“Expose yourself to doubt,” it used to say on the masthead above (Caroline later came up with “question life’s big answers.”) Periodically, I’m asked, Why? After all, the Buddha said, “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt.” Actually, He was talking about mistrust.
When it comes to belief in things that are simply beyond our ken, he wholeheartedly encouraged doubt and questioning. If we don’t know something we should just say so, and not make up an answer. I always loved the honesty of that approach. Scepticism is a fundamental tenet of what the Buddha taught.
Since Caroline entered my life, however, it’s become less of a philosophical point of view and more of a daily reality check.
I love Caroline for who she is; that needs no saying. I also love life with Caroline, and that sometimes mystifies people who don’t know us. My siblings were horrified when they learned I’d teamed up with a woman with an incurable neurodegenerative disease. What sort of future was I signing up for? Even Caroline herself, as she felt us growing close back in those early days, urged me, “Run! Save yourself.”
She frowned. “I mean it.”
“I know you do,” I said, “but I mean to stick around — as long as you want me to, anyway.”
She’d lived with multiple sclerosis for eight years at that point, and was as accustomed to it as she’d ever get, I suppose. She took it one day at a time. This was far more of a challenge than I’d ever had to deal with, but I’d lived long enough to know that I might avoid one problem only to end up with a bigger one.
“if you’re not afraid of death from time to time,
you’re not human.”
The important thing was that life with Caroline was unmistakably good in so many ways that I didn’t want to miss it. But suppose the future turned out to be horrible? Well, the future’s always horrible sooner or later, isn’t it? It’s never stopped the human race. No one knows what awaits them — except for certain death, of course. Compared to that, everything else is chicken feed.
Close to the end of my monkhood, I was taken for lunch by a benefactor. It was quite common for sponsored monks. We were expected to repay their material aid with our spiritual support. Once we’d looked over the menu and ordered, she leaned forward with an intense gaze and asked, “Aren’t you afraid of death?”
I shook my head nonchalantly. I think I truly believed I’d taken the Buddha’s words about impermanence to heart, and was at peace with my mortality. On the other hand, as I look back I can’t help thinking that I was still youthfully stupid enough to believe in my own ultimate immortality. I saw reincarnation as a hedge against extinction (which is about as opposite to the Buddha’s thinking as you could get). “No,” I said. I’m not afraid of death.”
She maintained her gaze. Clearly, she was afraid. I never did find out what prompted her intensity — a medical diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, perhaps. Looking back, I’m humbled by her vulnerability and ashamed of my pretence, even though it was well-intentioned and at least self-consciously sincere. But really — if you’re not afraid of death from time to time, you’re not human.
Nevertheless, sickness and death are grist for the mill — hardly a reason to not stick around someone you love. With that triviality out of the way, we can turn to the good side of living with someone in Caroline’s condition — the constant reminder that we don’t know what to expect, that we can’t be sure of anything — of being exposed to doubt.
Caroline’s recent veinoplasty has given her a new lease on life. It doesn’t seem to be a cure and no one’s adequately explained how it works — but that it works is beyond doubt. She has energy I haven’t seen in years, is exercising and growing stronger, and is regaining some of the balance and mental clarity she’s lost in recent years.
What’s the drawback? We don’t know how long it’ll last.
Well, isn’t that funny? We can’t be certain of anything. And so Caroline takes it one day at a time, and I, by sharing her life, get to share in that attitude in which every moment is unique, contingent and unrepeatable. Circumstances have forced our attention, and attention is always a good thing. It’s the key to the Buddha’s way:
Attention is living; inattention is dying.
The attentive never stop; the inattentive are dead already.
—Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha [Dhammapada 21, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]
I think that by avoiding doubt, we’re evading reality. Life’s uncertain — so discomfortingly so that we make up certainty — but that’s just the human spin on life. Doubt is healthy; it keeps your mind, your attitude and your options open.