Life and Death Pilgrims
One of the dilemmas – or opportunities, depending on how you look at it – of sitting in a lounge in a large hotel is overhearing the conversations of other guests. As much as I was trying to focus on my own work, the conversation of a family several tables over kept intruding on my mental space. Both father and grown son were doctors – the father retired, the son in the middle of his practice. While I struggled to think about pilgrimage and the concept of liminality, they got onto the topic of “end of life practice” in hospitals.
“My tendency is to be up front,” said the son. “That’s the best. My colleagues act all coy, but when I walk into a room I want patients and their families to know when the quality of life is just no longer there.”
“Better to be honest,” the mother agreed. “You’re not helping the family if you hide them from the truth.”
“We all gotta go sometime.”
There was silence a second.
“Except that we’re not always right,” the father spoke into the pause. “That’s one thing I’ve learned.”
“Really?” answered the son (I wasn’t sure if he meant: really, we’re not always right? Or: dad, really, you’ve learned that?)
That was when I realised they were talking about the same thing I was thinking about: liminality.
Pilgrimage, among other things, is a chance to practice at life and death. It’s “heightened” time, time intentionally taken away from the stultifying but often necessary routines that make our days such a blur of appointments and distractions. In that heightened (some would say “liminal” or “threshold”) time, we have the chance to re-order our priorities, forgive ourselves or others, and – perhaps – set some new directions in the face of our own mortality.
Embarking on a modern-day pilgrimage is an intentional act of flirting with edges – the edge of one’s quotidian experience, the edge of comfort and sometimes the edge of one’s physical capabilities. And, in one sense, the edge of life. After all, as much as we hide it from ourselves, we all know, down deep, that, as the young doctor said “we gotta go sometime.”
Funny then, that the very next thing the son did was to pull out his smart phone: “look at this,” he told his parents, “I took it just before I left.” And what I heard over the oohs and ahs of the grandparents was the sounds of a young child – a two or three year old – playing.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” they said.
Indeed, life is. Pilgrimage is a way of reminding ourselves where we’re headed. And that we’re not there yet. Both. Life IS beautiful. Which is why we should make the most of it.