A few years ago I was invited to speak at a retreat for medical students in Saskatchewan, Canada. Little did we know that within 5 years Canada's Supreme Court would strike down the nation's laws against assisted suicide. Little did we know that doctors would be required to kill suicidal patients with any disease, condition or disability or refer them to doctors who would! It all begins in June 2016. The Supreme Court of Canada (and dutiful toady professional medical organizations) have decreed it shall be. Suicidal healthy and able-bodied Canadians will receive suicide prevention counselling and care. Suicidal sick and disabled Canadians will get physician assisted suicide. The state has legislated selective abandonment (disguised as autonomy) and the dangerous notion that some lives are unworthy to be lived.
While adversity or suffering
with a disability or incurable illness may have the terrible effect of isolating people, it’s
important to realize that their creativity may continue unabated and even
blossom in the midst of suffering. I have personal experience illustrating that suffering can sharpen creative perceptiveness and expression. Below is part my address showing historical evidence I used to prove this point to the medical students. Hold up and protect every human life. Everyone has something to bring to the table of human experience.
Art, literature, music and the sciences have
records of suffering people making colossal contributions to human creativity despite
their suffering (or maybe because of it). History records many suffering people whose
creative contributions enriched our world. I want to illustrate this by
highlighting some examples:
Forbes Nash Jr. (1928-2015) Brilliant American
mathematician and Winner of the 1994 Nobel prize for economics. He suffered
from paranoid schizophrenia. The movie A
Beautiful Mind was made about his life.
Woolf (1882-1941) English Novelist, is widely acclaimed
as one of the great innovative novelists of the 20th Century. She was manic depressive (which we call
bi-polar today). Her psychosis ultimately led to her suicide in 1941.
Maurice Ravel's Pianoforte Concerto for the left
hand was written for an Austrian pianist (Paul
Wittgenstein) who lost his right arm in the First World War.
Wittgenstein's grief! Music was the center of his world. He
grew up in a
prominent Viennese household visited by composers such as Johannes Brahms,
Gustav Mahler, and Richard Straus: as a boy, Paul Wittgenstein occasionally
played duets with them. He was close to 30 years of age when he lost his arm.
It must have been a terrible shock!
Despite losing his arm, Wittgenstein did not give
up. He went on to have a successful career as a concert pianist. He
commissioned various works that he could perform from composers such as
Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith and Richard Strauss. Wittgenstein was a
wonderful example of the human capacity to triumph over adversity.
Paul Wittgenstein was probably just as skilled a
pianist before he lost his arm as after, yet the public loved him most as a
one-armed pianist. (Everyone loves an over-comer!) Did Paul Wittgenstein play
Ravel's Pianoforte for the left hand better than any two-armed pianist?
Probably not, but the public wanted it played by someone who had earned the right
to play it.
The musician's suffering was as important to a
composition for the left hand as the notes themselves; together they made the
music more beautiful and compelling - and that was true. It's still true.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931).
He lost almost all his hearing at the age of twelve. Yet that is not why we
remember him. We remember Thomas Edison for inventing phonograph, the movie
camera, the light bulb.
Henry Ford – (1863-1947) American industrialist and
pioneer automobile manufacturer. He also had a severe hearing impairment.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) His career as a painter began at the
of 27 and lasted a brief ten years ending in his suicide. His works are perhaps better known than those
of any other painter and yet during his lifetime he was virtually unknown. He
suffered from mental illness.
His mental illness
drove his moods from the highest pitches of enthusiasm and creativity – which
he called the “rage of work” to periods of discouragement which he called his
“fear and horror of madness.”
Van Gogh produced over 2,000 pieces of art.
Do you know how many of those pieces he sold during his lifetime? One.
His brother Theo had to beg somebody to buy it.
Vincent Van Gogh’s
attempts at romantic love were rebuffed which drove him further into isolation
and internal anguish. He often suffered seizures, hallucinations and delirium
for days or weeks at a time. On one occasion Van Gogh cut off part of his ear.
Van Gogh captured the
suffering of mental illness in glittering, agitated canvases. His internal turbulence and anguish is
clearly evident seen in most of his paintings, which set the stage for the
direction of a new style of painting we call Expressionism. Vincent`s emotional turmoil did however bear
artistic fruits in the form of a remarkable gift for perception - seeing
powerfully what most others did not observe at all He projected onto the canvas
what he experienced internally.
Van Gogh wrote more
than 800 letters. If you haven’t read
his collected correspondence, I would recommend it. Not only is it a good
autobiographical account of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, it’s great literature.
Vincent Van Gogh
lived in barren rooms of rural cottages and the wards of mental institutions.
His loneliness and isolation were almost larger than his life. Yet that is not
what we remember about Vincent van Gogh. When we think of him we are apt to
think of “Starry Nights”, Cafe
Terrace, or his stunning series of Sunflowers, just to mention a few.
His last dark
Painting was entitled Wheatfield with Crows.
the field where he shot himself in July 1980 at the age of 37. He
died three days later. Van Gogh’s last words summed up his sadness. He said,
simply, “The sadness never goes away. I think I want to go home now.”
|Wheatfield with Crows|
In one of his last letters
to Theo, Van Gogh had written,
failure. That's it as far as I'm concerned...I feel that this is the destiny
that I accept, that will never change."
He was not a failure. Look what he left humanity!
Milton (1609-74) was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost – the story of Satan’s
rebellion against God and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of
Eden. Paradise Lost is generally considered the greatest epic in the English
Donne lived from 1572-1631 and was England’s greatest
metaphysical poets. He suffered a series of illnesses, one of which took him to
the edge of death in 1623. While convalescing he wrote numerous devotions. In
his devotions, he wrote, among other things, the misery and solitude of serious
illness. We remember his immortal words,
“No man is an island entire unto
itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; ... any
man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; ... and therefore
never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Later in that same
Meditation Donne wrote: “No
man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made
fit for God by it.”
A few sentences later
he mitigated this comment by writing,
man may be sick too, and sick to the death, and this affliction may lie in his
bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him.”
Donne exhorted the
sufferer not to waste his suffering but allow it to be a vehicle to draw the
sufferer closer to his home in heaven.
John Donne’s believed
that suffering could be a blessing to the individual or others, if allowed to ripen
a person’s spiritual character. These were
insights from a man who defended suicide 15 years earlier in a scurrilous book Biathanatos. Why the change of heart ?
Could it be that his suffering, and interior throes of his soul, had a purifying
effect on his spiritual character?
Keats (1795-1821) Is considered one of England’s greatest
poets. He died at the young age of 25 with tuberculosis. His poetry is
unequalled for dignity, melody and richness of imagery. He once said, “I have
loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had time, I would have
made myself remembered." He didn’t need more
time to create beauty. John Keats is
Barret Browning (1806-61) An invalid and recluse, yet
her gift for lyrical poetry is with us to this day.
Some scholars have
speculated and surmised that Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart may have suffered
from Tourette syndrome.
Schumann (1810-56) A leading composer of the Romantic
movement. As a young pianist he damaged his right hand, which ended his dreams
of becoming a concert pianist, but his output as a composer for piano,
orchestral works and chamber music was prodigious. Schumann suffered from depression and mental
illness that worsened with age. Robert Schumann suffered from auditory
hallucinations. During one of his bouts of mental illness he attempted suicide.
He admitted himself to an asylum where he died in 1856.
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) Is universally
acknowledged as one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Most
people are aware that he was deaf when he wrote his 9th Symphony. It
was his crowning achievement.
I want to bring to your attention
to the fact that Beethoven was going deaf when he wrote his 1st
symphony. It was detectable when he began composing his 1st symphony in 1798,
and when it was completed in 1800, Beethoven’s had become quite anxious about
his malady. By his own words, Beethoven had noticed his hearing loss beginning
in 1796 at the age of 26.
By 1801 his physicians began various therapies, to no avail. His deafness
increased to be near total, yet his creative prowess did not falter.
All 9 symphonies were composed
with some level of deafness! His mind was so muscular. How could it be that the
standard bearer of the Romantic era was a composer who was deaf! Despite this,
he rose above his predicament to reach unequalled human achievement. His
beloved Moon Light Sonota was composed in serious deafness. The same is true
for his opera Fidelio. Creatures
It’s doubtful he heard much of his 5th Symphony, his concerto
for violin and orchestra, his Masses. Beethoven's deafness causes him such suffering and brought him inner and outer
troubles, disappointment with life and isolation.
Beethoven addressed this isolation
himself in a letter he wrote to his brother Carl in 1802:
me when you see me draw back....for me there is no relaxation with my fellow
man, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost
alone, like one who has been banished. ...But what a humiliation for me when
someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing,
or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard
nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I
would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back.”
In that same letter,
Beethoven prayed, “O Divine One, thou
seest my inmost soul thou knowest that therein dwells the love of mankind and a
desire to do good.” At the end of his
letter to Karl and Johann, he wrote in his despair, “Farewell and do not wholly
forget me when I am dead.”
Those words were
written at a point of crisis for Beethoven about his deafness. Happily for us,
the crisis passed and the great man rose above is deafness to eventually write
his 9th and final symphony at his peak of creative power.
Beethoven used Schiller’s Ode to Joy, there is a spirituality or mystical quality
to the 9th. Symphony. It has a note of authentic life experience. It
contains energy yet a peace and acceptance only won by strife, and a wisdom
only suffering can teach. (I keep a bust of Beethoven on my fireplace mantel to remind me of the human capacity to overcome adversity. See photo at the top of my blog,)
In his 9th symphony
we see a triumph of human spirit over adversity sustained by a spark of God’s
love in a silent world. Yes, above a starry canopy dwells a loving Father who
can reach into the silent world of a deaf genius and touch us even 190 years
Now, we are about to enjoy the 4th
movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th symphony by the West-Eastern Orchestra, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Click on image below or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChygZLpJDNE
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