The Sick & the Old Need Buddhism | A Letter from Devon Balwit

My friend the poet Devon Balwit, in stepping away from social media, invited me to correspond by handwritten letters. Although I have written about how valuable such an act can be, I find it difficult to make time to practice it regularly, which probably makes it all the more important. Indeed, I have been edified by Devon’s letters, about poetry, about religion, about teaching, and about pain. On that last topic, I sent her a copy of a book I found helpful, Listening to Pain by Scott M. Fishman. I found her reply beautiful and felt it ought to be published. There is, of course, a long history of letters being published and read by wider audiences than they were originally addressed to, including, of course, much of the New Testament, but also many correspondences between writers, such as the recently published collection of Herman Melville’s letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne. I share Devon’s letter, which she has lightly edited, with her permission. I hope it will edify you as it has me.


Dear Paul—thank you very much for the book. How did you come to know of it as you are a teacher, not a doctor? Have you had to deal with chronic pain, or do you know someone in chronic pain?

It was interesting to try to see the “problem” I present from a doctor’s point of view & to think of what kind of difficult patient I might be among the choices Fishman’s book offers. (That was easy—as I’ve had disappointing outcomes in the past from docs & have spent a lot of $ for sub-optimal experiences & results & this makes me suspicious of and hostile towards doctors). Too, I tend towards deceit, mostly because I am in denial—I push things. The doc says, “move as little as possible,” and I interpret that as “for fun”—so I “don’t count” being on my feet in class while I teach, or the 40 minutes I stand while cleaning the house—or if I walk 4 blocks to the dog park, I still call that “not really moving” because I used to talk 3-4 miles/day & what’s “a couple” blocks really?

I found interesting Fishman’s idea that maybe one will never get back to what we call 0% pain, (which was really “pain only when one has overdone something or injured something”) but perhaps we can work towards a reduction of pain that at least increases our functionality, which then improves our quality of life).

I’ve been in communication with a former FB friend, who suffered from 40 years of Lyme’s disease. She & I were looking at how the well (and I would add “the young,” “the lovely,” “the in-love”) tend to be solipsistic—they can’t imagine, because they have never known, what the sick (or the old, the ugly, the lonely) are going through—or, if they can, they shy away from it because that reality  is too scary to dwell upon—

Also, capitalism needs/expects us to be functional cogs in its machine. Those who can’t produce income for it (think Ayn Rand “the moochers”) have no place & are unworthy of concern.

You, as a religious man, might understand this notion I was playing with today—that “Lutheranism” is the religion of the young and the hale—“by their fruits ye shall know them”—they work hard for a full day & then take good care of the things their labor has earned them. We judge them on their diligence & their good stewardship. I think the sick & the old need Buddhism & its Five Remembrances, which teach us that all that we are and have are, by definition, illusory and impermanent.

Perhaps the “fruits of the spirit” are where both converge—the 5 Remembrances says “Our actions are the only ground on which we stand.” This dovetails nicely with the Christian idea that we must cultivate & bear fruits that demonstrate: love, peaceableness, gratitude, wisdom, community spirit, self-sacrifice, etc.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you for your kind gesture! The book was read & gave me much of use & I will share it with my doctor as well.

Best wishes, Devon


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