Last Saturday I attended the Search for Meaning Festival at Seattle University. It’s a “literary and arts festival dedicated to exploring topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life.” How’s that for a catchy opening sentence. (Eye roll.)
The first session I attended was “Wisdom of Not Knowing: Tools for Thriving in Uncertain Times.” There wasn’t much in the way of tools. But between Estelle Frankel, speaker for this session, and Keynoter Barbara Brown Taylor (“Learning to Walk in the Dark”), I do feel more at peace. “Faith doesn’t mean never saying you are worried” (BB Taylor).
“We are living in interesting times and we don’t know what will happen. And we don’t like that. We are programmed to have certainty and it’s hard to give it up; it makes us anxious. Anxiety is future worry.” Estelle Frankel
So we pretend we know; we make predictions before we have the facts. My mother is a rock star at this, and I have been her unwelcome fact checker these past five and half years. That is also what has caused the schism in this country. We don’t ask questions because that implies ignorance. And we think that’s a bad thing. So we make our declarative statements and each side lambasts the other side’s declarative statements.
I don’t know what is going to happen with my mother. She is going to die; I am certain of that. The how and the when is mystery. “Not knowing is most intimate.” The internet tells me it’s one of the greatest teaching stories in Zen.
A Facebook friend, a Presbyterian minister, who is steadfastly waiting with her father who is dying wrote these beautiful words in her tiny FB “blog” that chronicles her journey with him:
“I do okay in the moment, when Dad calls and I have to tend to him. It’s when I return to my room that my heart breaks all over again in the silence. This is when I turn to God, not in anger that this is Dad’s journey, yet seeking a balm for my soul to carry on through the night.”
Carry on through the night. It’s what we in this country are doing.
I am angry that my mother can’t just go, that this has to be her journey. That all people who are in pain, and whose bodies can no longer function, and who are ready to leave, linger. But maybe I need to get over that. This is life. There are no guarantees, no promises, there is only what is. Whether a loved one—or oneself—is living too long or dying too soon or dying too slowly, is not something that will be helped by anger.
I’m angry at what is happening in this country. But anger is like a cancer, and I will not let it have me. Frankel said we live in the paradox that we must fight injustice, and we can never know when bad can turn to good. There is already good coming out of tragedy. The beautiful children at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School come to mind. And the children shall lead us. No, they shouldn’t have to do the work of the “adults.” And, yes, they need to be doing the work; they are the next adults. They are the coming wave of voters. They are the future of the world. They need to be mad as hell.
Another session I attended was on the topic of end of life choices. The speakers were Trudy James, producer of the Film “Speaking of Dying,” and Phyllis Shacter, author of “Choosing to Die: A Personal Story.” Phyllis’s book is the account of her husband’s decision to let go of this life, before Alzheimer’s took it from him, by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED). (Here is her TEDx Talk.)
I don’t know if VSED could be an answer for people who have lived too long; those who don’t have a degenerative disease but for whom life is empty as they watch and wait for whatever it is that will take them while they sink deeper into a lonely abyss, into the darkest dark. I think it would be an answer for me, and I will be telling my children that. I don’t want to live as my mother is. How will I know when it’s time? I just trust that I will.
My mother believes—I think—that VSED is suicide.
“Belief is not truth.”
Phyllis’s husband said it wasn’t about right and wrong, it was about self-love and peace. Preparing to die liberated him. Should my sisters and I, with hospice, be talking to Mama about this now, while she is capable of making the choice for when the time comes? How do we have that conversation? “When you are in the space of not knowing, intuition is released. It’s another mode of knowing.” When we get out of our way, we open the door from darkness into light.
The Jewish faith encourages questions. The Talmud begins with a question and four possible answers. The question is not answered. This sounds so different to me than the version of Christianity that is pervading this country in these times. “The ignorant think God can be grasped by the mind; the wise know it beyond knowledge. Any conception you have of God is heresy” (Estelle Frankel).
“All insight, intuition, and creativity comes from not knowing. Not to expose our ignorance, or to ridicule another for ‘not knowing,’ squelches curiosity.”
I don’t know how my mother’s life will end or what role my sisters and I might play in it. Spirit does not hand out maps to let us know which way the wind is going to blow. There is much uncertainty in life, in the world—so much darkness. But as Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Darkness is not sinister. Light and dark are not contradictory. They wrap around each other, they depend on each other.”
And, after all, “who can keep the sun from going down?” Or from coming up.