On Life’s Truly Religious Moments

Martin Buber            I don’t know about you, but in my case hospital stays tend to turn guardedly hopeful states of mind somewhat darker, more precarious. This time I was feeling unusually optimistic until a full day and a half after surgery when the effects of the spinal anesthesia stopped working its deceptive magic. At that point, through the muddle of narcotic-clouded head, the reality of my situation came much sharper into focus. While my initial right-hip replacement (Dec. 1999) was only being “revised” – to the tune, amidst all the solid steel and titanium, of a worn plastic piece in need of replacement – at that point it felt much like that aftermath of yore, from which it took me months to really get myself right. So growing afraid of going home too early this time, further complicating the recovery, I opted for the additional seven days of rehab that the insurance company offered.

By now I am home about four days, and while the progress has its predictably rough edges it is looking not unreasonable that I’ll have bounced back pretty thoroughly by the one-month point of the surgery in roughly two more weeks. In which case I can’t accuse my surgeon of painting too rosy a picture. Especially if one remembers to take such things within the natural constraints of the contingencies they are offered in, couched in phrases like “depending on what we find when we get in there” and “every body responds differently.” In this case the surgery itself, I am told, went swimmingly, and by all accounts the wound looks exceptionally good. So I think, while perhaps a bit slower than hoped, I’m on my way back to full activity.

In any case, while at the height of my agonies I always wonder how I can possibly go on (and the thought of a potentially imminent left-hip replacement, and further “revisions” of both between ages 65-70, sends me into paroxysms of utter terror and pathos!), in my heart I am conscious enough of the moral or ethical strength that as often as not tends to come through the medium of such sufferings. The truly religious moments in a person’s life, as Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggests, occur when that experience is at its most existential and its most endangered: “I who am certainly no zaddik [righteous, proven one], no one assured in God, rather a man endangered before God, a man wrestling ever anew for God’s light, ever anew engulfed in God’s abysses” (the particular quotation I draw from p. 41 of his posthumous collection of short reflections called Meetings, 1973, LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing).

For me such religious wrestling does not require the explicit belief in God, certainly no longer in binding creeds and dogma that only limit what can be apprehended or experienced. As the religious historian and writer Karen Armstrong elaborates in her book on the Axial Period of world history, The Great Transformation, such wrestling might just as well occur within the cathartic looking-inward that was the shared communal experience of Athenian tragedy. I am myself by this stage of my life rather agnostic on such questions, more skeptic than true believer; though I remain sensitive to a sense of mystery that pervades all things and might be identified as religious-spiritual in nature or even scientific, or just an imaginative or fictive visioning: I am thinking of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine poet, fabulist, and prose stylist, for whom too much certainty constitutes a tragic closing off of possibility; and Edward O. Wilson,  editor of an edition of Darwin’s four great works, famed sociobiologist with his exultant hope for “consilience” between divergent modes of knowing.

Be all that as it may, here I am at 53, ever grateful for the good thoughts and non-stifling prayers of my dearest friends. The suffering, physical and psychic, is fairly much a constant for all of us, and each of us therefore needful of each other’s support in whatever form we might be in a position to offer. My own, where the hips are concerned, is owed to a condition called osteonecrosis which I obtained honestly just before age 40. My good surgeon, whose skill and exceptional bedside manner I continue to richly appreciate, told me all those years ago that it was generally caused by one of three factors: 1) alcohol abuse; 2) steroid abuse; or, 3) “just plain dumb luck.” The latter was the only thing remotely applicable to my case, nor have I ever been enough of an athlete to throw a history of sports injuries into the mix. Whatever the origins, my bum hips are undeniably a part of my fate which I might as well get comfortable with.

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One response to “On Life’s Truly Religious Moments

  1. Ronald Pies MD

    That’s quite a saga, Brett–I hope that your recovery goes well, and that “God’s abysses” are not excessively deep! As another Jewish philosopher once said, “No limit to trials; but the wise person learns thereby.” (Solomon Ibn Gabirol, ca. 1021-1058 CE).

    Best regards,
    Ron Pies

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