The Terrible Abyss

When I started writing this weblog right after September 11th, I was primarily concerned about the crisis our nation was facing and how we would deal with it. My hope was that we might learn something about ourselves as a nation and deal with Afghanistan in a more enlightened way then we had dealt with the Middle East in the past. In some ways, I was attempting to use these pages to talk to someone other than myself about what I felt were failures in our government’s policies. In some ways, I think America has done a better job in this war than might have been expected, even though we may well be facing an entirely new Constitutional crisis in the way we deal with aliens and those who are suspected of aiding and abetting terrorists.

Suddenly, though, that my concern over the nation’s problems has taken a backseat to my own personal crisis. In the last month-and-a-half I have discovered that I have a large cancerous tumor in my throat and have had to examine the different treatments available, none of which are very good, and decide which of these treatments I will try. In essence, I have been making life-and-death decisions and decisions about the quality of life almost daily over the last two weeks.

I’m not writing this to complain about my health or to garner sympathy for I’m getting more than enough of that. I am saying, though, that the philosophical positions I have been exploring on these pages have suddenly taken on a new importance and have influenced the way I have dealt with these problems. To the extent that these philosophies have allowed me to make calm, rational decisions based on my value system, I have been happy with them. However, when I feel unable to make a decision or when after talking to a doctor, I just want to give up and go to sleep for the night at 5:00, I feel my philosophy has failed me and I need to re-examine my beliefs.

Obviously, I would rather not be going through this right now. Just as I would rather not have gone through the Vietnam War, my first fight with thyroid cancer, or my divorce. However, I truly believe that moments like this, if we survive them, help us to get more out of life. By forcing us to see our life’s decisions in the hard glare of critical decisions, we can begin to see how strong our beliefs are and whether or not they truly help us to make decisions when we need to. They force us to consider whether we are wasting our lives when there are more important things to be done and to decide what really is important.

After I have had my upcoming surgery, I will be unable to eat, except through a tube, or talk for several weeks. I plan on spending those weeks reading and meditating. There is no better way to see life than to see the abyss that surrounds it.

So the abyss—

The slippery cold heights,

After the blinding misery,

The climbing, the endless turning,

Strikes like a fire,

A terrible violence of creation,

A flash into the burning heart of the abominable;

Yet if we wait, unafraid, beyond the fearful instant,

The burning lake turns into a forest pool,

The fire subsides into rings of water,

A sunlit silence.

from Theodore Roethke’s “The Abyss” in The Far Field