Summertime...and the living isn't easy
Just before Independence Day, I saw headlines about medical scientists close enough to curing cancer, people were no longer going to die. Also gididier headlines that other scientists, blessed with Botox and ice, are close to extending human life spans to 150 years. By the end of this 21st Century, people will get closer to being eternal. A century later we should all be death-proof.
Like most grandiose schemes of grandeur, kissing mortality goodby does not seem to have been thought through. I have yet to read how some mad scientist is working on the critical shelf life issue, changing the expiration date of ears, eyes, knees, hips and heart valves. I know the young disrupters and innovators and starter uppers don't want to hear from the worldly wise and experienced, but I feel it necessary to point this out because here I am less than half of that 150, and already two of those five have worn out. Contemporaries have plastic hips and knees. Organ by organ we are trading hardware for soft ware, turning into plastic. I no longer need the Buddha to tell me impermanence is a bitch. It is a weapon of mass destruction, but we are not going to win a war that abolishes it.
And why should we? Let's suppose folks two hundred years ago found a way to surpass death and make themselves permanent. Makes themselves the chosen. We would not be here now. Nobody would've made way for the new, the fresh, the flexible. Nothing but stagnation and paralysis.
That's why these efforts feel as reckless as Brexit. Resentful of their lot in life--in this case a four score and ten year expiration date shared with others, people want out. They're angry at limitation, angry at loss of control over their own lives. So badly do they want what they want that as with Brexit, they haven't bothered to consider the hard realities and consequences.This quest reeks of animosity toward the forward pressing hordes of younger, stronger folks with all their hipbones, taut skin and not-fading smarts. As i said, impermanence is a howler.
A few weeks ago, or so I read, the octogenarian actress Vanessa Redgrave told an interviewer she was not afraid to die. In fact, she was looking forward to it. "Living is very hard," she said. "It will be easy to give up."
A non-Buddhist has nailed it. Living is actually so hard, we should be glad to give it up. Let somebody else deal with it. Not even a life of vast privilege and vaster talent that brought more of it liberated Vanessa Redgrave from human suffering. Her adult daughter died abruptly in a skiing accident; her younger sister died of cancer; she went through divorce and probably sorrows and sicknesses her publicist did not let us know about. She's a reminder nobody escapes the inevitable suffering the Buddha pointed out 2600 years ago: being born into this erratic world, bodily sickness, the painful deteriorations of old age and death with its paralyzing fears. That's just for starters.
Over the long July 4th holiday weekend, I thought a lot about what Redgrave said because the weather was so heartbreakingly exquisite. The sky was spotless blue, breezes fluttered, flowers bloomed, and the sea was warm enough to swim in. Perfection was right here with fireworks. And right beside it in full bloom with its own fireworks was Samsara, a tidal wave of sadness flowing from phone calls, emails, kaffeeklatch and texts.
On July 2 for no apparent reason any medical examiner can find, a 16-month-old two houses from mine abruptly died. The young parents are inconsolable and the 5-year-old does not know what to do. On July 1, an 85-year-old woman who lives alone and has no close family was told to report at 6 AM to the hospital for invasive testing that could provoke immediate heart surgery. The woman is terrified.
A normally doting grandmother confided the daughter-in-law divorced from her son had been cited by Child Protective Services for beating up the 14-year-old daughter my friend so loves because this mother is incapable of managing anger. What to do? Another upper middle class grandmother who is the pillar of privilege is trying to reach the much younger children her morbidly angry and weird son beat up. Finally the mother walked, taking the kids with her. Another grandmother hinted how physically painful it has become to keep and keep up with her overactive six-year-old grandson for a month while his single mother tries to sort her life out.
Cancer has returned to the body of the woman next door and the doctor says this time it's terminal. Meanwhile the chemo is killing her; some days she can't breathe. On July 1, I worked with three 7-year-olds. When i asked the sweet boy if he'd go to the office to ask for a photocopy, he stepped back, looked pained and whispered: "I can't. I'm shy." When I caught the more brazenly assertive and plumper of the two girls secretly stuffing herself with sugar, butter and whipped cream, her look defied me the way it did when she threw a plastic knife past my head toward the sink.
On July 4, I finally reached an old friend mourning for her 50-year life partner who passed in late May after a short, bloody battle with an exotic cancer. They had no children, just each other 24/7 all those years and suddenly she's all alone. I checked in with another friend who lost her 48-year life and business partner--same story, no children, together 24/7--two months ago and was struggling to establish her own life. Still no new job for a childhood friend who at 72 can't quit because she has no inner life and needs something to do, something to fill her time between grandchildren visits. I had a long phone conversation with another childhood friend in Manhattan who since she was forced to retire from her lawyer job has been a mess trying to figure out who she is and what she should do without a title and office. She has money, privilege, a husband, regular Botox injections in her face and a nice perch in midtown but she's bored, sad and scared.
Before the weekend, I had lunch with a young Sherpa woman graduated from community college in the US and totally on her own here, very unhappy that in the name of "efficiency" she doesn't get regular hours or a set number of hours per week at her paying job that pays erratically. After the weekend I had a long phone call from a friend in southern California, frustrated that he'd just lost 1/4 of his annual income because a competitor underhandedly underbid him on a big job, deliberately taking a loss to knife my friend. "Foul play," he grouched.
My French sister wrote that she couldn't go up to Paris for a weekend to enjoy the free concert tickets I offered her because she had to take care of senile parents and grumpy husband. A young friend working as a journalist in Europe was in tears after visiting a Syrian refugee camp, seeing how inhumane everything was.
A Dharma brother forwarded an email about the Chinese invading Sera Monastery inside Tibet and removing the nuns and monks trying to practice there. An elderly Buddhist nun of Swiss origin wrote from her retreat in Nepal that the monsoon and the monastery were hell on her body. Also her visa was about to expire so she was forced to leave the country without a clear place to go. And I got a call from my six-year-old "granddaughter" saying she missed me so much and when was I coming back. I tried to invite her mother to bring her across the country for a week--a week the mother was searching for something to occupy the child--but the mother already had her own life too programmed. What to say? "I miss you too."
Not even on a physically perfect Independence Day could I be liberated from human suffering. And these people want us to live to be 150?!?
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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