I Shall Die, but That Is All I Shall Do For Death: The Sequel

Summarizing Last Week’s Episode of Sunday Morning Cafe

Batman, the 1960’s TV series starring Adam West, came in two weekly episodes separated by 48 agonizing hours.  The first installment always concluded with the masked crusader’s lifebalanced on a knife’s edge.  Viewers had to wait an excruciating two days to find out the hero’s fate!  Reminiscent of that series, the last episode of SMC left our main character, Mara, poised to have her skull drilled open for an endoscopic Roto-Rooter surgery to fix a clogged drain in her brain ventricles.  

According to her neurosurgeon, this exceedingly rare procedurecould have had any one of four outcomes:  (1) death; (2) a serious insult to her brain (possibly requiring the remainder of her life in a nursing home); (3) no change in her steady decline into dementia, incontinence, and loss of walking; (4) and finally, recovery of some portion of her capacities.  On the eve of her surgery, she met with her adult sons and husband to tell them,“in no uncertain terms,” that she was “at peace” with any of the outcomes that could occur including disability, including even death.  “I didn’t say that to make them feel better.”  She insisted.  “I really was at peace!”  When I heard that last part, the resilience-researcher-geek in me, immediately stuffed two legal pads into my backpack, cued up several ballpoint pens, and cleared out my schedule to learn where a person goes to get that kind of Grade “A,” Blue Ribbon, Major League, Gold medal,brand of resilience and equanimity.  

And so Bat-friends, here at the beginning of the second episode, let’s pick up the story post-surgery.  “How did it go?”  In a nutshell, Mara’s neurosurgeon and healthcare team weregobsmacked by her Grade “A,” Blue Ribbon, Major League, Gold Medal recovery!  While still in the hospital, just after the surgery, the physical therapist of 40 years was ready and raring to go when the PT’s would show up for her practice in walking!  The April after her January surgery, she removed her incontinence diaper!  The week of the interview, two years later, she planned and hosted a four hour baby shower complete with brunch, activities, hospitality, and COVID protocols.  At one point in our interview she observed appreciatively, “here I am having a normal conversation in my home, with you, rather than a nursing home!”

Researchers like Bruce Feller, have noted that listening to, and learning from resilience stories has a way of enhancing the listener’s own fund of resilience.  After sifting through four hours of interviews, here is a distillation of those essential ingredients that assisted Mara in her resilience relative to diminishment, possible death, and recovery.  Every effort will be made to hew as closely as possible to Mara’s self-understanding. 

An Important Suggestion on How to Read this “Chapter”

Normally, SMC articles involve just enough copy to last through a morning cup of coffee.  This week’s submission reads more like a chapter of a book on resilience.  If I play my cards right, that will be its ultimate destination.  In the meantime, if you only have a limited period of time to read, then I think Mara would want you to skip to the last section.  Look for, “The Soul of Mara’s Resilience.”  It represents an essential ingredient in Mara’s steely ability to not only survive, but thrive through existential difficulty.

Resilience Resources in the Face of Diminishment and Death

In summary form, here is the scaffolding upon which Mara’s resilience stood up:  (1) a well-developed spiritual life grounded in long-standing/rock-solid contemplative practices; (2) a support network that is both wide and deep; (3) an innate optimism that can appreciate and celebrate even small kindnesses, victories, or improvements.  (4) a well-developed step-by-step methodological approach to life.  This article will proceed by examining these items inversely, in ascending order of importance.  

Methodological Approach 

Everything about Mara expressed a kind of ordered, methodological approach to living.  Everywhere I cast my glance in her home, there was beauty, order, and elegance.  In anticipation of our interview, she had prepared a step-by-step outline.  It is hard to imagine a better skill set for rehabilitation after neurosurgery than a combination of noticing small victories (aka gratitude practice) with a step-by-step, methodological approach to recovery. 

Her speech therapy included making sure to have conversations with people regardless of the consequent fatigue such conversations visited upon her.  Mara methodically engaged in these strategic episodes of repartee in an effort to recover her speech and cognitive skills.

As part of her recovery, Mara was determined to answer every card or letter of a well-wisher with a handwritten card of her own.  Besides scratching her gratitude itch, she was attempting to “win back” her handwriting skills, as well as the cognitive skills that go with letter writing.  As if she were back in my first grade class with, Sister Maureen Michelle, she would repetitively practice writing each word of a note multiple times before including it in her card (eg. “Dear”…”Dear”…”Dear”…   “Tom”… “Tom”… “Tom”… and so on…).  When the sadness or anxiety of “winning back” skills that she had first mastered many decades ago, would threaten to overwhelm, she would utilize breathing exercises to soothe herself.  When her brain required rest or rejuvenation, Mary, the choral singer, would cue up a favorite Bach number, or some other favorite.


What Mara referred to as “optimism” frequently goes by the name, “positivity” in resilience research, and always appears prominently in the lineup of characteristics that mark the truly resilient.  According to Mara, she has always enjoyed an optimistic outlook.  When I asked if there was any way that she had intentionally set out to develop this quality, she gently chided, “Well think of what I did for a living for forty years?” “In Physical Therapy, you look for and celebrate small successes, and build on those successes.”  It is easy to imagine how such an approach would aid in the physical therapy and speech therapy Mara would attend and self-administer.  While I was interviewing her, Mara’s positivity was directed toward her interviewer: “Oh that’s a good question,” or a little later, “You’re a good listener.”  

In listening to Mara, it appeared that a robust, long-standingpractice of gratitude may account for a large portion of her optimism.  To celebrate a year’s worth of recovery, she posted twelve consecutive days’ worth of 12 articles expressing her gratitude.  In them, she noticed the kindnesses, the love, the expertise, and blessings visited upon her throughout her challenging journey.  Listening to her, it was easy to discern a bone-deep habit of appreciating even the smallest things right in the midst of difficulties.  I surmised that this habit of gratitude, or appreciation was the organic material that transformed the manure of her situation into a rich compost composed of resilience-enhancing optimism.  

Sport’s psychologists, along with some brands of cognitive psychotherapy recommend an intentional focus on power statements aimed at what the Marines call, “a positive mental attitude.”  For example, “I’m walking bravely into myfuture,” was a phrase Mara employed that provided a kind of cognitive North Star for her when facing potential diminishment and death.  She rehearsed this phrase as she boldly stepped toward a risky surgery.  By this researcher’s reckoning, the family’s mission statement through this journey was also a brand of power statement that revealed a kind of steely, intentional optimism:  “Team Landover pulls in the same direction.” (“Landover” is a pseudonym created to preserve the family’s privacy).

Wide and Deep Social Support

Jeopardy Question:  What was the most robust finding of the longest psychological study of adult development ever conducted (eighty plus years, nearly 2000 subjects all told)?  What is:  The heart of resilience, is… “relationships.”  Mara is nowhere near old enough to have been recruited into that study, but on the basis of my interview with her, the findings of that study initiated in 1938 are confirmed by this study of Mara’s story.  A lifetime of tending to marital, familial, filial, collegial, spiritual, and communal relationships has born the fruit of a wide and deep network of supportive relationships that buoyed Mara up through her illness, and recovery.  

To describe the breadth of her supportive relationships, succinctly, let me just observe that Mara’s anniversary project of twelve days, of twelve gratitude articles was sent to a network of over one hundred people.  Those individuals were the subjects of her gratitude for a variety of reasons, but suffice to say, that to greater, and lesser degrees, they were an extension of “Team Landover,”  

A succinct summary statement of the depth of her caring relationships is contained in the phrase, Team Landover pullsin the same direction.”  Shouldering a great deal of the care forsomeone through their diminishment, frailty, Hospice, and crossing the threshold of death, itself, has a way of creating eyes to see things more clearly.   As she began to receive the kind of care she had given her mom, coming back her way, there was zero chance that Mara would breeze past it with a lack of appreciation. “I give my family a lot of credit for not saying, ‘There is no hope.’, Mara observed.  “In retrospect, it was a huge gamble.” One wonders if part of “Team Landover’s” care was providing Mara the opportunity to set the direction for the team, despite her progressive dementia.

In listening to Mara describe her husband’s care for her during recovery, something deeper than appreciation appeared to be in play.  There is a kind of “taking for granted” with couples like this that is not really a “taking for granted” so much as a total confidence…like knowing that gravity will do what it has always done before…so you can bet on it with no doubt.  Paul and Mara have this kind of rock-solid “taking for granted” and Mara clearly appreciates it.  She described months of recovery in which Paul helped her with showering, getting dressed, feeding her, and setting her up before leaving for work, only to come home, and provide care at the end of the day.  The local son would pitch in as needed, and the out-of-town son would show up to help when he could.  Everything about Mara communicated that she understood that a seamless web of relationships were at the heart of her resilience and recovery.  It is time now to turn to another vitally important relationship that cuts to the heart of this story.  

The Soul of Mara’s Resilience

Depending upon how one punctuates time, the deepest foundations for Mara’s resilience began to be laid one layer at a time, twenty-five years ago.  It was then that she attended a workshop to learn a thing called, “Centering Prayer.”  Centering Prayer, according to Mara, was developed by Thomas Keating, OSB, consistent with the traditions of Christian mysticism as found in the ancient writings, and monastic practices of spiritual masters through the millennia.  Keating, along with his Trappist colleagues took that tradition, and crafted a practice framed in a more contemporary language accessible to modern, psychology-minded practitioners.        

Adoption of this methodology set Mara on a course of practice that looks on the outside, very much like other forms of meditation.  Twice a day, once in the morning, and once in the evening, she:  “shows up,” “sits in a chair,” “sets a timer,” and provides a twenty minute to half an hour space where her eyes are closed and she is quiet.  So far, that sounds a lot like meditation.  But Mara is quick to draw distinctions.  Her goal is “contemplation,” rather than meditation.  “Contemplation is not repeating a mantra.”  “Contemplation is not a focus on a mandala.”  “Contemplation is God praying in us,” she insists.  In Augustine of Hippo’s words, in contemplation one discovers a “God that is closer to me than I am to myself” (City of God).  

Ten years ago, Mara underwent training and receivedcertification as an instructor with the Contemplative Outreach Center Ltd.  Not just any training would do (including fifteen years of practice by this time in her life).  This methodical woman wanted to undergo this certification process to be sure that her teaching was consistent with the format of its founder, Thomas Keating, and therefore, with 1600 years of a rock-solid contemplative tradition.   According to Mara, practitioners of Centering Prayer experience the same psychological phenomena as all people who try to meditate: “internal conversations, “worries,” “to do lists,” internal movies, recapitulation “of a marital conflict,” and 100,000 other things.  As distinct from meditation, the use of a single sacred word is used, not so much as a mantra, but as a “symbol” of consent” to the God within.  And so the twenty minutes is “not me trying to achieve twenty minutes of silence,” Mara insists, “but it is me trying to stay with my intention of consenting to God’s presence and action within me.”  In the moment, when she is actually “absorbed into the Mind of God,” she has no awareness of it.  One gets the sense that awareness, itself, sort of falls away.  She only becomes cognizant of this absorption into the God within…in retrospect.   “When the timer goes off, I am not aware of how time flew by.”  Her job, in this method, appears to be the creation of a daily space where “a reservoir of stillness” can be filled.  The events from the day deplete that reservoir, so she provides another twenty minute space for it to be “refilled in the afternoon or evening.”

For Mara, the revelation of the Transcendent within her is not so much revealed within those two daily spiritual exercises, it is revealed in the “other 23 hours of the day.”  God’s fingerprints sculpting her heart and life within this practice, show up overtime in the slow transformation of the self.  For example, Mara said, “in the past, there would be something that really would have set me off, and it didn’t set me off.”  “Over twenty-five years, I get more of that, and more of that, and more of that.”  “Eventually,” this is what made her “at peace” with the possibility of her own diminishment…even with her own death. 

As I reflect on Mara’s story, it occurs to me to ask, “how many times has Mara breathed in, or breathed out her sacred word…her “symbol of consent” to the Ground of her existence?  Each and every time she has done that, it has been to release her grasp on a pesky thought, or a story that her consciousness has just now delivered, or a “to do list,” or a resentment, or just about anything that the human imagination can conjure.   If one were to count how many times Mara has performed this operation, would it number in the hundreds of thousands?  Would it be a million?  Each time Mara has surrendered what the ego wantedto rehearse, or fixate on in order to return to a silent absorption into the Ground of her being, could it have been like training for the big race?  Could it be that twenty-five years of such training allowed Mara to fully accept “what is” rather than what “she wished was,” and therefore, she found peace when she needed it most.  The consent that Mara has whispered in the dark for so many years was never meant to bend God to her ego’s wishes.  It was always been the other way around.  That well-developed muscle served her well through a pretty tough marathon.  

When listening to this part of her story, it is not hard to resonate with the words of the observant diner in the movie, When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Mara insists that, like a habit of physical exercise, it may be hard to get used to at first, but over time, one actually “looks forward to it.”  

For many Christian denominations, the spiritual season of Lent will soon arrive with its side orders of warmer weather, and for many…fish on Fridays.  If you feel compelled to “have what Mara’s having,” for a 40 day trial, you can search the words, “Contemplative Outreach Ltd.”  There you will find coaches and workshops to instruct you in this practice.  A wide array of books can also help you with this project (Cynthia Bourgealt’s, Centering Prayer, James Finley’s podcast, Turning to the Mystics, Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart,  and anything else he wrote, Martin Laird’s, Into the Silent Land, Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer).


This final episode in Mara’s story shows up in an epilogue based upon a sense that I received from her.  I think she would say that the important take away from her story is the transformation over twenty-five years that occurred one-day-at-a-time, one whispered surrender at a time.  It is within this context that she cited Ken Wilbur, that great systematic thinker.  The daily methodological practice of a spiritual discipline, according to him, opens one to beneficial “accidents” (Mara’s word, I promise!) like peak experiences (Maslow), also called, I-Thou experiences (Martin Buber), or mystical experiences (by the forbearer’s of many contemplative traditions).  Such experiences cannot be planned, or decided upon, they are received by the subject who is overtaken by them.  

Without delving into all the ins and outs of it, during her recovery, Mara fell into one of these happy “accidents.”  According to the research of people like William James (Varieties of Religious Experience), and Barbara Bradley-Haggerty (Fingerprints of God), such experiences are marked with a certain “ineffability.”  There is a “noetic” quality—meaning something is revealed that changes one’s perspective.  There is a distinctive sense of a “unity “ in everything.  Division and separation appear to fall away for those who have had these experiences.  These descriptors were practically the very words Mara used to describe her mystical experience.  Wrestling with its Ineffability, Mara provided a metaphor.  “People were always telling me, ‘You will never know love like the love you will feel for your baby.’  And you believe them intellectually.  Then you have the baby, and it’s a different kind of knowing.  It’s within you, and so real!”  Mara has known for years that death is not annihilation.  But after this experience, it is a fact for her that what is most essential in each person never dies.  

Mara’s experience reminded me of something an, 82 year old Benedictine monk told me recently.  I shared with him my misgivings about death, and what might await on the other side of the threshold that separates this reality from that one.  He studied my face for a moment, and in his wise, salty voice he said, “Tom, you are thinking that Heaven is a place over there.”  he said, with a hand gesture indicating a place to his right.  He said, “Heaven is a place very near to you.”  “When you experience it,” he said, “it will feel very familiar.”

Could it be that Mara’s story could serve as an invitation to explore that familiar place inside, rendering it more and more familiar by the day.  Perhaps the “happy accident” for us could then be a sense of homecoming when it is time to approach our own particular threshold situation?  

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