“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam “The world was created for me.” (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27)
In a 1994 speech at a conference on “Spirituality and Healing”, Wendell Berry spoke about the importance of good food to a person’s healing, saying:
You would think also that a place dedicated to healing and health would make much of food. But here is where the disconnections of the industrial system and the displacement of industrial humanity are most radical. Sir Albert Howard saw accurately that the issue of human health is inseparable from the health of the soil, and he saw too that we humans much responsibly occupy our place in the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay, which is the health of the world. Aside from our own mortal involvement, food is our fundamental connection to that cycle. But probably most of the complaints you hear about hospitals have to do with the food, which, according to the testimony I have heard, tends to range from unappetizing to sickening. Food is treated as another unpleasant substance to inject. And this is a shame. For in addition to the obvious nutritional link between food and health, food can be a pleasure. People who are sick are often troubled or depressed, and mealtimes offer three opportunities a day when patients could easily be offered something to look forward to. Nothing is more pleasing or heartening than a plate of nourishing, tasty, beautiful food artfully and lovingly prepared.
Anything less is unhealthy, as well as a desecration. Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs? Are we confronting some fundamental incompatibility between mechanical effciency and organic health? I don’t know. I only know that sleeping in a hospital is like sleeping in a factory and that the medical industry makes only the most tenuous connection between health and food and no connection between health and the soil. Industrial medicine is as little interested in ecological health as is industrial agriculture.
This evening I was contemplating the frantic modern aphorism YOLO – you only live once – in juxtaposition with today’s psalm (Psalm 90) which says, “So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.”
The verse that I found most striking from this psalm, however, is this one: “Cause us to rejoice according to the days that You afflicted us, the years that we saw evil.”
Rashi’s commentary offers: “Cause us to rejoice in the days of our Messiah according to the number of days that You afflicted us in the exiles and according to the number of years that we experienced evil.”
Or, in other words: Redeem whatever time we spent not truly living. As many days as were sorrowful, give us glorious ones.
How natural is it to pray: As many days as we lived during the pandemic, give us in health and freedom and adventure.
Sometimes we don’t only live once. Sometimes we live affliction, then rejoicing. Sometimes we live exile, then return. Sometimes we live desolation, then hope.
Sometimes everything that wasn’t truly living can be somewhat redeemed, even in this life.
And when that happens, it’s like living (at least) twice.
This evening I was having a phone visit with my friend Don, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.
I always enjoy our weekly chats, and tonight he discussed something that I found particularly insightful.
“I have a 7-person health team,” Don told me. “I have a heart doctor, a GP, an ophthalmologist, a dentist, a foot/nails doctor, a personal trainer, and a Chinese massage therapist.”
He named each member of his health team with pride and appreciation.
Then Don told me, “I had some friends who were so successful, so smart, so rich and they’re all gone. I don’t think they had a health team.”
I asked Don why he thinks his affluent friends had not attended to their health like he does.
“They don’t know what they don’t know,” he suggested.
The other day I was having a call with my aunt and godmother who is a hospice nurse in the U.S.
She had texted me to ask, “Have you talked about dying and food? How our bodies need less and less but families want to keep feeding the dying person? Food = Life = Love. It’s quite a psychological issue.”
I was interested to hear more from her about this, so I gave her a call.
She told me, “I have some patients who, if left on their own, wouldn’t eat. They would just stop eating and it’s not that they would be starving. It’s simply that their body doesn’t need the food anymore because they are approaching death. However, their loved ones worry they’ll starve and so they think that they must feed them.”
Sometimes hospice caregivers will spend an hour trying to feed someone a bowl of oatmeal or three hours trying to feed someone a shake, she told me.
My aunt expressed some frustration over this saying that is makes her wonder: “Why are you doing this? You’re forcing it.”
In 1993, John Paul II inaugurated the World Day of the Sick to be celebrated each year on February 11th. He wanted the annual day to serve as “a special occasion for growth, with an attitude of listening, reflection, and effective commitment in the face of the great mystery of pain and illness” and he specifically addressed all those who are sick, calling them “the main actors of this World Day.”
What did he mean by this?Continue reading