In our 70s and 80s, many find that health issues we used to consider extraordinary have become ordinary. Our ordinary state these days is no longer the smooth working order that we took for granted earlier, but “just one darn thing after another,” as one old guy put it.
Most people who’ve reached these latter decades have a lot of direct experience with serious illness. This fact came home to me while having lunch conversation with two old friends. The three of us are in relatively good health these days, yet in the last year or two we recounted biopsies to rule out cancer, a pre-leukemic condition, a major GI bleed, emergency room and ICU experience, gout, several joint replacements and other things alarming enough to keep a close eye on. Three women our age could have a similar conversation.
Face it: health crises are unavoidable. The raw realities of aging bodies, their weaknesses and flaws, loudly demand our attention. What threatens us from the inside becomes more overwhelming than things that threaten from the outside. We are living a human, biological life — and pain, fatigue (“my get up and go has got up and went”), chronic conditions and scary diagnoses call us to consent to its terms.
So how do we cope? How do we deal with physical slowdowns or breakdowns? I’m not talking now about getting exercise and eating right, watching blood pressure and not smoking. My colleague Dr. Simpson wisely advises us on those things. What I mean is: How will you, my lunch-table friends, and I not just survive but maintain a positive attitude — sane, calm, generous and active—when anxiety about our health wants to take control of us?
What gives me courage has not been slogans or checklists for coping, but the lived example of people who have endured life-threatening illness. All of us have personal heroes who have shown us how to live with incredible courage and personal style in the face of physical calamity. I have too. One of those heroes of endurance who has helped me the most is poet and teacher, husband and father Christian Wiman in his book “My Bright Abyss.”
Wiman grew up poor on the plains of West Texas and led a rootless life until he married and had children, found his creative groove as a poet and became editor of nationally acclaimed “Poetry Magazine.” Then in his late 30s he was hit by the diagnosis of an unpredictable yet usually fatal cancer. His private apocalypse lasted through years of medical treatment, relapse and inexpressible pain.
At one point when Wiman was close to death and facing a last-ditch bone marrow transplant, he wrote these words for his two preschool daughters for them to read later:
“They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives. If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us. Life tears us apart, but through these wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us.”
From someone less than Wiman, the counsel to “befriend” the very things that torment and threaten us would be dismissed as inexcusably cheap. But when this man speaks of learning to live “by means” of them, tending them so that love may enter and replace fear — I want to know about that experience.
What he means, I think, is what I have witnessed in others suffering a disease or illness.
“Tending” means not fighting against, not implacably resenting, but approaching the intruder with an attitude of healing. The aggressive military metaphors often used in modern medicine (using our “arsenal” to wage a “war against cancer”) are the absolute opposite. Healing means to focus on restoring wholeness, on nurturing life. Wiman himself was taking pain meds and getting a bone-marrow transplant, but his attitude was one of tending, not combating.
It makes me think of what Hank May, an addictions counselor, used to say to clients “fighting” an addiction: If you need to master a wild horse and it is charging you full speed, don’t stand defiantly in front of it to try to halt it — you will be trampled! You must run alongside the horse, and then in due time and in synch with its force, slip onto its back and gradually bring it to a walk.
Wiman: These “black holes” of serious illness can be calmed and mounted and can strangely strengthen us. Life tears us apart in old age but if we tend the wounds, then self-discovery, even love, may help us. That’s healing. This is not to dismiss the agency of scientific medicine and public health. Who could not be thankful for what health professionals do for us? Yet even when I am under treatment, my personal, inner work is still that of tending.
Wiman gives one piece of practical advice about what it might mean to “tend the wounds.”
Find some art you love — poetry, music, film. Use it to explore the deepest recesses of your life and heart; use it to deepen your conviction that life is good and this world is still worth loving. And most important, enjoy it! “Joy,” says Wiman, “is one kind of courage.”
Aging well, which means in part dealing successfully with your flaws and weaknesses, does not come automatically or even naturally. The grace to age well is given to you but only if you first take pains to get ready for it — to befriend what most frightens you. Make friends quickly with the adversary. Release your hold on private stuff and open your hand to shared riches. Hope, Vaclav Havel observed, is a condition of your soul, not a response to the circumstances in which you find yourself.