One insight that completely changed the quality of my life came from the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton from an entry in his journal describing a hot summer afternoon.
He noted the color of the sunset and how the breeze bent the flowers and how the cattle were resting under the shade of a tree because of the heat. He focused his attention on the simplicity of nature, on all that was silent and beautiful, and he ended his journal entry that day with this sentence: “This day will never come again.”
I read that line over and over until I realized it had taken on a sacred meaning for me. It had illuminated the ordinary in my life, the way I saw my family members, each day, and each one of my friends. Every time we gathered or gather together, I now think, “This day will never come again. I will never be here with you exactly like this again.”
That one sentence was an illumination of my soul, and nothing in my life has ever been the same since. That one insight has given the right proportion to all matters for me and I dwell in that thought the same way I dwell in a deep prayer. A thought-prayer like that renews my perspective and lifts me beyond ordinary thinking. It reminds me that no day of my life will ever come again. All lesser things fall into a different perspective when placed against a truth of such magnitude.
We are a culture that reaches its conclusions based on simple measures, among them the pain-pleasure scale. If something causes pain, it’s bad; all pain must be stopped immediately. Illness is painful, crises are painful, and so, based on this line of reasoning, we usually assume that the root cause of these conditions is fundamentally negative. That is simply not true.
I’ve learned in my many years in hospice work that sometimes a health crisis is one’s highest calling in life, and in that case negativity has nothing whatsoever to do with it. For example, Helen Keller developed an infectious fever at the age of 18 months that caused her to go blind and deaf. Was this because of her negativity, or was it a necessary crisis that opened her path of destiny? We know the answer to that now, and even Helen Keller wrote that she viewed her blindness and deafness as essential to her calling in life.
Illness is often part of a person’s destiny and not the consequence of negativity or stress. I remember riding on a bus years ago to go downtown and I sat across from a young man who had lost an arm and a leg in an accident. He noticed me looking at him and immediately struck up a conversation with me about how his accident had occurred. I commented that I found his attitude about his loss of two limbs remarkable, to which he replied, “That’s exactly what I hope people would say. I think my job now is to make people appreciate their lives more.”
You may think that losing two limbs is a high price to pay for being a vessel of optimism in life, yet I am now passing on his grace to everyone who reads this story, which makes him an even more effective vessel of grace.
Healing negativity does not require that you excavate every negative thought or emotion; instead, make a decision each day to find something of value to appreciate in your life, but appreciate it all day long. Or choose a positive thought and use it during your ordinary activities.
Healing does not require that you master the unreasonable side of your reason. Not does healing require inner perfection of any order. A common trait shared by people who have healed is that they cease being unreasonable in ways that no longer matter in the greater scheme of life.
Against the scale of life or death, how important is winning an argument? How important is holding a grudge? How important is anything other than how well we love others, how deeply we regard the value of the gift of our life, and what we do with our life that makes this world a better place?