The Undiscovered Country
Today, I was just thinking what makes us tick. What is the reason for living and how is that connected with being alive. I just met a car accident last Wednesday and broke some bones in the palm of my hand. One moment’s lack of concentration and weeks of pain. It made me think how fragile life is, especially when it could have been a broken head or something worse. Please don’t misunderstand, I’ve had many accidents and every time I get close and personal with death, it makes me think.
Mind you, this wasn’t a close enough brush with death. I’ve had two of those moments in my life. The first was in 1981. I was in a motorcycle accident and survived. As my helmet hit the tarmac I heard a swoosh. I turned to see the tyre of a lorry rolling by. That could have been it for me, had it been ten seconds earlier. The second was in 1991. my doctor told me that I had cancer. It was non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. He told me I had a malignant tumour in my throat.
A lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a part of the body’s immune system and helps filter out bacteria, viruses, and other unwanted substances. Most people don’t notice the workings of their lymphatic systems; in fact, the only time you may be aware of your lymphatic system is when the lymph nodes swell up. This often happens when a person is sick – a sign that the lymphatic system is working hard to filter harmful substances out of the body.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a disease in which cancer cells form in a person’s lymphatic system and start to grow uncontrollably. It took months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment to cure. I thing I hated the most about the therapy was not the nausea but the constipation. It really made me miserable. I am entirely convinced that three things saved my life. Firstly, I wasn’t about to just give up – I loved my life very much. I was successful at my job, I just had a daughter and generally I was having a really good time…secondly, I had a great oncologist – Dr Tan Meng Kuan, and last but certainly not least – I loved my job. I really enjoy teaching and immediately after chemotherapy I would head for the college and start lecturing and continue to teach for the whole day. It took my mind off everything. I’m in my zone when I teach – it’s the thing I do best.
So you see, I am no stranger to confronting death. These events have made me question the meaning of life? Why are we here? Is there a God? If there is a God, what is he up to? Is religion about finding God or just manipulating the masses? Of all the world’s religions, which one is correct? Is there an afterlife? Do we just die? Or is there a spiritual journey beyond the physical one?
People have struggled for millennia to deal with these questions. Many wars have been fought over them. But as much as these questions cause people to lose their heads, both figuratively and literally, the bottom line is that these questions need to be addressed by every intelligent human being.
As the great Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates spoke these words to the jury in the court of Athens in the year 399 BC, after he had been found guilty of heresy and sedition. Heresy, a crime that threatened the established religion, and sedition, that threatened the state. After his accusers presented their argument for the death penalty he had the opportunity to argue for an alternate punishment. He chose death over silence. He chose death because he considered the love and pursuit of wisdom was both religious and patriotic. He believed his death would be a witness to this belief. He chose to die in defense of the right of every individual to participate in independent critical thinking. Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. We are unable to grow toward greater understanding of our true nature unless we take time to examine and reflect upon our life. As another philosopher, Santayana, observed, “He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it.”
Examining our life reveals our patterns of behavior and makes us question the reasons for our actions. Deeper contemplation will yield an understanding of the subconscious conditioning, the powerful mental paradigm that runs our life. Unless we become aware of these patterns, much of our life is unconscious repetition.
The parable the Guru’s Cat by Anthony De Mello illustrates what I am saying most emphatically,
“When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the essential role and liturgical significance of tying up a cat during worship.”
It is important for us to ask the question – what makes me tick? We all have blind spots. Sometimes when I examine a difficult problem in my life, I can’t seem to find the solution. I know something is missing in my analysis but I can’t quite see what it is. That is because none of us can see our own back side – the blind spot. Socrates’ method of self-examination included an essential element that became known as the “Socratic” dialogue. Talking through the problem with a close friend or one’s spouse or a skilled therapist will help to unravel those blind spots we cannot see by ourselves.
It’s a radical thing to stop and take time to contemplate your own life but it is the only game that really matters. On the final analysis the one thing that is certain is death. It comes to all of us. Yet many people construct their lives as if they were immortal. Materialism controls their outlook and they become empire builders. They shun death and are afraid to even talk about it. In many cultures it is a taboo topic. Still the question of what death is, is central to the question what life is? Since death really defines the parameters of life.
My favorite passage on this is from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet;
|“To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Hear-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir too? It is a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To dye to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressors wrong, the poor mans Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose Borne
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Then fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hew of Resolution
Is sicklied over, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their Currants turn away,
And loose the name of Action.”
What a great human behaviorist! Shakespeare has asked all the questions and also provides us with the answer, “For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come”. It is our ignorance of what death is, that makes life so precious – it makes us rather bear those ills we have then fly to others that we know not of. Religion purports to provide the answer and we take refuge in the house of religion, clinging to the hope that they got it right. Many people have surrendered reason to religion for this reason. They just don’t know. It is the undiscovered country. It is our mind.
(to be continued)