Monday, October 11, 2004

An Elegy for a Man Who Lived Well

Our news media seem to love dealing in tales of opposites: stories of life and death, wealth and loss, healing and sickness, abundance and depravity, good and evil, are showered upon us in every morning's front page, in every television newscast, and on every Internet news site or RSS feed. Unfortunately, the news media tend to miss the meaning of the events they report, in their obsession with the appearance, the image, of the stories and the characters. They missed the meaning of the build-up to the war in Iraq, when they eagerly traded their journalistic mission for a spot in the elite caravan of embeddedment; they missed the meaning of the "Mission Accomplished" turning point (which was the beginning of loss, rather than the completion of victory), because once again they accepted the veneer that was painted over their eyes. Finally, they have missed the meaning of the current election, in their morbid obsession with the furors raised by fringe rumor-mongers and third-rate historians, over what one candidate or another might have (or not) done a generation and two or three wars ago.

"Image is Everything" comes the cry from the television voice that funds the news we receive from the mass media. The truth is, of course, that image is nothing--it is an illusion. Granted, a baleful, dangerous, restrictive illusion--but a fable nonetheless, a "tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing," to quote Shakespeare.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the collective media have completely missed the significance of the life and death of Christopher Reeve, a man who lived an entire life beyond the pale of image and appearance. Reeve lived a life of abundance, boundless energy, and an unabated love of learning and of humanity: he would no sooner have accepted the institutional bromide that life is a march of suffering toward a relentless night of unremitting death, than he would have bought into the ideology of privilege and human supremacy. He knew better than to reside in the realm of opposition and image; he knew that life truly lived constantly pierces the hand-wringing, fearful conservatism of guilt, insular violence, and group-centered prejudice. He lived with abandon, but also with the boundless energy of humility and devotion to family. He was living that way on a day in 1995, when a near-fatal accident involving the sport he loved most changed everything.

But he was ready.

If he hadn't been prepared for that crisis, for that moment of seemingly bottomless disaster, he wouldn't have survived, let alone have become a living embodiment of courage and transformation. He would instead have retreated into despair and self-pity; he would have gone down to death in the manner that millions do in our culture--in a resentful, life-denying rage of mortification and blame. He would have faded amid that demented, nursing-home cry of benighted hatred--blaming himself, blaming humanity, blaming Fate, blaming God.

But he had not lived that way before, and he was not about to start because he had been thrown into a pit of disability and physical dependence. He spent the remainder of his life drawing upon the teaching energy of his seeming misfortune, listening to the voice of the Cosmic Teacher that spoke through his suffering. He lived his life in a wheelchair exactly as he had lived on horses, or performing his own stunts in Hollywood: he reached beyond the pale limitations which his "image is everything" culture had defined for him. He decided, or learned, to carve his own unique path through Suffering, since it had thus met him; he strode into and around his personal tragedy and wrenched from it all the light it contained, and then he shared that light with the rest of us. His path thus inspired his family, his friends and colleagues, his doctors and caretakers, and millions upon millions of people he never knew nor met. How far into his darkness must he have traveled, to have emerged with such a vast store of healing energy!

Reeve's life and death tell us two fundamental things about life and Nature: first, that we have not been made to live in suffering, to trudge on a treadmill of anger, tears, and guilt. Reeve lived with a seemingly boundless energy and abundance, both before and after adversity found him. The second lesson of Reeve's life is that when suffering does come our way, we are not meant to deny it or bewail it or run away from it or repress it--we are meant to look deeply into the being of suffering, to explore it to the marrow, to ask it endless questions, until we feel that we have soaked it for all the teaching potential it contains. From that point, we will be able to freely share what we've learned--with those we know and love, and with those we do not know but love still. For when we learn this way, we become teachers; when we love this way, we become leaders. Christopher Reeve was both. And so he remains.

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