Order, Disorder, Reorder: Part Two
Dying as Disorder
Thursday, August 20, 2020
Dying is not extraneous to life; it is a part of the mystery, and we do not understand life until we stand under death. —Richard Rohr
There may be nothing more disordering than being diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness. It upends our lives and yet, as Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen affirms, it can also be the doorway through which we “grow up” and discover our life’s purpose and meaning. At a young age, Remen was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which affects all aspects of her life, but ultimately led her to her life’s work: helping doctors integrate their heart and soul into their clinical practices for the sake of healing their patients and themselves.
The view from the edge of life is different and often much clearer than the way most of us see things. Life-threatening illness may cause people to question what they have accepted as unchanging. Values that have been passed down in a family for generations may be recognized as inadequate; lifelong beliefs about personal capacities or what is important may prove to be mistaken. When life is stripped down to its very essentials, it is surprising how simple things become. Fewer and fewer things matter and those that matter, matter a great deal more. As a doctor to people with cancer, I have walked the beach at the edge of life picking up this wisdom like shells.
One of my patients who survived three major surgeries in five weeks described himself as “born again.” When I asked him about this, he told me that his experience had challenged all of his ideas about life. Everything he had thought true had turned out to be merely belief and had not withstood the terrible events of recent weeks. He was stripped of all that he knew and left only with the unshakeable conviction that life itself was holy. This insight in its singularity and simplicity had sustained him better than the multiple complex systems of beliefs and values that had been the foundation of his life up until this time. It upheld him like stone and upholds him still because it has been tested by fire. At the depths of the most unimaginable vulnerability he has discovered that we live not by choice but by grace. And that life itself is a blessing.
Some of those who have had a near-death experience, who have actually set foot over that edge and then returned, have had an additional insight. Their experience has revealed to them that every life serves a single purpose. We are here to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better. Despite the countless and diverse ways we live our lives, every life is a spiritual path, and all life has a spiritual agenda.
Such ideas have the power to change the way you see yourself and the world.
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging (Riverhead Books: 2001), 325–326.
Epigraph: The Wisdom Pattern: Order–Disorder–Reorder (Franciscan Media: 2020), 70.