About twelve years ago I was told that I had a form of cancer. It was a great shock, of course — for we all secretly think we’re immortal, don’t we? . . . that in our special case the gods won’t give the fateful thumbs down. Yet there I was at thirty-one having to face the fact that I was subject to sickness and death. There followed a period of great emotional turmoil, but one sunny morning I woke up to find I’d come through and could accept the fact. Actually, this was an important discovery: human beings can face death with equanimity . . . Well, in the event, I didn’t die. I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals and undergoing unpleasant drug and radiation treatment, but I’ve kept going — with a little help (and hindrance) from my friends . . .
I’ve got to admit right away that these last twelve years have been unarguably the richest and fullest of my whole life. Cancer and the knowledge of mortality threw things into proper perspective for me, showed me what the real priorities were, helped me to grow and deepen as a human being. I also found my way to an authentic spiritual life.
Unfortunately, one of the ills of modern society is that it’s in headlong flight from the truth of the human condition, from the fact that we all, without exception, are subject to old age, sickness and death. Witness the cult of eternal youth that’s so frantically marketed these days: the pills and potions that promise unlimited energy and vitality; the magazine articles and media programmes that purport to explain how to live longer, look younger and cram a maximum of fun and pleasure into every hour. Before long it may well become a punishable offence to be old or ill or tired!
I don’t want to be a killjoy and pretend that life doesn’t have its lighter side. That’s certainly there and to be gratefully enjoyed. But our problem is that we want the lighter side only. So we saturate ourselves with every kind of entertainment and diversion in order not to have to face the dark side. We venerate, not sages or men of wisdom, but pop, TV and sports stars, people whose job it is — and a very well-paid job too — to divert us from, rather than alert us to the realities of our predicament. We’ve made a virtual religion of triviality. And yet we wonder why a gnawing sense of unease haunts our days and nights, and why our children, complaining of boredom, rebel.
Anyone who’s had a brush with cancer will become painfully aware of this universal flight from the dark side of life. For other people don’t generally want to know about the disease. It’s something you mainly just don’t talk about. It can lose you your friends, your job, your husband or wife. For the truth of human beings isn’t simple. They don’t neatly divide into goodies and baddies. People can be dreadful — and wonderful. And sometimes the same person can be extremely kind — and extremely unkind.
What we perhaps need to rediscover is that there’s frankly something ultimately unsatisfying about mere happiness. The great Irish poet, W.B. Yeates, once observed that our lives really begin when we discover that human existence is basically tragic. It’s only then that we get an inkling of its true grandeur and challenge, and appreciate the awesome duty we owe to our fellow human beings, our companions in this wonderfully strange and mysterious business.
It’s also true that only in extremis do we genuinely begin to uncover the spiritual dimension. In Christianity there’s a saying: Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. So too in Buddhism, a full appreciation of the fact of dukkha, suffering, is the beginning of the road that leads to the city of wisdom. It’s when the message hits us hard that we’re only temporary sojourners in this world that we awaken to the fact that there’s something larger and more magnificent than our petty selves at play here.
It’s a sad fact that we all must die. But as a wise man once remarked: ‘If we lived forever, then we really would have problems!‘
Click here to read articles by John Snelling.
Originally broadcast on the ‘Reflections’ series on BBC World Service.
Published in the April 1989 Buddhism Now.