Thursday, January 26, 2012

On How We See Things

This past Sunday I experienced the sublime and the random nature of the human experience. At morning services a long time friend told me her husband would be transitioning to a full-time care facility. It was something I think they had discussed before making their move to their current address. He has Alzheimers and over the course of the last two years he has become increasingly unconnected. with help, she has cared for him and now his needs are such that the next step must be taken. The decision was planned for but painful. As she put it, the transition will be easier for him than it will be for her. Isn't it ironic that the one who is ill is the one least aware of the progression of this terrible disease?

Later in the afternoon on Sunday, in front of 27 million TV viewers, the place kicker for the Baltimore Ravens entered the pantheon of sport anti-heroes by missing a field goal. He will live with the miscue for the rest of his life and it does not matter that it was just a game. His failure to do something he has done a hundred times without mistake, will be the subject of innumerable "What if" moments.

We know that both of these events are life altering. We know as well that in our hierarchy of value a football game is less important than a medical decision affecting end of life planning.

The other night I presented the new Episcopal chaplain a prism as a symbolic gift at her installation. Through a prism things look different than they do when seen with clear eyes. Decisions and actions such as I have described also look differently through the eyes of religion. Religious traditions that see matters of life and death as significant transitions, the significant transitions, know what is more important. Those that understand religion to be primarily about how one manages ones feelings believe that we deal with life transitions in much the way we deal with a missed field goal.

Here at MIT in the chaplaincy one thing I know for sure is that in living together we have the opportunity for seeing life and life's experiences through a grand prism that is the collective wisdom of the traditions we represent. This prism is quite effective in shaping what we see and how we live. In contrast to the approach that prevails in the realm of science, this is a helpful corrective understanding that a kicker does not simply strike the ball wrongly or a loving spouse does not simply decide for convenience to outsource health care for a aging husband. Our world is more than facts and loss is painful no matter the context.

How to live in the aftermath is now the presenting issue. The notion that we can manage our emotions is important: lower that heart rate, drop the blood pressure, forgive the mistake! But also understand that at the heart of the universe our pain is shared, our grief borne.
"For I, the Lord your God, will hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, "do not fear, I will help you." (Isaiah 41:13)

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute