Aspects Of Spirituality (Part 5): Life with a terminal diagnosis

In Part 4 of this series, I explored the notion of a ‘time-life-death relationship’ and introduced the metaphor of Big River Time. Part 5 here continues the exploration of these themes. But first, to quote from that previous article:

I tend to see time as simply the medium for the life-death relationship – Something like the water on which a riverboat floats.  The boats come and go but the river keeps flowing on. Time itself doesn’t kill anybody, death comes on its own and whatever change it brings takes care of itself. And time is a big river, it quietly permeates all of our lives – Who is to say that it can’t permeate death just as effortlessly?”

The article mentioned that time might be experienced differently, play a different role or be transcended altogether at death. But rather than explore any notion of ‘the afterlife’, I’ve focused on the time-life-death relationship as it applies to the life we are currently living. Describing ‘the flow’ of Big River Time, I had also noted the sense in which time moves so closely along with us that we mostly take it for granted. And now to pick up from the end of the previous article. 

More on the Metaphor of ‘Big River Time’

“This separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, if a stubborn one.” – Albert Einstein, physicist.

Big River Time might also be described as ‘expansive time’, time where life can still be experienced as unfolding and evolving, rather than shrinking and intensifying. No need here for the ‘compressed time’ of living from MRI scan to MRI scan, from the relief of one ‘in remission’ report to the uncertainty of next one. There’s also no ‘tick-tock time’ , the time that some brain tumor patients restlessly (and unhealthily I’d suggest) liken to a “time bomb” in their heads. The ‘time bomb’ metaphor seems to just create more issues (as time bombs tend to do). It’s a metaphor that brings intense anxiety and horror together, with plenty of room for panic as well.  

Anxiety of course has a way of obstructing our better thought processes. But then our ‘better thought processes’ don’t necessarily always all travel alone, we just hope that they come to the fore when we need them. Anxiety, it seems, is just part of being human – it’s not just that we worry about ‘having a bad time of it’, it’s also about how we are presently situated to deal with what possibly lies ahead.  And so it involves perceptions of the present situation in relation to potentially unfolding situations.

When anxious we don’t feel we have control over where things are heading. The directionality of time and experience becomes an issue for us. The River feels too big, the watercourse too winding, the boat too responsive to wave and wind. And it’s not just that things might get worse – there’s also the waiting, nervous waiting for the unknown. The future doesn’t permit previews, it’s a non-present impending reality, always holding an unassailable lead on us. And so we’re stuck on the river (or so anxiety would have us believe).

My ‘critique of anxiety’ here is not to suggest there’s no upside to it. There sometimes are benefits to the right amount of anxiety – for starters, it counter-balances the dulling effects of complacency. It ‘keeps us on our toes’ so to speak. The total absence of any anxious feeling can sometimes suggest one is not ‘in touch with reality’ (for example, the reality of my highly malignant form of brain cancer or some impending danger). 

But anxiety, as far as it becomes a general disposition or attitude, is also ‘time negativised’ – anxious people are often not only unsettled by the fact that the future can’t be pulled within comfortable reach – there’s also dissatisfaction with the unchangeable past, the time that can’t be relived. And the present moment offers little solace – there is too much concern with what is happening or might happen. Meanwhile, Big River Time flows on, unimpeded by our anxious questions (When will ‘this’ or ‘that’ happen?), and undiminished the smallness of the nagging questions we are accustomed to asking (What’s the “correct time”?, Are we “on time?”).

For spirituality, there is a depth dimension to time (if you like to extend the metaphor, it is the depth dimension of Big River Time).  And there seems to be good reasons to think there is more to time than meets the eye – or the mind. According to Einstein, and many other physicists, the whole notion of what is called ‘tensed time’ (the distinction between the past, present and future) is merely a mental construct or illusion. 

And so too with spirituality. The depth dimension of time also defies the one-dimensional linear model of measurable time (where time advances along a straight line, as if it were physical, from past to present to future). On this ‘linear time’, at one dot on the line you are being born, at another you die. The relationship here is merely a matter of slowly connecting the dots – whatever is behind the constantly advancing line is the past (‘spilt milk’ so to speak), and so the only remaining option is to narrowly focus on the time-bounded future. The future takes priority over any sense of meaningful personal history or communal history.

And yet we can understand that this life is finite (the fact hardly goes unnoticed in my situation) without fixating on how finite it will be. Life itself resists that pathology – at least in as much as we consider there is more meaning to life and death than is reducible to dots and measures of time. Admittedly there’s a neatness to this clinical- linear-chronological view of time, it comes with straight lines and firm packaging, no curvatures, no bends, waves or undertow in its little river.  Life and death must fit the bare line, with the final status of time diminished to a hyphen between the dates of birth and death on tombstones.

Big Rivers too have their “endings” at the” mouth” of the sea. Closer observations reveal that it‘s all part of an on-going process and the river’s vital functions (to do with drainage, carrying nutrients, and the ‘water cycle’). As with time, there’s an internal unity to the process, the water is replenished, the river itself keeps on providing transportation and habitats for ‘being’. Some things remain in the river, submerged by their own densities, but the river itself remains one with the earth and universe.


GUEST WRITER’S BIO

Geoff-2Dr Geoffrey Arnold is an experienced counsellor who has worked with people with anxiety and depression issues (including ‘at-risk’ of suicide), grief, and general adjustment to life’s challenges. He is also a marriage counsellor and educator. He has a multidisciplinary PHD in education, philosophy, psychology and theology that focused on the big topic of ‘wisdom’.

To me, Dr Arnold goes by the name of Dad, Dadsie, Daddy, or Daddo. He is my rock. The person who I’ve always been able to rely on. The person who has been my guiding light through every crisis, small or large, that I’ve ever experienced. He is the most caring and giving person I have ever met. The first person to help loved ones, and strangers, who are experiencing difficulty. The ultimate advocate for the underdog. He has saved more lives than he will ever know. He is my hero, in every sense of the word. I’m so happy to be able to share some of his knowledge with you on my blog.

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