By David Arthur Auten
Spiritual Counselor, Mission Hospice
San Diego, California
A few years ago for my fortieth birthday I decided to attempt reading In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust’s famous novel, and reportedly the longest novel ever written, a staggering 9,609,000 characters (including spaces) depending on the translation. I say “attempt” which is perhaps a generous word for my efforts. I did not penetrate more than a few hundred pages into the work before retiring my efforts a couple of months later. Before doing so, however, I read something that has lingered, and which has proven true, for some, if not for all, since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic we find ourselves enduring. “For hearts that are wounded,” Proust writes, “there is no remedy but silence and shadow.”
While working in the Spiritual Care and Education Department at Sharp Memorial Hospital as the pandemic began, and now at Mission Hospice as a spiritual counselor for those nearing the end of life, and with coronavirus cases on the rise once again, I have found both truth and solace in Proust’s words. I won’t say they are true all the time because they are not. As I have sat at the bedside of those dying during the past several months, too often a patient’s sole desire is one they cannot have: a hand to hold, a reassuring smile from an uncovered face, the physical presence of a loved one, unmediated by a digital screen. Presence, so often, is what we long for, throughout our lives, and especially at the end. Yet I have been surprised in talking with patients to also discover a minority report, an alternate viewpoint; perhaps, for some, a silver lining: absence can be its own gift.
The gift of absence is of course nothing new to the spiritual traditions of the great world religions. Indeed, there is a longstanding recognition that it is often only when we are alone, taking time to embrace our own presence, reacquainting ourselves with our own voice, through the shadowed graciousness of silence and solitude, that then we begin to see more clearly once again both others and ourselves. Although it is not true all the time, nor the right thing to point out to every individual in every case, as I have learned to listen more carefully to the stories of my patients, I have come to see there is also a time and place for moving beyond lamenting visitation restrictions and, instead, helping others to embrace their own remarkable presence. In the absence of the noise and commotion of the world, we may at times catch glimpses of the secret remedy afforded us by silence, solitude, and shadow.