This is not the first time I have had to confront the possibility that I might soon die.
In 1977, I had breast cancer.
Like so many people facing a life-threatening illness, I began to re-examine my life, 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.
In the midst of that crisis, back in 1977, these are the questions I asked: What is the message of this illness that comes to me 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, and disturbing. 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.
During the raw and necessary dialogue I have been having ever since with that illness that I managed to heal from, I realized that far beneath the medical diagnosis was another deep knowing—the ultimate cause of the disease 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.
It is that realization that should inform our existence as we all confront the pandemic that is threatening humanity today.
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 at 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.
It was not easy, the journey I took, into myself and into the challenges facing my fellows on this Earth.
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 illusionary so I can be faithful to what is essential. 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 this together, 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.
If each of us can understand that there is a real chance that we are going to die. And that we have little time left, then it inevitably means that we must also abandon all the reflexes, thoughts, assumptions, plans which assume a long future. How, then, shall we live?
We are suffering a species-threatening disease.
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.
To feel that grief, and how to emerge from it, let us return to the words pronounced by Martin Niemoller, a German theologist, just after the Second World War that devastated our planet, asking what it means that the executioners came for your fellow humans and you did nothing because you did not think you were like them. Today, we can reformulate his warning as a prophecy:
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
Then the forests were disappearing and we did not stop
cutting down the trees because we could not imagine
being unable to breathe.
Then the virus came and there was no one to stop us
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.
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.
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 been given the time. 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.
The path toward healing from a life-threatening illness is the same path as preparing for a good death.
Welcome to the fact and the initiation of Dying. “Queen Corona,” as someone said today, thank you.