Over lunch recently a friend asked me, “Why did you go to those monasteries and fly all the way to Australia? I don’t know many who would do that.”
After pausing he then asked: “What were you looking for?”
I’ve often asked myself that question since 1997, when my wife Martha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I’m still not sure what prompted my search. Nor am I certain what I was looking for other than I wanted to find a way out of our crisis—a dire situation that was impossible to escape, the medical community said back then. It still does.
So why didn’t I just accept our fate, and live with it? Live with it in a suffering, stoic kind of way
As I reflect on this question, I see several influencers along the path that arose before Martha and me.
First off, Martha and I rarely, if ever, faced a problem that didn’t have either a solution or some way around it. Why should this be any different? Martha had been heavily involved in local politics, and if one tactic didn’t work a couple of others usually did. I experienced the same with the magazine I launched and ran for 26 years. Call us naïve, but that was the way our minds worked.
A sharp influence was Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer. I began reading him a few years before Martha’s diagnosis. I’d been raised in a rather stringent Protestant church, and this Catholic monk’s exploratory approach to life and spirituality lit up my heart and mind. He pointed me to Christian traditions and practices that I’d never heard of, let alone experienced. I’ll describe more of his influence in a later post.
Then there was the nun in Kentucky who we visited soon after Martha’s diagnosis. This nun’s faith echoed Merton’s---humble, inquisitive, and experiential. Her last words to us were, “You might want to explore meditation and alternative forms of healing.”
I took her seriously.
One of the first “medical” books I read was by Norman Cousins, the late author and former editor of Saturday Review magazine. In Head First: The Biology of Hope, Cousins marshaled scientific evidence that backed up his hard-won conviction that “the mind can help mobilize the body’s healing resources.”
Years before, he had developed a mysterious illness that doctors declared was irreversible and likely fatal. Cousins took matters into his own hands, as he describes in an earlier book, Anatomy of an Illness. I vividly remember two of his tactics: First, working with his primary physician he moved from the hospital to a nearby hotel room. The hotel was quieter, more restful, and more sanitary, he said, offering an improved chance for healing. Besides, he added half tongue-in-cheek, the hotel was much less expensive.
Second, he contacted his friend Allen Funt. Those of you old enough will remember Funt as the producer and director of the popular TV show Candid Camera. Cousins asked for Funt’s back episodes. Once in hand, Cousins began to watch them, belly-laughing his way through an otherwise desperate situation. He ultimately recovered his health, and Cousins subsequently was invited to serve as an adjunct professor at UCLA’s School of Medicine (the only lay person to have been so invited), where he did research on the biochemistry of human emotions.
After reading his books, I embraced Cousin’s mantra with a passion: “Don’t deny the diagnosis. Try to defy the verdict.” I set out to defy the verdict that the name “Alzheimer’s” had rendered to Martha and me in so many ugly ways.
Another strong influence is the late Canon Jim Glennon, the Anglican minister with a spiritual healing ministry in Sydney, Australia. I’ve written about him here and here and here. These many years later, his message still resonates within me: “Either focus on God and his kingdom, Carlen, or focus on your problems. You can’t do both.” His book, Your Healing Is Within You, along with a set of his tapes and our friendship continue to deeply influence my thinking and daily practice.
As I reflect back on the early years of our path, I realize that I was running with a mindset that can only be described as desperate and stubborn: “I’m going to find a way out of this, or die trying.” These are the traits that the nun in Kentucky called me out on when she suggested that both Martha and I explore the difference between “willfulness and willingness.” I describe this conversation more fully in my forthcoming book, A Path Revealed.
I recall Jesus’ statement: “Seek and you will find.” Over the course of seventeen, often fitful years I came to understand his statement this way: You won’t necessarily find what you’re looking for initially. But you will receive what you need.
And what our family continues to receive I would trade for nothing else.
P.S. Last week I put forward a request. I’ve had such a strong response to the posts where I, at 70, am talking with me at 40, I’d like to hear from you: What’s the one thing you would tell your younger self if you could? Look back at least a decade, preferably further.
If you’re up for sharing this publicly please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Try to keep it to 100 words or less. If I get enough of these I’ll share them with the rest of us. And PLEASE put in the subject line: MY STORY; otherwise I might miss it.