available to us seem to have outstripped the capacity of many of our spiritual teachings to address them.
How About You?
  Where does this leave us?  It’s an interesting and fruitful edge for inquiry; and there are no easy answers.   But I want to throw in a word from a dear friend of mine that helps put a little perspective into the conversation.  She said to me one day, “You know, Marian,  Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person!”  
Until next time…
What do you think about this?
I welcome your comments. 

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010