December 20, 2010


Recently, I visited a friend who has just finished a round of chemotherapy. The tumors are arrested at the moment, but the slim victory came at a cost. He was thin. A hat pin would cast a larger shadow. He moved slowly, too, but proudly and without a cane though the smudges under his eyes gave him away. He looked as if he could sleep for a 100 years and still wake up tired. Naturally, my heart went out to him, though he seemed happy. The medical report was better than he had hoped.

As we sat together drinking coffee on a small couch before a fire, we talked of the books he had read during his convalescence, one of them mine, and the thoughts they provoked. We allowed our conversation to meander like a stream through a dense forest, finding ourselves engaging in greater and greater abstractions. One might have thought we were attempting for formulate a unified theory of the universe without Stephen Hawking.

At last, after swimming in wide currents, he asked, “Do you think many people have an inner life?”

The question was unexpected and I paused before attempting to answer. Certainly characters in literature have inner lives. Dostoevsky’s character in “Notes from the Underground” has a rich one. But when questioned, It did seem to me that most of our daily activities focus on externals: “Will I keep my job?” “Is my spouse happy?” Will my children thrive?” “Will I meet the mortgage payment? The rent?”

Electronic devices don’t help much where an inner life is concerned. Their assaults upon our thoughts are too many and too varied to list. They’ve moved so seamlessly into our routines we think of them as aids rather than intrusions. They help us manage tasks, stay in touch with others and allow us to imagine our lives are full. And so they are, if motion is an end in itself. 

If there’s anything good to be said about illness, it is its ability to snatch us from the mainstream and force us to sit along the bank, watching others flutter by like wind tossed leaves. At such times, we have the leisure to raise the important questions.     

“Yes, I believe people have inner lives,” I answered finally. “But the best of our thinking may come at the worst of times.” 

He nodded. Then we sat together in silence, drinking our coffee.