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Thursday, May 23, 2013

A decomposed letter

Dear Pete,

Last night I wrote you a long letter on the iPad and was about to send it when I thought, "It's late and a letter checked over in the clear light of early morning is always improved." So I switched off the iPad, and went to bed.

I expect you know what's coming. I opened the iPad this morning to read over the letter draft, only to find it was back to the state in which I'd begun it last night. I'd forgotten that the mobile version of gmail on the iPad doesn't update continuously, and that you must accept changes manually or they'll be lost. As you can imagine, I was much taken aback when I opened the letter draft to find it in the sad state I just described, i.e., exactly how it was when I started.

It was a brilliant letter, of course, as are all documents that are lost without any hope of recovery, and they only get better in the imagination the more you grieve about their loss, so I did what I always do in these cases and said, "It's gone. You can't get it back. Move on."

There's no Rewind button in life. No Pause. No Fast Forward. Just the Forward button, and you usually have no control over that.

Consequently, I've made a virtue of failure and turned you into a blog posting. What you'll get here is a much abbreviated (and less scintillating, of course) and probably quite different version of what I wrote last night, although the essentials won't change. A paragraph has been reduced to a sentence, or possibly a phrase, or omitted altogether, and maybe we're both the better for that. You and [your lovely wife] didn't need to read all those compliments about what great friends you have been over the past thirty years.

I was left with this bit.
Dear Pete –

I often think of you and [your lovely wife] which must make you wonder why I've not kept in touch properly. It's not you, it's me! All this time I've put it off, because I very much wanted to explain things about my religious views with some clarity. This prevarication is pure silliness on my part and should never have been the barrier I turned it into.

My apologies for that. But let's leave it, at least for now. I don't want it to get in the way again. You came to visit us here once, in this house, and I wondered whether it was before or after the tumour was diagnosed. When I think about it, it can only have been before, or our conversation would have been different from what I recall. A diagnosis that says you don't have long to live is such a watershed in life that it changes everything about your perception of life and death and one's place as a tiny speck of life on a tiny planet in a very large universe.

[That is where I started to complete the letter, the remainder of which was lost. Now comes the Clayton's additions.]

On Tuesday, 21 May 2013, [you] wrote:
Dear Denis (and Tracey),

I just stumbled upon your blog "My Unwelcome Stranger" and read some of your posts.

[Some complimentary comments about the blog omitted here. I'd like to have left them in, but there have to be some limits to ego.]
    Your chosen blog title set me thinking. Pain, suffering and death do accost us as strangers. They are foreigners, interlopers, intruders. But why would we feel that, if we are simply the product of material, chance events that necessarily entail. pain, suffering and death? The survival of the survivors, er, the fittest. But what if we were created for something better? That could account for our feelings about evil and suffering. Anyway, this was just to be a greeting from [my lovely wife] and me here in [you know where].

    We haven't been back to Armidale since we visited you both, some time (years?) ago. It was so good to know that you're both still battling on. May God grant you all needed grace and strength for each day.

    Yer old mate,

    (C=64, Mac, etc.)

I chose that name without much thought, when prompted for a blog title right at the beginning. Sometimes it seems right; most times quite wrong, because it's hard to think of a piece of your own bodily tissue as a stranger, and it's spent a long time with me since I became aware of it. I won't change the name now because it's too much the blog's masthead.

Our lives have gone along different paths, and we each have been living somewhat different philosophies, but my respect for you both has always been based on the fact that you have lived what I regard as the ideals espoused by Jesus as I understand them to be, and that you haven't simply preached the message from the front of the church. Doing means far more than talking.

Each of us bases our understanding of suffering on our experience of life, but in the end, what we do about it in this world is far more important than what we say. I don't worry too much about the moral purpose of suffering because I can see a logical, practical basis for it that you as a trained scientist also understand. It exists and we have only to look about us to see that it is a pervasive characteristic of life on the planet. We have to deal with it, mentally and physically, in ourselves, and treat others as we want to be treated.

I am sure that compassion is the greatest of virtue of humanity, and it can be found in people of all faiths and in those who profess [sometimes vigorously!] no attachment to religion at all. When asked about the afterlife, if I can paraphrase what I take to be his meaning, Confucius said, "Do not concern yourself about that. If you do what benefits humanity in this life, the afterlife will look after itself." 

I'm inclined to agree. I'm not afraid of being dead after my heart stops beating for the first time since it started 66+ years ago. I am concerned about exactly how death will happen and how long it will take in the critical phase, because the course of a brain tumour's progression is entirely unpredictable. And that's where it comes back to compassion.

Sometimes I think you have to be the recipient of compassion and be able to accept it with grace before you can understand what it really means. I still struggle with this, as independence is whittled away daily. But I have no pointless resentments. I know there are billions on this planet who would gladly trade the sort of life I've been fortunate to have for their own precarious existence.

Well, Pete, this letter bears little resemblance to the one that vanished at the touch of a button in the wee small hours today. I don't remember what I said, only how much better it was than this preachy one. **smile**

It's great to have caught up with you again.


  1. I have been thinking about the link between compassion and suffering that you have drawn. It seems that compassion is usually defined as a two part feeling, firstly sympathy or even better, empathy, but also intrinsic to the term is a desire to do something to help the sufferer. 

    Empathy or even sympathy rarely go astray but the desire to help seems to be the problem. While you say a person's life is reflected in the "doing", that doing may be the hardest part of compassion to accept. To have people feel sorry for one is OK on one level. To have people want to help cannot but create a hierarchy in the relationship. I am sure this is rarely what the person feeling the compassion intends but it can be often felt by the recipient. It is difficult to accept help with our feeling of equality intact, even whilst feeling grateful, and this is made more difficult when the compassion is so strong that it oversteps boundaries. It needs a special person to give compassionate help well and a very special person to receive it without feeling diminished.

    So endeth my rambling, but rest assured your compelling words, as usual, have some of us, other than Pete, reflecting on the issue and remembering and reliving times when we have been on the giving or receiving end of compassion. Anne P

  2. You wrote "you have to be the recipient of compassion and be able to accept it with grace before you can understand what it really means." I would say that to do that is to arrive at a state of humility.

    You also wrote "I am sure that compassion is the greatest virtue of humanity", but St Augustine thought that humility is the foundation of all the other virtues. I agree, as it seems to me that true humility (not a grovelling Dickens-ish pretend one!) is a state of ultimate acceptance of ALL realities and therefore a state of grace. Survival requires action, so we are born for that, and think it is wrong to be dependent. But humility enables you to remain independent no matter what occurs. It doesn't preclude action; Simone Weil says humility is "attentive patience". A sort of self forgetting I suppose. I'd really like to achieve that state.

    Anne as usual writes with perception and accuracy and I like what she says about the 'doing' part of compassion. It's quite painful to feel compassion but be unable to 'do'. ('attentive patience' is required!:))

    I've actually never "felt sorry" for you, though I do, always have, empathise. My condition of relative health does not give me any superiority. Oh - it can be so hard to say things the way they are meant! Too many words..

    Julie M xx

  3. These are both wonderful postings, and what you have in common is that you have both spent a long [and difficult] period of time caring for someone you love till their death. There's no doubt in my mind this gives you special insight. I won't get into a discussion about the relative merits of compassion and humility because they're really both sides of the same coin.

    It might appear that compassion is the province of the carer and humility that of the receiver, but there's something of both in both to lessen the impact of growing dependence of the latter on both.

    It was Neitzsche who said "To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering." That relates to the question Peter asked. We know from science what the reason for the suffering is, but meaning is the thing that's puzzled human beings ever since they became conscious of self, formed societies and devised notions of right and wrong.


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