In community, it’s easy to equate belonging with sameness and resonance. For many in our world the feeling is “If you’re not like us, or you make different choices than we would, you’re wrong. We can’t and won’t support you – you’re either ‘for’ us or ‘against’ us.”
Often we treat with intolerance those who “rock the boat” of the status quo with the perspectives they hold or the choices they make – seeing them at best as disruptive if not dangerous. We fear sliding down ‘that slippery slope’!
Those of us who’ve done lots of personal growth work often like to think of ourselves as more tolerant – more inclusive of difference. But even here, there are times and topics where our equanimity is challenged. For me it’s right here – in these uncomfortable spaces – that if we choose to, we can tap into the juiciness of living, unwrapping and discovering some of life’s most potent gifts.
Though at first I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was happening in me, Robin Williams’ death by suicide a couple of weeks ago was one of those trigger situations. It felt like we’d known him – the absence of his unique expression of aliveness seemed palpable – yet the dissonance between what we knew of him and his private experience seemed striking.
This week another very different suicide captured my attention. Gillian Bennett, an 85 year old woman living in the early stages of dementia chose to end her life. Prior to doing so, she created a website in which she shared her careful reasoning behind her intention, and advocated for the availability of physician-assisted suicide. As she wished, the website was made public after her death. Again here I felt catapulted into deep reflection.
Sharing a quiet moment with my Mum
– in her dementia, she’s teaching me that loving presence is all that matters now
(and maybe ever!)
It’s easy to get caught up in these stories – wondering how and why these choices were made, and whether we agree or disagree with them. For sure there’s value in public exploration and sharing. At the same time, there’s a way we can use this external and intellectual focus to keep us at a ‘safe’ distance – both from any disturbance we may be feeling as we face what’s being evoked in us personally, and the larger questions these very public situations raise for us as a society.
As I sat with my reaction to these two suicides, I discovered two very different sources for my internal responses .
In pausing and loving myself in the discombobulation I felt after Robin Williams’ death, I connected with some parts of me which (at the time I had those experiences) I didn’t have the capacity to be present to the pain and sadness I was feeling. Since then I’ve noticed how much more alert and attentive to taking time in-the-moment to hold and soothe any tender parts that surface in me I’ve been. Robin’s death has led to there being more of me that can be fully present and responsive to what’s going on – in and around me, and for that gift in his dying I am thankful.
I was struck by the grace and clarity of intention with which Gillian Bennett lived out her choice of suicide. And yet there was something that didn’t sit right inside of me. Another call for taking time to notice and be curious about what was happening!
I’ve lived with the joys and challenges as both my parents (and a number of other aging relatives) journeyed through living and dying with dementia. We certainly haven’t tried to hold onto them, or prolong life, but providing care and presence throughout this journey was what felt true for our family. At the same time, I can see and honour both the very different choice that Gillian made, and the courageous and tender journey her family is now engaging.
As I was reflecting I asked myself – how does this feel familiar, when have I felt like this before? And I was taken back to the experience of being pregnant with my daughter – this after feeling our family was complete and choosing to have a tubal ligation! I had all the support of being in a family, and the physical resources to face this, and yet the internal terror I experienced was enormous – I knew having this baby would require me to completely change not only my plans for my life, but the ways I was living. And it did! I’ve been incredibly grateful for all the love and learning Rachael’s presence in my life has evoked.
One of the places this love and learning showed up was my becoming even more compassionate and honouring of the choice for abortion made by women I cared for over the years as a nurse in the Post-anaesthetic Recovery Room.
In all situations the choices as to whether to end life – whether it be early, in mid-life, or after a long and full life – are neither trivial, nor without consequences for all involved. They are also very personal – there’s no way we can ever truly know what’s going on inside the one making the decision.
|Attentional Living – Only after writing the 3 bullet points below – recognizing, acceptance and support – did I realize how perfectly they dovetailed with the notice, accept and nurture of this model that’s so core to my work
When I think about the kind of world in which I want to live and play my part in co-creating, I’m clear it involves raising awareness and expanding capacity in myself and others for:
- recognizing that each of us is walking our own path and we cannot know what’s best for another
- a deep and wide acceptance of our humanity as in each moment we make the choices we do
- and support for those facing challenging circumstances – here particularly the ones that often accompany birthing and dying.
Given my life experience, what’s now instinctive for me is to be scanning the environment for what else is possible, looking for the resources I’m sure are there. So it seems unlikely I’d make the choice Robin and Gillian made. At the same time I’m aware that until we face a particular experience we can never know for sure what we’ll choose!
Regardless of what I’d choose for me, it feels important to be willing to be present and offer loving support to any in my circle who might for their own unique reasons be facing challenging choices. Being part of a community where our choices really are honoured and supported even if – perhaps especially when – they’re different, seems to me an important quality to both nurture and stand for.