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The Spiritual Benefits of a Medical Scare
Never let a crisis go to waste.
Let difficulty transform you. And it will. In my experience, we just need help in learning how not to run away. Pema Chodron
I was strolling through a Michael's art supply store a few weeks ago with my daughter. I hadn't been feeling all that great and had noticed a fluttering sensation on the left side of my chest earlier in the day. "Probably nothing," I thought, though I really should have stayed home that evening.
Strangely, I began to feel increasingly lightheaded as we milled about the Oak Tag paper, non-hardening modeling clay, and various other artistic knickknacks. "This is getting bad; I really need to get into the bathroom before I pass out and my daughter completely freaks."
Instead I told her that I was "a bit dizzy" and that we needed to leave.
As I (stupidly) drove home, I texted my wife to have an ambulance at the house for when we arrived. I learned later that I was experiencing something called "presyncope," which is a fancy way of saying that you're close to losing consciousness (or at least feeling that way). The EMTs checked my vitals and told me that, considering all that was going on, it would be a good idea to go to the ER.
I have never been in an ambulance before and can report that it's a very weird experience (those lights and sirens are supposed to be for other people, not me). As I watched my house, with my distressed family, recede in the distance, I entertained the thought that perhaps I'm having a cardiac episode and this is the last time I will see them.
This was one of my most sobering moments to date. It was all very unpleasant, and though the doctors couldn't find anything wrong and chalked it up to dehydration, I learned a few new things about the (potential) benefits of this kind of challenge.
Moment of Extreme Clarity
In moments of duress, there is a sharp mental bifurcation between what is essential and what is not. Who thinks about good fried chicken or an amusing film they recently saw when faced with a serious health crisis? One quickly realizes (or rather remembers) that there are only very few things that matter to us and that most of what we obsess over daily is just noise.
Keeping this in mind in our ordinary, non-crisis lives is one of humanity's greatest challenges and thus pays the most significant dividends to those who succeed. It seems to me that most serious challenges we endure are the proverbial "wake-up call." They're an opportunity to shake things up, break through the emotional calcification and recalibrate the trajectory of our lives.
Most spiritual traditions are aware that there is a correlation between the reduction of the attention we give the body and a heightened sense of the transcendent. The ultimate goal of fasting, meditation, and even things like sensory deprivation tanks is to temporarily diminish the strength and influence of our physical selves, allowing our inner selves (which some call a soul) to expand.
I noticed that there is no desire for physicality of any sort in a crisis state. I had no appetite, no desire to go for a stroll, get a massage, or enjoy some good coffee…nothing. The mind is squarely and exclusively fixed on processing what's occurring and the effect that it could have on "the things that actually matter."
There is No Other Address
It's famously said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. I don’t believe this. I do believe, however, that there are relatively few of them in there. I am not an atheist, but even as a theist, in this situation, it seemed much more natural, easy, and obvious to reach out beyond the doctors and the equipment to an Ultimate Source for help.
There's a point at which one realizes that the nature of physical reality is incomplete - it has no inherent power to help. As skillful and well-intended as they are, the doctors only make educated guesses and are fallible. The tests and procedures they use are generally effective but not foolproof.
In these moments, we can be squeezed into the understanding that our confidence in corporeal things is misplaced and that there is a wisdom and an energy at work that quietly guides all that transpires. This wisdom is the address for our pleadings and the only true hope for our deliverance from the crisis.
The net effect of this whole process is, if we allow it, to become more spiritual. And though it's very uncomfortable, in this sense, it's a blessing.