Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year. New Resolve. Choose Life

Bare bones life itself can be terrifying—bad enough to die for, good enough to choose.

Martha Mason spent her life of sixty-one years in an iron lung. Stricken with polio in 1948 at age eleven, Mason, who had watched her brother die from the same disease, decided to outrun it. She was confined to an iron lung and given a grim one year’s prognosis.


The disease captured her entire body, turned her into a quadriplegic, confined her to a draconian contraption that looked like a rocket ship going nowhere, outfitted with pumps that inflated and deflated the lungs keeping her alive—after a fashion— and seemingly defeating the child’s decision to outrun this affliction.


I saw one of those full body tubes when I was about eleven. All you are is a head sticking out forced through a tightly sealed hole for your neck, worse than the snuggest of turtlenecks. I saw a young boy, Robin, a bit older than myself, the son of friends of my parents, in an iron lung. I had thought lungs were small but his substitute lung was monstrous. I didn’t know Robin well but ever since I saw him trapped in there with only his small frightened white face showing I have lived with a fear of being squished alive. Breathing though vital isn’t all there is.


Robin died. I was relieved thinking him better off but also glad I didn’t have to see that sight again. But it lingered in my dreams and even now is easy to conjure.


Would I have the fortitude, the cool to choose life under these circumstances? How would God be in this with me? I’d rather be crucified—I think.


But Martha Mason could talk, think, love, eat and read. She had a mother who stayed by her side, a college degree honestly earned, and friends who enjoyed her mummy-like company.


Reading about her recently in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine (112/27/09) evoked terror and admiration for this woman’s spirit so dramatically in love with bare bones life that she chose it.


Besides her inside and outside gifts, she had an unexpected grace left to her she pretended by her dead brother. It was a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations.” In it she read this life-choosing, life-saving thought: “Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away.”


It would be easy to chalk this wise thought off to the stereotype of stoicism—lots of denial and no fun.


Marcus Aurelius was a second century Roman Emperor, a good one in fact, and also a Stoic philosopher who proposed a government of duty and service. He also thought that every human being could participate in the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil though they often were unable to tell the one from the other. He wrote that all partake of this same mind and all possess a share of the divine.


This attitude, not of glib positivity fueled by denial but of wise appreciation for the mixture of life’s circumstances and choices, distinguished this thinker. It isn’t so much about stop your whining, suffer in silence as it is about choosing to embrace the life you have after you have grieved not having the life you want, and to do so with humbleness of heart and valor of spirit.


The Old Testament writer of Deuteronomy put similar words into the mouth of God: “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you may live . . .” (Deut. 30:19 paraphrase)


In 2010, resolve to choose life!