The life and death of two prominent and beloved figures were brought
into our national consciousness recently: Lou Gehrig and Robin
Williams. They brought joy to the lives of others through their
respective careers in the limelight—one a professional athlete and the
other an entertainer. They died in different ways. Gehrig died slowly
and methodically from an illness that now bears his name. Williams took
his own life after a long struggle with depression, addiction, and
perhaps a different chronic illness looming in his future.
Williams’ death brought surprise and sadness. We still ride the
ripples as the media presents his body of work and we experience anew
all that his life’s work gives us. At the same time, Lou Gehrig’s
disease has leapt forward in public awareness as nearly everyone with
any kind of media connection participates in a fund raising effort
called the Ice Bucket Challenge. Individuals and their families, who have firsthand experience of Lou Gehrig’s disease, inspired this call to action.
What lessons can we learn from these experiences that we now share as a culture?
Life is humbling. It doesn’t matter how successful you may be in the eyes of the world–life will present obstacles. These obstacles are gifts.
What if these humbling events are actually placed in our lives to
lead us somewhere bigger? Somewhere that can only be reached when we
move beyond our tried and true, usual patterns? What if they are lessons
that can only be learned when we are shaken out of our customary way of
living, thinking, and doing? Master teacher and Franciscan monk,
Richard Rohr, says in his book, Falling Upward: “Sooner or
later … some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your
life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set,
your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking,
you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private
resources… you will and must ‘lose’ at something. This is the only way
that Life-Fate-Grace-Mystery can get you to change… and go on the
further, larger journey.” These recent losses and reminders of our
fragility may indeed be fertile ground for personal examination. They
may provide a time when we can stop skimming along the surface of our
lives and dive deep, allowing time and space for reflection. If we can
bring our awareness to the sadness and pain, it can become a powerful
teacher and an agent for change.
We are not alone.
Gehrig’s famous speech at Yankee stadium still echoes with feeling:
“For the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got.
Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the
earth.” He then goes on to give some reasons why. “When the New York
Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa,
sends you a gift – that’s something… When you have a mother-in-law who
takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s
something. When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so
you can have an education and build your body—it’s a blessing. When you
have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage
than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.”
In times of struggle, we draw our strength from community. This
community does not have to be a grand one, and our actions inside of it
do not have to be grandiose. What is a community? It can be just you and
one other person – living or dead. Those individuals who come in and
out of our daily life, right in front of you, are enough. When we take
the time to stop and to be present with a co-worker, a friend or a
family member, we are in community. In this way, we can experience the
meaning of the word “beloved” first hand, with all of its abundance.
This word can be broken down into its two components “be loved.” In community, we allow ourselves to be loved and we are open to giving that love to another.
Support can bring joy.
Pouring iced cold water over our head is a visible display of support
for a cause. At a deep level, we do this in order to be of service,
realizing that we are all equal in our humanity. The shock of cold water
brings about a very real, physical reaction. What can we do on a daily
basis that continues to show our very real support for those living
with the shock and awe of difficult circumstances? Perhaps we can do
this just by being there as equals–vulnerable, and without expectation
L’Arche is an organization with international centers in
which people with and without developmental disabilities share life in
community. It is often those without the developmental disability who
benefit significantly from the joy of seeing their own fragility
mirrored in the eyes of those they support. Once we get past the
differences that we see in each other, we can begin to celebrate and
share our common humanity.
Perhaps as a culture we are ready to learn some new lessons. We can
learn from the sadness we feel in the death of Robin Williams by being
vulnerable to it, to find hope and community. We can open up to the joy
and exhilaration that we feel by supporting a cause bigger than
ourselves–with simple actions focused on those we share life with every
Perhaps we can find a way to be loved.
Matt Mumber, MD is a radiation oncologist at the Harbin Clinic in Rome, Ga. Dr. Mumber has a special interest in integrative medicine, which combines evidence-based complementary modalities with conventional medicine to address the whole person on all levels of their being and experience.