It's life's little things that matter most
A MAN'S LIFE:A lesson from the school of terminal illness, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN
A MAN who received a diagnosis of terminal illness once told me that the details of daily life had suddenly become vivid for him.
At the time I thought no more of what he had said but recently his words came back to me, and not for any dramatic reason.
I was standing waiting for a bus and feeling bored when the thought struck me that my days are filled with thousands of disregarded actions. My life, then, must be filled with millions of disregarded actions.
I remembered, for the first time in ages, the words of the man who had found a new delight in the mundane. Like all humans he had been a problem-solving creature and had tended to see each act as a means to an end.
The problem with this approach for all of us is that our actions have little value in themselves: they happen only to make something else happen. Ultimately, this is a tiring way to live; the production line never stops running.
When I was writing something about this recently, I noticed that after finishing the first sentence I had paused and was looking out the window.
The purpose of the pause, I would imagine, was to allow me to work out what to write next, so it was a means to an end.
But I realised that if I was also willing to attend to the pause as an experience in itself, I could see flowers, shrubs, cars passing on the road outside under a blue sky.
And it seemed to me that I could add value to my life by giving attention to the thousands of disregarded actions (opening a door, typing in a password, washing my hands and so on) that actually constitute so much of living.
When you look at a craftswoman or craftsman working you see that each moment has two values: it is a means to an end (the end being a finished artifact that will satisfy something in the artist and perhaps in others); and it is an experience in itself as you can see from the absorbed attention to detail in that moment.
We can be craftsmen and craftswomen in our own lives by paying attention to otherwise disregarded actions and experiences.
And the good news is that we don’t have to wait for a terminal illness to begin to appreciate the details of living.
“After my husband had his first heart attack he went through the aftercare and they were brilliant looking after him, but they never looked at the mental side of things. It was offered but he refused it. Men don’t like to think they are depressed, It is looked on as a weakness.”
So writes a reader in response to a recent column based on counsellor Cecilia Keogh’s research on the scarcity of psychological help for people with cardiac problems.
“He went on to have a by-pass and he went through awful depression after the operation. He fell out with a lot of friends and family. It was a stressful time.
“The point I would like to make is, they spend thousands of euros fixing your heart and nothing on fixing your head. It is only because I am a strong person and have encouraged him to see that life is worth living, that he is where he is today.
“You lose out on so much when you have heart disease. The medication robs you of your manhood. That alone is hard to deal with. Also the financial strain it puts on people. I wish the medical people would address the whole person, not only the medical side.”
In this case it appears some psychological help was offered but turned down. But my reader’s story underlines the extent of the emotional and relationship challenges that come with serious heart disease. This needs to be recognised by men and women themselves and perhaps the medical people need to be more insistent on the need for psychological help.
Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.