By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
The orderly rolled my gurney to a stop before an imposing double doorway. “Okay,” he said, “This is where you get your kiss.” I couldn’t tell if he was speaking to me or to my wife. In any case, my wife kissed me and laughed and cried all at once. Then I was rolling again.
One of my doctors spotted me, considered wishing me luck, then decided against it. “He looked so nervous,” she explained to my wife later.
She was mistaken.
I rolled into surgery and scooted over onto the operating table. I joked with the anesthesiologist. He found my vein on the first try. I recited Psalms to myself and wondered distantly why I wasn’t scared out of my wits.
They sliced me open, broke my sternum, compressed my lungs like empty sugar bags and stopped the beating of my heart to patch the hole between its upper chambers with a piece of my pericardium and redirect the blood that flowed through an anomalous vein.
I don’t remember that part.
I also don’t remember my hands clawing the air, straining against nylon straps, struggling to tear the ventilator mask from my face and the dressing from my chest. My wife stifled a cry when she saw me in recovery. Despite the convolutions of my fingers, the chalky pallor of my face plainly mirrored the countenance of death.
“He looks so good,” the nurse told her.
When I did regain consciousness the next day, numbed by morphine and dazed by the residue of anesthesia, I asked my cardiologist if he could release me that afternoon. “I have to catch a flight to Jacksonville this evening,” I said.
I was trying to be funny. He thought I was delirious.
Lacking prescience, however, I had no excuse for the cavalier attitude with which I approached this whole business. No matter how distinguished my surgeon’s credentials, and no matter how casually he explained away the operation as routine (with the chance of success better than 99%), cardiac surgery remains exactly as unnerving as it sounds: they cut open your heart and, during an extended period of clinical death, poke around your most vital organ before sewing you back together. Call it what you like; it hardly ranks among the more attractive forms of elective surgery.
Yet “elective surgery” is what the doctor had called it. Indeed, my cardiologist had made his final diagnosis only two weeks before the operation, and only his insistence had prompted such hasty action; I had virtually no symptoms, and I had enjoyed almost perfect health. And although my condition might not advance for twenty years, he had warned that it might easily do so in months, or even weeks. So I opted for the short-term risks, exchanging the far distant prospect of lingering death for the immediate promise of days or weeks of physical pain, not to mention a traumatized family and a lengthy recovery. And from beginning to end, while my wife and children and parents were dealing with their respective emotional travails, the greatest discomfort I suffered throughout the entire episode came not from the incision, not from anesthesia withdrawal, not even from the mild pneumonia I contracted during recovery, but from a persistent hangnail that nagged me from the day after surgery until I returned home and exorcised it with my cuticle clippers.
Talmudic philosophy teaches that every human engagement is purposeful, every human circumstance instructive. The sages exhort us to explore the events of our own lives for personal insights; every experience contains a message, perhaps great, perhaps small, from the instructing hand of Providence. The late Arthur Ashe, after contracting AIDS via blood transfusion, was reported to have said, “If I ask why this has happened to me, then I must also ask concerning all the good that I have had in my life.” Indeed, Mister Ashe, may you rest in peace, you should have asked both, as should we all.
What was I to learn from these life-rattling events? There was an easy answer, as simple as it was true. I could have learned to keep constant surveillance over my priorities, to be ever mindful of those things in life that are truly important: health, family, community, love, and self-respect. Thus might I have learned, nor would the lesson have been wasted.
On the second day after surgery my wife arrived promptly at the beginning of visitors’ hours, settled into the chair beside my bed, and jockeyed the stroller that held our youngest child (all six months of him) into position in my crowded private room. And as she sank back in her seat, harried and weary and worn, a likely candidate for ICU herself and more in need of comforting than was I, my thoughtful first words to her were: “Did you get to the bank? Did you drop the mail?”
I realize I never apologized for that. I’m sorry, dear.
What had happened to life’s lessons learned? Where was love of family and of all things great and small? Where was gratitude to G-d? Where was the gleaning of insights from life’s intense and trivial moments to bring myself closer to the Creator and to His creations?
And from a different place in my mind: Am I really so shallow?
I hope not.
Sometimes, possibly most times, the most obvious lessons are not the ones we most need to learn.
Had I been in pain, had I collapsed clutching my chest, had I felt any symptoms whatsoever, then this whole episode might have acquired an aura of either morbidity or the macabre. Instead, it contained from the very beginning such an air of the surreal that I well-nigh expected Rod Sterling (or Alan Funt) at any moment to step out from behind the curtains.
I was 34 years old, and I had gone to the internist complaining of migraine headaches. He picked up my heart murmur, dismissed as benign by every doctor who had noted it since I was an infant. He ran an EKG. The readout was nominally abnormal. He ordered an echo-cardiogram. The right side of my heart appeared enlarged. The cardiologist ordered a transesophageal echo-cardiogram, a little camera that slid down my throat to take snapshots of my heart. There appeared to be a hole — pardon, an atrial septal defect.
Catheterization followed, during which I watched on sonic television as a microtube snaked through my veins, ultimately revealing a partial anomalous pulmonary venous return, which by that point might just as well have been a luminous solar Venus probe return for all I could tell.
Two and a half weeks later, as I rolled down the hall to be cut apart and sewed up like an old suit in need of alteration, the events of the past two months hung together as haphazardly as a seventies-style made-for-TV movie. Quite simply, I didn’t believe what was happening to me.
In the aftermath of surgery, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I woke up relatively free from pain, wondering when the morphine would wear off and leave me shrieking for more. I braced myself for what the surgeon warned would be the most painful moment of the procedure, and I was still afraid to relax after the odd but liberating sensation of tubes and catheters slithering out of my body had long passed. I tensed again at his most terrifying words, “Now, this might hurt a little,” then watched in wonder as he reeled nearly a yard of pacemaker wire through my abdomen. Uncertain with what to concern myself next, I vexed that my hangnail might become infected if left untreated for too long.
Months later I still hadn’t let down my guard. But all the while, the overwhelming sense of unreality left me with the distinct impression that these things were happening to somebody else, that I was merely a spectator in my own flirtation with death. So I lay in my hospital room ruminating over the insipid ordeal from which I found myself delivered. And gradually, between doses of Good Morning, America, Oprah, and Star Trek, a term from contemporary culture fixed itself in my mind: Virtual Reality.
Lying in my private room with plenty of time to ponder, I wondered how a philosophy of the irrational has so successfully woven itself in and around our way of thinking, how we have embraced a fantasy world from which we demand flawless imitation of reality. Movies and television must resemble the real world, even in galaxies far, far away. Local restaurants must serve authentic international cuisine, and fast food must resemble real dining. Animation must seem genuine. Video games, and ultimately everything that crosses this screen that may soon be our only connection with the outside world, must conform in every way to the real world from which we are systematically cutting ourselves off.
Conversely, as we impose upon all our illusions the illusion of reality, we make reality itself ever more illusory. Television news competes for audience ratings by styling itself as infotainment while reality television labors to create “true” drama. Docudramas replace mere movies, and creative non-fiction displaces simple history. Inevitably, the line between reality and unreality grows ever fainter.
So it went with my own surgery. My emotions refused to invest themselves in the surreal world through which I found myself passing, so much so that fantasy affected me more profoundly than reality: I was more dismayed watching Captain Kirk order the destruction of the Enterprise in The Search for Spock than by the prospect of being cut up like a medical school biology experiment.
In the months that followed, reflecting upon my own blurred vision of reality, I eventually recalled how we used to explain away the paradoxes of human society by invoking the term “relative truth.” College sophomores of all classes bandied about this sinister little oxymoron with glib lyricism, finding as much reassurance in its calculated ambiguity as in the simple absurdities of Doctor Suess: my truth, your truth, three truth, four truth. Try to imagine a more comforting axiom than the one that validates the experience of every individual and, at the same time, negates the relevance of any matter that disturbs him. If he doesn’t like it, he has permission to disregard it. If it’s not part of his reality then it simply is not true.
Ayn Rand would be proud.
Many social observers trace the root of today’s moral anarchy back to the children of the sixties, with their knee-jerk rebellion against established values and their ultimate ideological bankruptcy. But some have pushed the blame back even further, back to the decade that introduced us to television. Children in the fifties grew up watching the families of Robert Young and Ozzie Nelson grapple with crises that always resolved themselves in half an hour. As teenagers in the sixties, these same children woke up to the complex realities of the very unvirtual world, a world in which problems can’t be eliminated by switching channels. They had been lied to. They had been cheated. They rebelled. And at last, three decades later, their rebellion has carried the day.
Welcome to the world of virtual unreality, a world we define by wishing it to
be how we would have it. And, through the lens of subjective reality, behold a world as inconstant as the reflected image of a funhouse mirror – mesmerizing and bewitching for its perversity. If reality is too mundane, unreality presents limitless alternatives: plug into the net and pretend to be someone else, or drop into a make-believe community and program a whole new personality.
Where better to reside than a village of virtual people, where all human failings have been programmed out of existence? Is it any wonder that family members grow increasingly estranged, that neighbors no longer know one another’s names? Even after we log off, we expect as little depth from our flesh and blood acquaintances as we do from our imaginary, two-dimensional, electronic “friends.”
When an individual becomes as eager to delete uncomfortable emotions and unwanted personalities from his psychological spreadsheet as he is to vaporize space invaders from his monitor, his personal universe cannot long survive before collapsing in upon itself like a black hole. Indeed, as reassuring as our virtual realities may be, as long as they fail to acknowledge a single, absolute reality they are nothing but fantasy, which is the stuff of dreams, and also nightmares.
Jewish tradition has a name for this: hester panim — the hidden face of G-d.
During the glory days of the Jewish nation, from the reception of the Torah at Sinai through the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the people felt a palpable intimacy with the Sh’chinah, the Divine Presence, in every aspect of their daily lives. Those generations were not always virtuous, but their challenge was to do what was right, not to know what was right. Failure to act upon, rather than to recognize, the difference between good and evil was their primary trespass.
However, when the Jews’ intransigence brought a decree of exile upon them, the nation faced a new reality, one in which a darkness of spiritual and moral confusion accompanied the darkness of their political misfortune. Scattered among the nations of the world, the Jews lost not only their national autonomy but their sense of national purpose. The physical world that once reflected the divine light of Creation now reflected the uncertainty of chaos.
Terrorized by the violence of hostile empires in the beginning and beguiled by the false promises of seductive secularism in the end, Jews in astonishing numbers slipped their spiritual moorings and drifted away from self-awareness, losing their own identities amidst a world that dealt only in illusion. Political correctness and moral equivalence, pop-psychology and social activism — these are only the most recent cultural fads that have captured the imagination of myriad Jews driven by the passion to find something within themselves, but unable to remember what they have lost.
We live in a world both dark and deceptive, and that the siren songs that promise temporal happiness and fulfillment serve only to lead us nearer to oblivion. Only when we close our spiritual eyes and ears against the noise and confusion, only when we follow the small, still voice within us, only then will we find our way home. Only by cutting away the spiritual deadwood that surrounds our hearts will we ever recover the feeling for spirituality that struggles to set itself free.
A few days before surgery, I ran into my internist, whom I had not seen since my diagnosis.
“I hear they’re going to put you through the mill,” he said.
“Actually,” I replied, “they’re going to circumcise my heart.”
He looked surprised for a moment, then nodded. “That’s true.”
Copyright Yonason Goldson