First they came for the socialists, and I did not
speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not
speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not
speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to
speak for me.
First the animals began dying, going extinct, and we did
not stop what we were doing because we are not animals.
Then the glaciers started melting and we did not stop what
we were doing because we thought we could do without them.
Then the forests were disappearing and we did not stop cutting
down the trees because we could not imagine being unable
Then the virus came and there was no one to stop us
There is a passageway between life and death. It partakes of the sacred. It is not of this world or of the other. It is in between the two and is of uncertain length and development, sometimes dense and sometimes luminous. The passageway is called Dying. What happens in this place is a great mystery. Everyone will walk it. There is no map but there are questions to hold and consider. The path toward healing from a life-threatening illness is the same path as preparing for a good death.
When people realize they have a life-threatening illness, they begin to re-examine their lives, considering deeply what matters and what should fall away. This deep soul journey parallels the physical process of dying itself when so much that we have fervently insisted is indispensable to us, falls away, becomes irrelevant, and what has meaning and is really essential is respected. When, if we are lucky and recover from what has threatened to devastate us entirely, we begin our lives again, we know we cannot, must not, return to how we were living before, we cannot return to the ways that were killing us and others.
I had breast cancer in 1977. I asked these questions: What is the message of this illness that comes to me in this form? What is the meaning of this illness, in particular, coming to me, in particular, at this time, in particular? What have I been unable to understand or have ignored until it comes in this life-threatening form?
I knew immediately that I had to change my life drastically, down to the cellular level. And I did. It was not easy; the process was long, difficult, disturbing and is on-going. It continues through this day. Gradually, I understood that even as I was ill and wanting to preserve my own life, I had to shift to consider the whole. I was confronted by this need from the very beginning. A colleague visited me in the hospital and asked me to forgo any thoughts I had of healing cancer myself, as, he said, even if I had the skill to do it, there were many women who would follow my example and they were not prepared. I agreed then to have a mastectomy. But, I also chose not to have chemotherapy or radiation. The tumor was small and the entire breast removed. Both decisions were my way of considering the welfare of all beings. Not a formula, but the soul searching of a forty-year old woman with two young children wrestling with how to meet life-threatening illness and not cause harm to the environment or the community.
Then something inexplicable occurred – I felt the reality of Spirit. At the moment of fearing dying, Spirit appeared. A contradiction I could not deny. Not God in the way of my tradition, not religion, but God, Spirit, as peoples have perceived the Radiant Presence over the millennia of our emergence. I was in awe. Not because I could pray for my healing, but because I understood that any act of healing for myself should be equally benevolent for all, should do no harm. I was wrapped in a story and circumstances that would allow me to be responsible to the deepest aspects of my soul and to the world – no conflict – my life, my family’s life, the community’s life, the Earth, the same. Spirit had brought me here.
In the raw and necessary dialogue a person has with life-threatening illness, it is often clear that far beneath the medical diagnosis is another deep knowing—the ultimate cause of the illness is not the rogue malignant cell or an organ failing – these are the manifestations which we think we know how to treat – but our very life style, our way of life, our lives. Then the process of looking for healing from a life-threatening illness becomes self-scrutiny. When we ask, “Given what I now understand, how then shall I live?” we know that living requires us to ruthlessly, radically change our lives.
The terrible truth is that our way of life that has tragically become global, has been killing the planet for a long time and for that length of time, despite the increase in life expectancy and the wonders of technology, it has been killing us. We didn’t know it was killing us though we knew it was killing someone in Africa, Latin America or the Middle East, somewhere away from us, maybe someone in the Inner Cities, or living on a Native reservation, but still a distance. We knew that one life form after another was going extinct. We knew we are killing the water, the air, the Earth, but we were safe we thought, our ways, our things, our technology, our systems, our money would protect us. We couldn’t conceive they would fail us. We couldn’t conceive today.
I have spent the last days in consultation with my mind and soul. I needed to understand that I have a life-threatening illness and will probably die soon. Not because I am old but because of Covid-19, what threatens all of us. We went round and round, confronting and ducking, until I knew that this is true. I am going to die. I have little time. This means I must also abandon all the reflexes, thoughts, assumptions, plans which assume a long future. How, then, shall I live?
I had to know at my core that what we are in is about to kill many of us, if not all of us, in the domino effect of all the systems going down, one after another. I had to know this about my own life so I can make decisions about what matters and what does not matter. I had to know how to relinquish everything that does not serve life and the future of life on this planet. I had to know where I am colluding with those aspects of our culture that are doing so much harm. So that I can, every day, every moment, let go of what is inessential or an illusion so I can be faithful to what is essential. So I can live a devoted life. Had I not done this; I couldn’t write this piece. I had to know this so what I write and post is true. This is the time for stringent honesty and searing truth telling. That’s how things are in the passageway of dying – there is no time for lies or for pretense, particularly to ourselves.
So hard a path. But here is the strange thing, this virus is entirely democratic. Every person on the planet is in danger of dying of it, the chances increase each day, exponentially. Not only you, but your children, your loved ones. And so we all are suffering a life-threatening disease whether or not we are infected at this moment. This mysterious tiny being, whose life and meaning we barely understand, is potentially taking down an entire species that thought itself immortal. Here we are.
Let me change the language. We are suffering a species-threatening disease.
Here is a passage from the beginning of Doris Lessing’s remarkable, prescient novel, Shikasta:
An individual may be told she, he, is to die, and will
accept it. For the species will go on. Her or his children will
die, and even absurdly and arbitrarily — but the species will
go on. But that a whole species, or race, will cease or
drastically change — no, that cannot be taken in, accepted, not
without a total revolution of the deepest self.
To identify with ourselves as individuals — that is the very
essence of the Degenerative Disease…. What I had to say
would strike at everything we valued most, for it could be no
comfort here to be told: You will survive as individuals.[ii]
The Elephants know the herd is going extinct. The Whales know. The Wolves know. The birds falling from the skies know.
Be with me, with us, now. Imagine their grief. Enter the Whales’ or the Wolves’ body/heart, and feel their exquisite and common grief knowing their pod, their pack, itself, is threatened. Forever.
Now feel the Earth’s grief, her anguish as the essential and interconnected beings who create an intricate dynamic structure through their loving alliances, fall away, like the heart falling out of the body, and Earth knowing she cannot survive when they are gone. Her anguish. Their anguish. Ours???
What does one do when one has a life-threatening illness for which there is no cure and no treatment, no medicine, no protection, no money, no resources, no help? The non-humans simply bear the terrible knowledge of doom for they are helpless to change what is occurring.
Sometimes we see individual rebellion or revenge, the Lions who ate the poachers, the Elephant who finds the opportunity to stampede the vicious animal trainer in the circus or zoo, or attacks the one who orders her about with a metal hook in her flesh, or the young bull Elephant who remembers the hunter who killed the Matriarch for her tusks and attacks him twenty years later. But as species, knowing they are helpless to change conditions, they succumb. They go extinct, even though they know their disappearance will undermine the ecosystem with dire consequences for all.
Humans have another possibility. We enter the process of deep soul inquiry. What are the underlying causes of this wretched affliction? How can we divest from what is killing us? How shall we meet these times? How shall we live?
Isn’t it strange that across the world, more and more people, millions and millions, are now confined to their homes, prohibited from leaving except to risk their lives to procure the most basic necessities? We have all been assigned to solitude, to stillness, to introspection. An entire planet on a spiritual retreat. A good portion, and increasing, of human beings, particularly those in urban centers, confined with the unique opportunity to deeply contemplate our lives. For a month? For two months? For eighteen months? For our lifetimes? An instant in the universe but long enough in human time to begin to imagine the unimaginable, what we were not able to imagine before: A different world manifested out of our heartbreak for what has brought us here and our increasing great love for life which comes when we feel it slipping away.
And it happened in a moment: slam dunk. What could not be accomplished after millennia of religious and spiritual urging. Slam dunk. Slam dunk we are in isolation and everything is coming to a halt. Slam dunk, then, we have to change. Maybe we can. Slam dunk.
A spiritual initiation of the highest order.
Initiation is Spirit’s way of breaking us down so that we might be recreated in a wisdom way. This is an astounding and awesome initiation by Spirit. It is one of the ways illness transforms us. And so again.
How will we experience this? Each of us differently. We don’t know how and won’t know for a long time. But we have the time. Eighteen months, some say. And in this liminal moment, this passage between one world and another, let dying strip us down to the heart as dying does, and begin again. It is a little like a bone marrow transplant –- the marrow is of the only culture that can survive these times, the one in which our species and the other species all thrive together, one that is committed to the life force of all beings, which, hopefully, will include us again.
Welcome to the fact and the initiation of Dying. “Queen Corona,” as someone said today, thank you.
[i] Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent
Lutheran pastor in Germany. He emerged as an
outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the
last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration
camps. He is perhaps best remembered for his postwar
[ii] Re: Colonised Planet 5 Shikasta, by Doris
Lessing, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1979, P.38