Recently I learned that my friend Hester had been suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. She had been focused on daily living, her long road stretching out to the horizon, attending to friends, creativity, work, and related pleasures and struggles. Within days, her life abruptly made a hairpin turn into a new path, narrow and poorly lit, and short. One week after I spoke to her, she died.
It is at these times that the veil, which protects us from certain knowledge of our impermanence, draws back and we glimpse the evanescence of all life. This happens rarely for most of us, and we usually focus our attention on the events and circumstances of our lives as if we will always be living, here on this Earth. Younger people, especially, tend to feel personally immortal, even when they know people who have died. At a certain age, that veil becomes thinner, and somewhat frayed. We have family and friends who have life-threatening illness, or who have died. The numbers increase with our own age. It becomes easier to imagine “that could be me.”
Still, the veil is there, even if thinner, and those moments when we recognize the brevity of life disappear back under the veil.
How do we live life fully, completely, inhabiting each moment we are granted? In those moments when the veil is drawn aside, can we still live in the present? Is it possible to do so despite knowledge of what awaits us at the end? Or is the veil necessary, like blinders, to keep us focused in the present? Is this a universal phenomenon, or just a product of our own culture, which keeps illness and death at a distance, and encourages everyone to hold on to the appearance of youth?
Certainly there are other cultures in which illness and death are regarded as part of life in a different way from our own, in which people are cared for at home among family of all ages. Also, there are places where death comes more frequently to people at a younger age, because of infectious diseases, hunger, and war. In these circumstances, there may be very little left of the protective veil.
Though the many religions and spiritual traditions of our world offer guidance, ultimately we each find our own way to co-exist with these questions. Like many of us, I spend most of my time focused on the details rather than the overview. I attend to my family, do my exercises, see my patients, care for our pets, plan and cook dinners, go out with my husband, my attention directed to the events carefully listed, by color and category, on my phone calendar.
However, my veil has thinned, and I know that, as I go through my day of details, my life, too, could change suddenly and irrevocably. This awareness brings so much discomfort that I immediately turn away into mindfulness practice, name it “anxiety,” and return my attention, not to my breath, but back to the specifics of daily life.
Still, I find my mind meandering at odd times, wondering about meaning. What are humans here for? Why does each life seems so expansive, and yet so brief? When people die, how can they suddenly not be here? What am I here for?
I sometimes see time stretching in a line from the past to the future, or not in a line at all, with everything happening, in some way, simultaneously, and all life connected into a vast web. In some way, everyone who was ever here, is still here. In some way, it is life itself that is the meaning.
Danielle Rosenman is a former family physician who blogs at 5 Cents: The Doctor is In.