Death as an Outsider

It’s always surprising to me when someone looks to me for advice, or someone to talk to. Not because I can’t do it, but it’s rare that I seek people out to talk to them about problems in my life. I’ve gotten used to handling them myself, or showing what I choose rather than the whole truth. I don’t know that it was ever in my nature to show anyone everything that I have. I’m sure that cost me more than I would ever care to admit.

I spent a long time in therapy, probably for longer than I really should have. It’s not because they don’t help, but if you never really let go, they never really can help. I have never been one to let go, not completely. I’ve been swallowed by emotion, I’ve hidden from it, and I’ve spent a lot of time suppressing it, but it rarely ever completely controlled me. I understand it, but I still can’t control it either. So we exist, in stalemate. It works, and I’m happy, but there are far more extreme ups and downs that I have never been taken to. So how do I help others with their extremes?

I have students and friends come to me from time to time with problems, and I help where I can. Self esteem issues, lack of understanding the value of mistakes, not knowing that it is okay to feel what they feel, dealing with divorce, how to connect with their family, or how to find balance in life. I used to tell them to look for therapist, a priest, monk, someone they could talk to about the problems. From what everyone has told me, there is a lack of that kind of advice here.

Beyond anything else, I found the purpose of religion to be a community with leaders who could help guide people, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, whatever you want to call it. People who needed someone outside the problem to give advice, or someone who could help them deal with life and death. The west drifted into the modern age of psychology and philosophy, eventually creating an entire workforce dedicated to dealing with people’s problems, with therapy, drugs, whatever the person may need.

China doesn’t have much of a mental health care system, and the religions don’t offer those services anymore, so people are left to their friends and family to help them. Mostly, it seems to work, but there is never an outside voice to consult, no path to the rare and horrifying experiences of life. Books can teach a lot, but there is nothing that teaches life lessons like the right teacher.

A friend came to me trying to deal with finding out that his mother is dying, months at best, even with treatment. He is a doctor, and he never saw the sickness coming. She doesn’t know yet, as is the social norm here. There are choices to be made, and none of them are particularly good. So, he ask me for advice. The outsider, someone who has studied some of these problems. I taught a class on dealing with the series of events surrounding medical death, so he asked me.

The problem is, I also studied sociology. I know that any advice I give him is as an outsider. I am not Chinese, and what I believe and say and do does not follow the social contract here. For me, she should know. It is her life, and her choice, for as long or as short as it may be. But that is not a common concept here. For him, she is ill, and needs to be protected. She needs to be happy and healthy for as long as possible. But that doesn’t mean that she gets to choose the method or details of what is to come.

Everything I told him had that caveat. I am not Chinese, but as an American, this is what I would do. It may not help, it may even be worse for everyone, but I am not far enough inside this culture to understand what life and death are here. I can point out the choices he has to make, that all his doubts and fears come from this extreme loss, that even doctors can’t always tell when a family member is dying, but I can’t tell him what will happen as a result of his choices. I can’t tell him what his family and friends will think, or how they will treat him if he handles this the way I would. I honestly don’t even know how I would handle it. Badly, I’m guessing.

I never realized how tied to that concept I am, that our life is ours alone. I think it was always there, coloring my thoughts, that self-reliance that I always questioned. I don’t want to need anyone, and I never really want them to need me. To want, to desire, to love, to do so many other things, but never need. Need was always too extreme, an inability to exist without someone else.

I do question that choice, because now I think it is as much out of fear as practicality. Fear that limits me, keeps me from being part of those extremes I am still looking for. I used to believe that I needed the basics of life, and I could find whatever else I needed in the people and places around me. The hierarchy of needs. But the truth is, it’s easier for me to be alone than to need anyone.

I know that some day I will be where he is, that someone I didn’t know was that important was at the end of their life before I reach the end of mine. I’ve known people who died, but I really don’t know if I will ever be where he is. That I will be lost to the storm.

I used to think of it as a strength, but it is as much a weakness. It lets me travel the world, learn languages, meet thousands of people I never would have back home, but it also means I am never completely a part of where I am. I integrate, but I am always ready to leave the people behind. I make my house a home, knowing that I will shed all that I have bought. I love easily, but rarely miss it when it fades.

There is something of the Buddhist impermanence there, to be and not be. That is my reality, to be a part of the world, to shed a tear with my friend for his mother, knowing that I will leave, regardless of how much I can help. There are always more people to help, more lives to be a part of, more to learn about myself.

I really don’t know where I am going in all this, or why, or what I will do along the way, but days like this are why I do it. To see behind walls, places hard to get to. This is what life really is, as painful as it is. To be trusted enough to be allowed to be a part of it, even knowing that I may not have the answers he needs. These moments of humanity are what make my life worthwhile.


This entry was posted in 2018-04, Lanzhou, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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