Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Heart of Reality

I would like to articulate an experience I had that was so powerful that it has had more influence on my worldview than all the books I’ve ever read.  Perhaps it was the closest I will ever get to a genuine religious experience.  First the context, and then the experience.

Relatively speaking, my first seven weeks in the Mayo Clinic in early 2012 for leukemia were not overly unpleasant.  I nearly always had my mother or my wife there, friends visited, and importantly for this story, nurses visited frequently in my room to say hi and to chat.  At that time, I was able to leave my door open, thus giving me a psychological connection to a world outside of my room.  The open door also facilitated casual conversation with nurses and staff as they passed by.  Outside of immediate family and friends, the staff at the hospital eventually became an essential part of my social life, as they do for most long-term residents.

Then I finally got a notorious bacterial infection known as “Clostridium difficile,” which occurs commonly in hospitals.  Immediately, the nurses closed my door and kept it closed.  They could not enter the room without donning a yellow coverall with blue gloves.  I called it the “Big Bird” outfit.  The closed door was traumatic for me, and the Big Bird routine ended the casual conversations.  Then I had a horrifying question, so I asked the doctors.  They confirmed my fears—protocol demanded that the closed door and Big Bird outfits be a permanent feature of my stay from this point on, no matter what happens.

With this essential piece of my social life suddenly stolen from me, I entered a depression.  Shortly thereafter I had the room all to myself over a Saturday and Sunday.  The doctors didn’t visit over weekends, and the nurses were no longer visiting like they once did.  I was so overwhelmed by loneliness and thoughts about my potential death that I spent the whole weekend sobbing.

On Sunday afternoon, a nurse came into my room with Big Bird on, and we chatted for about ten minutes.  It was a great relief.  I said, “Oh, I’m talking your ear off.  You have work to do!  So, what will it be?  Are we doing a blood draw or something?”

And then she said two sentences that have changed my life.

She said, “I don’t have anything to do.  I just came in here to see you.”

I immediately collapsed into a full-body sob as I surrendered to what had just happened.  She started to cry and hugged me and just let me go and go.

When I reflect on that experience, here is how I can try to express it.  No other language can capture the power of it than to say that, in hearing her words, I had seen the face of God.  All of the suffering, pain, misery, and horrors of life shattered in this brilliance that had been unleashed upon me.  It is as if she had uncovered the divine spark within her that, like the singularity that preceded the Big Bang, expanded to create universes.

The experience abides.  Every time that I replay it in my mind, I have to control my emotions.  I saw the beating heart of reality in the kind words of a nurse, and reality is absolutely beautiful.

So now I know—I matter.  You matter.  This life has a significance so awesome that even a sideways glance at its radiance would make anyone blind.

And this is why nothing about my condition really bothers me much anymore.  Every one of us has the potential to give a gift like this to somebody.  And it can be as easy as “I just came in here to see you.”

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