In ALS… Lou Gehrig’s Disease … as the disease progresses the person becomes unable to communicate with either his muscles or the world around him, even while still being able to think and know what is going on. It is as if his body purposefully rejects the outside world. Living is, at times, a dangerous business and no amount of cajoling, pleading or rejecting will convince it to compromise. And because of this there are religious traditions which have evolved ascetical practices whose purpose is to free the individual devotee from attachment to this earthly life and its demands upon us.
In India, apparently, there are a lot of babies abandoned soon after birth. In the film “Faith Connections” a Sadhu (an Indian holy man) is seen caring for a two-year old boy who the Sadhu calls “Babu” and who the Sadhu found when the baby was only a few days old; the Sadhu has been caring for him ever since. The contrast between the two is startling: The little boy running around doing what two-year olds do, and the gaunt holy man wrapped in only a cloth around his waist and legs, with Rastafarian hair piled high up on his head. At one point the Sadhu comments to the camera: “I have renounced the world, but the world I renounced came back to me in this child. It is now for me to look after this baby.” In the end, the ascetical renunciation to which life has called him through this child is now that of renouncing his previous renunciation! What I found so moving about the Sadhu in the film was that in embracing this baby’s need to be cared for he seems to have heard the Divine saying, “I am right here in this world… attend to me.” In letting go of his previous ascetical renunciation the Sadhu let go of his own will, his own “knowing better” than life, and at that point he became truly free.
As with ALS or polio or myriad other ways, life itself takes things away from us, bit by bit. At some point our happiness requires that we embrace the truth that there are things that we can no longer do; our suffering comes when we try to hang onto what life is telling us to let go of. Either in illness or circumstances life itself brings the issue of asceticism TO us; we don’t need to go out and manufacture it. In the end, the real asceticism is that of embracing life, of cooperating with its ebb and flow and disliking the fact of the ebb and flow is not even the point!
What is life telling you to let go of? In what ways are you trying to do an end-run around this demand? What if you develop ALS and your happiness demands that you accept it: Could you? Would you?