Failing at Enlightenment

When you’re diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, you realize there are two different groups of people in the world.  There are the sick and the healthy.

You already know about the healthy.  (After all, you are a formerly healthy person yourself!)  But, the longer you are sick, the more you learn about the healthy — and it isn’t good.  They are so heedless, so superficial, so carefree.  Since they are so ignorant of their own good fortune in being healthy, they don’t recognize their appalling arrogance in assuming they will always be healthy.

You don’t want to be too hard on them — even if they do say the stupidest things to you, like how your attitude is the most important thing, blah, blah, blah.  You can remember how it was to be that foolish.

But now, being sick, you have been enlightened.  You realize how precious and finite and delicate life is.  Your eyes have been permanently opened.  You take nothing for granted — not a minute, a breath, a smile.  If only the healthy could understand what you understand.  But, of course, they cannot.

There is a problem with your permanent enlightenment, though.  If you are fortunate enough to become healthy again, it slowly begins to fade.  You become — sadly! — similar to the blithe, thoughtless, healthy person you used to be.

Your old enlightenment returns at odd occasions, though, like checkups at the doctor’s office.  It lasts long enough to give you a tantalizing glimpse of what you have lost — the vivid emotions, the fevered embrace of life, the gratitude for normalcy.  But, if your news is good, it vanishes once again.  You have returned to the other side, to life among the healthy.  And do you really appreciate it?  No, of course, you don’t.

The old enlightenment flares up at other times, too.  You feel it when you have news of an old friend’s critical illness.  How random and heartbreaking life is, you think.  You will yourself to remember that, but you know you won’t succeed.

Instead, what you remember is your old friend and how you were young together when you were in grad school.  Scenes shift through your mind — the country and western bar, where you all danced to Willie Nelson and Hank Williams, laughing and sweating and throwing back golden rivers of beer.  The holiday break, the trip in an old green Volkswagen bug.  Oh, yes.

You, the person who fails again and again at permanent enlightenment, know those days are long past, no matter what.  But at least you’re finally smart enough to realize that a small piece of you and your memories and your hold on life will be extinguished by his death.

Is this another lesson — that there are only two groups of people, the quick and the dead?  Hell if you know.

Godspeed is all you can think, even if you don’t believe in much of anything.  You know this one is going to hurt.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about plan now for your ultimate sendoff

22 comments… add one
  • Sheryl Link

    Ruth – You’ve brought me to tears with this one. As someone who is all-too-familiar with lost and found enlightenment, I am here with you. And as someone who has lost not one, but two friends to the same disease as I had, enlightenment reappears with a vengeance, only to be lost…again.

  • Steve Link


    Not long after I was diagnosed with cancer, I was going through my routine morning prayers, which include thanking God “for all that I am and all that I have.”  I then thought, “OK, God.  I  just thanked your for my having cancer.  You’re gonna have to help me understand this one.” 

    That morning I got a phone call from a friend  whom I hadn’t talked to in while and who was dying of liver cancer.  “I hear you have cancer,”  he said,  “Let’s eat.”  We had a breakfast at which he was joyously consuming biscuits, cream gravy, and eggs.  “What’s it gonna do? Kill me?” he laughed.  I laughed, too.  We cried. We hugged.  He died a few days later, believing as I did that God’s greatest gift is relationships.  If they weren’t such a gift, the loss wouldn’t hurt.

    Godspeed indeed.

  • I try very hard never to lose sight of how very fortunate I am to be healthy and to have a healthy child. Unlike you, Ruth, I’ve reached enlightenment through other people’s illnesses and also through those random quirks of fate, aka accidents, that just reach out and grab people away from you. Every loss hurts and chips away at complacency, especially when you know you’ve done nothing to deserve it, that you’ve taken chances and made enough wrong decisions along the way for it to be little short of miraculous to arrive at this stage of life relatively unscathed.
    My heart goes out to you and your friend.

  • I’m not a religious person, but, with age, have begun to thank God on a regular basis.  My husband and I are healthy, and our adult children are healthy (3 of mine, 4 of his), but all around us friends are facing challenging life experiences, be it illness or children who have developed some kind of mental illness.  It does make one look at life differently and appreciate every day.

  • Loved this one, Ruth. Thanks. Sorry about your friend; she is lucky to have your friendship at a time like this.  

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. This particular musing hits home, considering the bevy of family medical crises brewing around me.

  • Winston Link

    When I turned 55, I sat down and counted exactly how many days my father lived beyond his 55th until he died, then calculated the ages of all close family and family friends who survived him at the time of his death. Then I reflected upon their ages and state of health at that time.  In hindsight, I realize I physically started going downhill at that time after my own 55th.  Movement has slowed considerably over the past three years.  Everyone is gone now, except me, born as I was on my very own mini-generational shelf.  I catch glimpses of myself and I move old.   I’ve become stiff, achy, slow.  They are gone and I have taken their places en mass.  I now know why I walked faster, leapt, ran and they did not– but they smiled anyway, and understood how I could.   I want to sit again among the old ones and say, “I understand, I mean I really understand why it is that you are slow, ache, yet still shuffle along, smiling.”  For me, that is the harshest enlightenment– knowing there’s nobody left to hear those words.

  • How can an essay be so funny and so sad at the same time? You are such an amazing writer Ruth. Godspeed.

  • Beautiful, as always, Ruth.

  • Cindy A Link

    Maybe Winston could adopt me. I would listen to his every word just as I read yours every day, Ruth.

    My younger brother was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer last year. Everyone suspected but only I knew that he would probably not see 2010.  He was the sole provider for his wife and two young children. For three months, I drove the 30 miles to work every morning and cried the whole way imagining being seated next to our devastated mother at his funeral.

    Long story, but he miraculously survived. Then for awhile I drove the 30 miles to work being thankful and thinking of the possibility of devine intervention.

    But the edge of the miracle has worn away in just a few months. Now I just drive to work.  I try to get the appreciation back, but it’s like a bullet that whizzes by your head. Momentary gratefulness, but then on to the business of living.

  • I’m with Sheryl. This essay did bring me to tears. Its my birthday today and you hit a couple of notes with your fine words and insight.
    Thanks for being there!

  • Craig Link

    I’m glad you space these posts out Ruth. They are hard to recover from.
    And Cindi, I read your reply and was reminded of the Buddhist proverb-
    Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water 
    After enlightenment chop wood, carrry water 

  • Beautifully said, Ruth.
    Would that we could be permanently “enlightened” by the blessings of a healthy life. But, even the healthy life is but a blip on the massive radar screen of time; it all comes to an end. Eventually.
    Thanks for a great post.

  • So true.  You always hit the nail right on the head, Ruth.

  • Again, you’ve expressed so many of my own feelings in a beautiful, spare piece. The loss isn’t just the connection that  you sort of trust will go on forever, even though you know it can’t, but the room in your friend’s head and heart that holds so much of your past and belongs to you alone. Where’s the link…?

  • It was shocking when, in my thirties, I began to fully recognize how fragile life is while working in a brain surgeon’s office.  Life can be transformed in an instant of knowing.  One day you have a headache, the next week you have a scan, the next week you are seated as a surgeon explains to you and your family how your lives as you knew them are now forever changed.
    For yes, none of us is so isolated that our shifted circumstances do not affect others.  It is a rare thing when only one life is changed by accident or disease.
    Thank you for this beautiful glimpse into the ongoing lessons of appreciating the gift of our intertwined lives.

  • Cindy A Link

    Good one, Craig.   My favorite Buddhist saying is “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”

  • Oh Ruth, I’m so sorry about your friend. I wish enlightenment didn’t have to strike us, but alas, it does and how.

  • Eventually enlightenment comes to all of us if we live long enough.  I will experience (notice I didn’t say celebrate) my 78th birthday on Monday.  Like Winston, I am the oldest person alive in a large extended family.  I tell myself every day that I am lucky to be alive and healthy and happy and prosperous.  And yet I know that chances are I will not live another 10 years.  But still, I am lucky.  Even if I die tomorrow everyone will say, “She was lucky.  She lived a long life.”
    And then there is the puzzling phenomenon of people who court death in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons — for skiing, for religion, for political ideas, for sex, for drugs.  Why?
    I think it is better to cling to life, young or old, healthy or not.  Nevertheless, the longer we live the more we grieve for those we lose.

  • Beautiful essay. Interesting isn’t it, that when someone is gone it’s the little things, the small, easy moments that we remember and cherish.

  • Beautiful. And sadly, so true. The taking for granted part. But, then it is a way of survival, isn’t it?

  • Such a thought-provoking post. I read it twice. Well worth it.

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