Dying in the Fix-It Society

Buddhist teacher/lecturer Frank Ostaseski spoke recently to the Bay Area Network of End-of-Life Care on the subject of compassion – something Ostaseski preaches, teaches and practices himself. Co-founder, in 1987, of the Zen Hospice Project, the first Buddhist hospice in the U.S., Ostaseski currently heads the Metta Institute, created to provide education and training on spirituality in dying.Buddha

Buddhism, Ostaseski said, holds that life is supported by two wings, compassion and wisdom, and neither is at its best without the other. His audience, made up of physicians, hospice workers and others involved with end-of-life care, was in interested agreement with the renowned speaker as he expanded on the theme. But this writer, also in agreement, found one side remark particularly pertinent to today’s end-of-life issues.

Ostaseski spoke of a severe heart attack he suffered not long ago, and of the wisdom gained from that experience. It was insight on critical illness “from the other side of the sheets.” During his hospitalization most visitors, even longtime friends with credentials in compassion, said the wrong things. “They were always saying, ‘It’ll be better tomorrow, Frank,’ when I wanted to talk about what was going on that very moment.” Additionally, Ostaseski found that nurses and doctors “interacted with monitors far more than with the patient.” What could well have been an end-of-life situation was, in short, lacking in compassion and wisdom both.

“Hospitals are fix-it places,” Ostaseski remarked.

We may have gotten fixated on being a fix-it society. Whatever the problem, a chemical or technological answer, in the fix-it society, is instantly sought. We fix brain injuries, once-fatal diseases, missing limbs, and more. But can we let someone who is terminally ill quietly die? Seldom. More often than not we keep trying to fix her with extended interventions, futile and expensive treatments or hospital stays that make dying a horror.

Ostaseski and others are working hard to help people find meaning in their final days, focusing on palliative care. Some, including this writer, are working hard to make medical aid in dying a legal option available across the U.S. ALL of us want a peaceful and compassionate death.

The_flame_of_wisdom

The flame of wisdom

 

The personal bottom line, yours and mine, is this: eventually we die. If the focus can be shifted away from constantly trying to extend our days, we can fix the final days that lead, one way or another, to the mysterious, inevitable, unpredictable, un-fixable but quite natural end. All it takes is a little compassion, and a lot of wisdom.

The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

AS I WAS SAYING……..

listening

“Can we talk?” – that phrase so famously and often asked by the late great Joan Rivers – actually had an implied second clause: “Will you listen?”

And thereby hangs the problem. Talk is cheap; listening is rare.

Want confirmation? Spend a few minutes at a bar, restaurant, night club or any other social gathering venue. The noise level is almost guaranteed to be too high for meaningful conversation. One partygoer (okay, a 34-year-old, several generations younger than this writer/partygoer) said, “it just doesn’t feel like fun until the music and vibes are loud.” Restaurants say the noise level is needed for “buzz,” even while admitting to repeated complaints about diners’ inability to carry on conversations. It’s more just talk and talking back.

Politicians, who tend to like to talk, go on a lot of “listening tours,” the word first becoming commonplace with Hillary Clinton’s notorious preparation for her New York senatorial bid. The theory seems to be that if potential voters feel heard they’ll vote for you. But the reality is that the politician is generally listening more carefully for what potential there is for his or her upcoming campaign/proposed legislation/planned left or right direction than for the pleas of the constituency. Not that some pleas aren’t heard – More jobs! Healthcare! Housing! – but is any serious listening going on, on the part of either politician or voter? Not often. Generalized messages get through – shouts on camera do count – but these tours are for selective listening.

Serious listening is not selective, and involves a degree of compassion. Even the Buddha knew that. In a recent article published in The Buddhadharma, Zenkei Blanche Hartman responds to a question from someone whose friend is considering an abortion. Among other comments, she says, “Have you listened carefully to your friend…” and “What is the most compassionate response in this situation?”

Imagine, if carefulness and compassion could happen in the listening process.

One of the most treasured conversations I had when just beginning work on Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade was with a beloved adult niece who is a lifelong conservative Christian. I suggested that she might have to pretend she didn’t know me when my book came out, but asked if she would listen to my own story that had motivated it. She did listen, quietly and thoughtfully, not once interrupting or showing negative reaction through her body language. When I finished, she had this to say:

“Well, you know, Frannie, I believe that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. But I do feel that someone in your situation should have had better options.” We left it at that. I did not in any way change her mind about abortion – she still believes life begins at conception and abortion is murder – but she acknowledged that my story is unique, just as all of us in the reproductive rights movement believe that every woman’s story is unique. And most importantly, I felt heard.

Of the many deeply divided and overly politicized issues roiling the U.S. today, probably none is more desperately in need of civil dialog – reasoned talk and compassionate listening – than that of reproductive justice. Abortion foes term the issue “rights of the unborn.” Clearly you can’t give rights to an unborn fetus without creating injustice for the woman involved; the first, obvious obstacle to listening is in the fact that we can’t even hear each other’s subject line.

This writer recently talked about the listening business with Heather Buchheim, a Senior Manager with Exhale Pro-Voice. Buchheim is a very good listener. This may have something to do with the fact that Exhale is all about listening. Not lecturing or advising, not judging or admonishing – listening. They are also about talking, with their Storysharing and their National Pro-Voice Tour, but it is talking with attention to the listener. They hope for a culture change through much the same nonviolent ways the Buddha suggested, a change many progressive activists today still dream of: “sharing our stories and listening respectfully (because) feeling heard is crucial to our emotional wellbeing.”

Perhaps, if the decibel level were turned down a little, wellbeing might increase.

 

 

Of COURSE there's a Santa Claus

We are, it turns out, born to be believers. And that’s a good thing. According to a recent article by Wall Street Journal reporter Shirley S. Wang, imagination is a valuable asset, beginning in childhood:

Imagination is necessary for learning about people and events we don’t directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world. For young kids, it allows them to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up.

“Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman Empire or possibly God, you’re using your imagination,” says Paul Harris, a development psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies imagination. “The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”

So we start out with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and grow up to comprehend health reform. As my daughter, a nurse, said to me today, “Really, Mom, I just have to take everyone else’s word for it; there’s no way I can read those thousands of pages.” Nor I — but we are people of (varying) faith.

Although we grown-ups may have gotten realistic about Santa, studies say most of us have faith. Faith in God, Allah, the teachings of the Buddha — doesn’t make a lot of difference. But faith — belief in some power that controls human destiny, belief that doesn’t rely on logical proof — is worth having at any age. Mary McLeod Bethune, a great lady who was smarter than most of us, said, “Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”

Many of us celebrating the babe in the manger this week, along with many who celebrate other happenings and symbols, cling to the belief that there will actually, someday, be peace on earth. Even if it seems impossible.

My son (who is now 50, so don’t tell him I’m still repeating this story) was a true believer child. We had, at our house, a little green elf who arrived on December 1 and spent the next 23 days perched on light fixtures, curtain rods and high cabinet tops; Elf moved around a lot. He watched to see if everyone was good or bad, and on Christmas Eve he flew off to cruise with Santa. One December night, when my son was about 8, possibly older, I was turning out the light as he posed one last question. “Mom,” he said, “I know about Santa Claus, and I know Dad is the Easter Bunny, and all that — but… but how does the elf get from one room to another?”

You gotta believe. We have a health bill, not what we wanted, but the biggest reform in generations and something to build on. The jobless recovery means millions of kids belong to jobless parents, but Santa will come to many of them with the help of a host of community groups. All over the country, Muslim and Jewish volunteers are pitching in to relieve their Christian friends at soup kitchens so the latter can go home and read The Night Before Christmas to their kids.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all.