Published in the inaugural issue of The Wagon Magazine
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
― Kurt Vonnegut
The orderly rolled my gurney to a stop before an imposing double doorway. “Okay,” he said, “This is where you get your kiss.” I couldn’t tell if he was speaking to me or to my wife. In any case, my wife kissed me and laughed and cried all at once. Then I was rolling again.
I arrived in surgery and scooted over onto the operating table. I joked with the anesthesiologist. He found my vein on the first try. I recited Psalms to myself and wondered distantly why I wasn’t scared out of my wits.
They sliced me open, broke my sternum, compressed my lungs like empty sugar bags, and stopped my heart to patch the hole between its upper chambers with a piece of my pericardium while redirecting the blood that flowed through an anomalous vein.
I don’t remember that part.
I also don’t remember my hands clawing the air, straining against nylon straps, struggling to tear the ventilator mask from my face and the dressing from my chest. My wife stifled a cry when she saw me in recovery. Apart from the convolutions of my fingers, the pallor of my face starkly mirrored the countenance of death.
“He looks so good,” the nurse told her.
When I did regain consciousness the next day, numbed by morphine and dazed by the residue of anesthesia, I asked my cardiologist if he could release me that afternoon. “I have to catch a flight to Jacksonville this evening,” I said.
I was trying to be funny. He thought I was delirious.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Lacking prescience, however, I had no excuse for the cavalier attitude with which I approached this whole business. No matter how distinguished my surgeon’s credentials, and no matter how casually he explained away the operation as routine (with the probability of success better than 99%), cardiac surgery remains as heart-stopping as it sounds: they carve open your chest and, during an extended period of clinical death, cut and paste around your most vital organ before sewing you back together.
Call it what you like; it hardly ranks among the more attractive forms of elective surgery.
Yet “elective surgery” was how the doctor had described it. After all, I had virtually no symptoms, and my condition might not advance for twenty years. Then again, deterioration could begin within months, or even weeks. And so, at my cardiologist’s insistence, I opted to exchange the distant prospect of lingering death for the immediate promise of physical pain followed by months-long recovery.
That was what I expected. Instead, from beginning to end, while my wife and children and parents were dealing with their respective emotional traumas, the greatest discomfort I suffered throughout the entire episode came not from the incision, not from anesthesia withdrawal, not even from the mild pneumonia I contracted during recovery, but from a persistent hangnail that nagged me from the day after surgery until I returned home and exorcised it with my cuticle clippers.
THERE IS A LESSON
The great tennis player Arthur Ashe, after contracting AIDS via blood transfusion, was reported to have said, “If I ask why this has happened to me, then I must also ask concerning all the good that I have had in my life.”
Indeed, Mister Ashe, may you rest in peace — you should have asked both questions, as should we all.
If life is all One Great Accident, then there is no why. But the exquisitely textured fabric of our universe, the elegant design of our world, and the transcendent nobility of Man when he listens to the calling of his soul — all these testify to the genius of an invisible Conductor who guides the symphony of Creation.
And if there is a plan behind the apparent chaos, then whatever happens for good or for bad should prompt us to ask, “Why?”
So what was I supposed to learn? Well, I could have learned to keep constant surveillance over my priorities, to never take for granted those things in life that are truly important:
Nor would the lesson have been wasted.
But this lesson is one we all have to learn again and again over the course of our lifetimes. It is important, obvious, and universal, but hardly unique to my surgery. Surely, there was a more personal lesson to be found.
THE REALITY OF SURREALISM
Had I been in pain, had I collapsed clutching my chest or felt heart palpitations, the whole episode might have acquired an aura of macabre terror. Instead, it contained from the very beginning such an air of the surreal that I almost expected Rod Serling to step out from behind the curtains and announce that I had just entered the Twilight Zone.
I was 33 years old, and I had gone to my internist complaining of migraine headaches. Doctor Schleiffer never did cure my headaches, but he picked up my heart murmur, dismissed as benign by every doctor who had noted it since I was an infant. He ran an EKG. The readout was nominally abnormal. He ordered an echocardiogram. The right side of my heart appeared enlarged.
The cardiologist ordered a transesophageal echocardiogram: the technician slid a little camera down my throat, took snapshots of my chest cavity, and revealed an atrial septal defect. In simple language, I had a hole in my heart. Without treatment, accumulated back-pressure would eventually force blood up into my lungs and cause my entire cardiovascular system to begin shutting down.
So how did I remain so calm when I had every reason to indulge in blind hysteria? With no symptoms, with no pain, with nothing but shadowy images on computer screens to indicate anything was wrong, I didn’t really believe what was happening to me.
In the aftermath of surgery, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I woke up relatively free from pain, wondering when the morphine would wear off and leave me shrieking for more. I braced myself for what the surgeon warned would be the most painful moment of the procedure, and I was still afraid to relax after the odd but liberating sensation of tubes and catheters slithering out of my body had long passed.
I tensed again at his most terrifying words, “Now, this might hurt a little,” then watched in wonder as he reeled nearly a yard of pacemaker wire out through my abdomen. Uncertain with what to concern myself next, I vexed that my hangnail might become infected if left untreated for too long.
Weeks later I still hadn’t let down my guard. But all the while, the overwhelming sense of unreality left me with the distinct impression that these things had been happening to somebody else, that I was merely a spectator in my own flirtation with death. Lying in my hospital room, I watched images dance across the TV screen while ruminating over the insipid ordeal from which I found myself so recently delivered.
RUNNING IN VIRTUAL CIRCLES
Between doses of Good Morning, America, Oprah, and Star Trek, I began to ponder the culture of self-deception that has so successfully insinuated itself into our lives, how we demand a flawless imitation of reality from the fantasy world we have created for ourselves. Animation must appear authentic in every form of virtual entertainment. Not only movies and video games, but everything that crosses the electronic screen must conform in every way to a real world from which we are systematically cutting ourselves off.
Conversely, as we impose upon all our illusions the illusion of reality, we make reality itself ever more illusory. Reality television fabricates “real life” fantasies; docudramas replace mere documentaries; personal memoir displaces simple history. Inevitably, the line between reality and unreality grows increasingly blurred.
So it went with my own surgery. My emotions refused to invest themselves in the surreal world through which I found myself passing, so much so that fantasy affected me more profoundly than reality: Surrounded by patients hovering between life and death, I found nothing more alarming than Captain Kirk ordering the destruction of the Starship Enterprise.
And this was over 20 years ago, before Facebook or Google, before cellphones or viral cat videos, before most of us even had email. Even then, fantasy and reality were merging into one through cultural osmosis.
More and more we become spectators in our own lives. The effortless engagement of the modern telescreen leaves our minds vacant of higher thoughts and empty of higher aspirations. Our souls cry out for real purpose, but our minds are too anesthetized to care.
We may look for movements to join or causes to support, but virtual activism merely pretends to social conscience, momentarily capturing our imagination and flirting with our passions, but offering little that endures.
So what can we do about it? Can we hold back the tide of cultural inevitability all by ourselves?
Of course not. Noah couldn’t stop the Flood, either. But he did save himself; and by saving himself, he saved the world.
We can’t build an ark. But maybe there is an ark already prepared for those who want to escape le deluge. And the point of entry opens up for us when we realize that reality and fantasy don’t have to be at war with one another.
AN END TO HOSTILITIES
The truth is, mankind has always lived in a world wherein reality and illusion are intertwined. The physical world that seems so real offers us nothing of intrinsic value, while the spiritual world that feeds our souls remains perpetually hidden from our senses.
Many of us try to ignore the promptings of the soul through immersion in the material. But the soul is the essence of who we are, and it will continue to seek connection with the Source of All no matter how hard we try to supress it. Indeed, all our efforts to satisfy the soul with a diet of intellectual stimulation or sensual pleasure will only leave it more desperate for genuine spiritual nutrition after the momentary distractions of worldly indulgences has passed.
Some of us go to the other extreme, attempting to cut themselves off from the physical by retreating to mountaintops or secret chambers, believing that they can keep the material world at bay by denying its existence or influence. In most cases, what they deny themselves are the pleasures of sensory stimulation that can ground us in our pursuit of higher purpose, as well as the human interaction that is essential to our humanity. Isolation may limit our exposure to the sensual temptations of this world, but it also robs us of the joy of giving, the wonder of friendship, the mystery and the majesty of love.
Our only hope is to learn how to reconcile the contradictions of life, not by eliminating them but by accepting the inevitable tension between them and directing it in a positive direction.
True, there may be those exceptional few who can make the body and the soul coexist in perfect harmony. But most of us will never escape one extreme by seeking refuge in the other. The best we can hope for is to broker a marriage of convenience – not a cold war but an uneasy alliance, with each side chafing against an imperfect compromise but pacified by the knowledge that tension can provide its own rewards.
Recognizing that the material world is illusory makes it easier to endure – perhaps even embrace – the challenges, sufferings, and paradoxes that make up so much of our existence. Acknowledging that the world of the spirit is real makes it easier for us to take hold of that higher part of ourselves that calls us to live with selfless nobility and personal integrity. Managing the tension between the two is what provides us with the sense of purpose and accomplishment that is the source of true happiness.
Accepting that the boundaries between fantasy and reality are not absolute without abandoning them altogether, we can revive the longing for authentic relationships, meaningful achievement, and spiritual awareness. By seeking deeper truths, we can uncover the keys to freedom from the prison of illusion and the shackles of cold, hard realism.
I ran into my internist a few days before surgery. “I hear they’re going to put you through the mill,” he said.
“Actually,” I replied, “they’re going to circumcise my heart.”
He looked surprised for a moment, then nodded. “That’s true.”