In March 2001, Dr. Peter Vaill herniated a disk in his back while running. When he went into the hospital in August to have a routine laminectomy, he had no idea of the lengthy ordeal ahead of him. Vaill, who has held the Endowed Chair in Management Education at St. Thomas’ School of Business since 1997, endured serious complications: a staph infection, meningitis, pneumonia and a second back surgery. At one time he was in a coma for 33 days. “My doctors said I probably survived only because I was in tremendously good condition,” recalled Vaill, who has often run marathons.
Back in his office at St. Thomas in April 2002, Vaill reflected on the year gone by. “I was at death’s door,” he said, “and the prayers, love and support of family (grown children Emily of Milwaukee and Tim of New York), friends and colleagues helped me through this experience. If someone had proposed a trade of this much love and support in exchange for a case of paraplegia, I’d probably have turned it down. But now in retrospect I can say it really is not such a bad exchange after all.
“I have a powerful new learning to share,” said Vaill, a respected academic known for his innovative approaches to managerial leadership and organizational behavior. Holder of an M.B.A. and a doctorate from Harvard University, Vaill previously was a professor of human systems and former dean of George Washington University’s School of Business and Public Management. Vaill has pioneered theories and courses in organizational excellence, cross-cultural management and the spiritual problems of managerial leaders. His work has taken him all over the world.
Learning through change is the managerial theory delineated in his 1996 book, Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water. (He published Managing as a Performing Art in 1989 and Spirited Leading and Learning in 1998.)
“So if I can’t let illness be a learning experience, I’d go nuts,” Vaill said. “Almost every activity from putting on my pants to driving a car has to be relearned. The attitude that works best is to push beyond where you are, as I did as a runner, for example. I’ve adapted it to coping with illness, to having a learning experience – not to be perfect, not to be embarrassed and not to plateau. If I think I know all about how to get dressed, for example, that is giving up.”
The meningitis damaged nerves in his legs and “no doctor will predict how far my rehab efforts will go,” said Vaill, referring to his frequent rehabilitation visits to the Courage Center. “When I was an undergrad at the University of Minnesota 43 years ago, our fraternity’s principal charity was Camp Courage for kids. Two years ago, I was a management consultant at the Courage Center. It’s a great place, which knows what needs to be done in patient care.”
It’s hard to put all he has learned into words, Vaill reflected, but one result was a relearning that “I had faith in a benign God that loved me and a world that made sense. I didn’t realize this before because I was doing so much analyzing. Everything I had always wanted to know about God, I already knew through faith.
“I’m not spending any time cursing anything or anybody for what has happened to me. My freedom from that impulse is truly one of the great blessings of my life.”
Here are selections from the Web site created by Katherine Johnson and Bill Monson, Vaill’s colleagues in the College of Business:
Aug. 29, 2001: Friend and colleague, Peter Vaill is currently in intensive care at Methodist Hospital. Peter is suffering post-operative complications. He is very ill and in need of our thoughts and prayers.
Aug. 30:Peter continues to be gravely ill with meningitis and sepsis. Peter’s daughter and son, Emily and Tim, are here and are keeping us informed of changes in his condition. The hospital has limited visitors to family members. Tim and Emily know there are many friends who have offered help.
Sept. 2: At noon, Peter’s daughter reported no real change. Peter remains in the ICU, is sedated, on a respirator, and is being given IV antibiotics.
Sept. 3: Peter has contracted pneumonia; his kidney function and blood pressure remain problematic. Meningitis continues to be of primary concern. Sepsis is under control.
Sept. 7: Peter is off the respirator. He knows his name and that he is in the hospital, and he did manage to assert that his “being in the hospital is a big mistake.” He is scheduled for dialysis to support kidney function. We’ll let you know if the doctor approves visitation.
Sept. 9: Peter remains off the respirator. Dialysis went well yesterday, and no more is scheduled. The MRI suggests the meningitis is more apparent at the surgical site than in his brain. He remains on IV antibiotics to treat the meningitis. The nurse reminds us to consider progress week-to-week rather than day-to-day. On that basis, progress has occurred this week.
Sept. 13: Peter ate his first meal at lunch today. He was quite insistent that ice cream be provided and so a special order was placed when he had finished his beans and stuff.
Sept. 16: Medically Peter continues to improve at a slow rate. He remains on IV antibiotics to fight the meningitis infection. His arms and legs show more responsiveness and movement. Peter is expressing frustration about not being able to do more for himself. He did suggest that MBA students need to do a case study about nursing logistics.
Sept. 20: Peter was able to sit up unsupported for the first time today. He also has more sensation in his feet and legs – all good signs.
Oct. 1: There is evidence of substantial improvement. He continues with physical and occupational therapy to strengthen him for a move, within the next week, to a rehabilitation facility for more intensive PT and OT.
Oct. 2: “Hi everybody, it’s me, back from the land of the shadows. I’m tempted to kid around and make some sarcastic self-deprecating remarks (my normal style). But basically I just want to say to you all I love you, I’m back in touch, I’m heavy into physical therapy so that I will walk again, and your faith in me means more than I can express.” Peter.
Oct. 3: Following a second opinion from a University of Minnesota neurosurgeon, Peter will have additional back surgery intended to clean out some new deposits, which the MRI suggests are impinging on nerves above the original surgical site. Peter should be able to resume physical therapy in about a week.
Oct. 8: Peter’s surgery appears to have been quite successful and his recovery from it swift. He moved back to the neuro floor yesterday. He’ll resume some physical and occupational therapy today and will begin more extensive rehabilitation later this week. Peter remains in good spirits.
Oct. 17: “Hi everybody! Well, the saga continues – like the well-known Russian boxes within boxes. The best news is that I am now officially transferred to the hospital’s rehabilitation unit where I do regular physical, speech, and occupational therapy five days a week. It is exhausting, as it should be, even though the activities are very simple, like getting in and out of a chair.
“If you look at it from the hospital’s point of view, they don’t want to accumulate permanent in-patients, but on the other hand they don’t want to dump me out on the street. So the rehab unit is a way of readying even someone as immobile as me for life outside the institution.
“The movie will be along presently, with Brad Pitt playing me and Pamela Anderson as the courageous physical therapist who finally gets me to throw away my crutches and totter across the patio into her arms. I’m technical adviser for the film, especially this last part.
“However, on a more serious note, a new problem surfaced today in the form of embolisms in my legs. I have been lying down for 49 days, which the doctors seem to think is the explanation. So I have an even greater incentive to try to walk again (even though Pamela A. is occupied with other things).
“Words cannot express what all your support means to me. Your calls and letters literally are my whole world and every single call and letter is a lifting experience. When I am able to sit up more comfortably, I will be responding to every one of your blessed messages. Until then, please know that you’re a choir of love that I will never forget.” Peter.
Oct. 24: Peter reports that his recovery is proceeding steadily but slowly. Yesterday, he transferred himself unassisted from bed to wheelchair – a humongous achievement about which he’d like everyone to know.
Oct. 30: “Hi everybody! Your cards, letters, and visits continue to be a source of great inspiration and love. They all mean so much to me as I head into the third month of hospitalization.
“I think, though, if you talked to me you’d see that I’m just the same as I ever was. Someone said the other day that this is a nightmare I am going through. I realized I don’t think of it as a nightmare but rather as a tremendous interruption in my life – a wholly different life in fact – but I wouldn’t call it a nightmare. I don’t intend to accept it though and am working very hard with a variety of therapists to recover my mobility and mental acuity.
“Meanwhile, I just feel so blessed by all the support and good wishes you have all given me. Thank you again, one and all.” Peter.
Nov. 13: “It has been a while since I have posted anything here. I continue to recover from my medical problems from the meningitis and also am doing as much rehab exercise as I can. Your cards and visits continue to be a great comfort. I have low points from time to time, but when that happens I try to remember that my No. 1 priority is recovery and letting anything else take priority is a waste. Your faith in me is awesome.
“Several of you have suggested that I am living through something that cries out for analysis and reflection. Those of you who know me know there never was an event that I couldn’t speculate or theorize about. Or write poetry. Or compose a humorous (?) parody for. That has always been my stock-in-trade – coming up with interesting new meanings for the events and ideas around us.
“But this experience with meningitis has not – so far – stimulated any ‘wise’ insights about either what’s happened to me or about the health system. Maybe my theorizing ability is located in my bottom, which happens to be paralyzed. But, for whatever reason, I am presently immersed in the experience itself.
“My awareness is focused on a host of specifics, such as whether a wheel chair is too tippy, whether I can get my anti-clotting stockings on by myself, or learning how to catheterize myself (every four hours). The immediacy of a situation like this seems to reduce or inhibit very much free-ranging speculation. I think in fact there is something possibly significant in that, but I haven’t yet quite put my finger on what it is.
“In any event, I’m here, I’m recovering, and I’m just so grateful for all I have and for all your support.” Peter.
Nov. 28: “Hi Evabuddy! My good friend Richard Smith called me at 8 a.m. this morning to talk about … me. I was shocked! Usually, people call me up, especially at 8 a.m., for much more tasky reasons. Anyway, Richard – never one to spare others or himself in the search for authenticity – had three questions for me. First, what have I been learning recently? Second, what have I had to let go of? And third, what have I been finding I have to embrace in new ways? Tough stuff. It’s 8 a.m., remember. I was still stirring around in my Rice Krispies and channel surfing between Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and the PBS cartoons.
“But they’re darn good questions, and they come out of Richard’s empathy and compassion. In answer to his first question, I said I’d actually been thinking about that myself recently and that what has become very real for me is how important it is to learn acceptance of what has happened. I said I’ve extolled acceptance from the professor’s platform for 40 years, ever since I read On Becoming a Personin 1961 and later when I worked extensively with the idea while using Tony Athos and Jack Gabarro’s wonderful textbook, Interpersonal Behavior
“But denial can be a very subtle thing, and I’ve done my share of it. I never thought I would have to accept anything as far off my radar screen as what has happened to me this fall. So I’m learning a lot about acceptance, which for me is basically to finally admit the existence of something, without judging it one way or another. Probably I will have more to say about it in this space in the future.
“My answer to Richard’s second question stopped me for a minute. There are a lot of things I’ve had to let go of – running the Twin Cities Marathon a month ago, for example. But what was real for me at the moment was my legs. I’ve always been proud of them. I did a ton of biking as a kid and developed well-shaped legs early. Running track and cross-country in high school maintained my focus on what sort of shape my legs were in and how they looked. I remember how I secretly glowed when the coach once said I had a lot of “spring.” And then all these years of jogging – since 1968 – reinforced that consciousness and, frankly, pride.
“Now my legs are useless. They’re ‘impediments.’ There’s nothing pretty about them as they’ve grown bony and flaccid and clotted. A lot of my energy is devoted to restoring some function, but it’s going to be a long road. Meanwhile, I have to let go of my pride in how they were, let them be how they are for the moment, and focus on how they can be.
“And third, what have I found I needed to embrace? Well, again, there are probably lots of things, but at that moment this morning what was real for me was how wonderful it has been for me to learn to embrace all the good wishes and the hard work that so many people have given me during this period – symbolized in fact by Richard’s phone call itself.
“I’ve never been a person who either gives or receives a lot of such expressions of love and caring. But the love that has surrounded me, by my family, by old and new friends here in Minnesota, by my faculty colleagues, by professional and personal friends all over the world, by the nurses and other staff here at Methodist Hospital – well, it’s getting through.
“I ‘get it’ that there are a lot of people rooting for me, and almost more important, I’ve been able to return a lot more of this love and caring than ever before. I’m enjoying some transformed relationships with many people because of what we have been able to say to each other during this period.
“Thanks to everybody for contributing to all this learning and growth. The price of this learning has been high, but it’s real, and it’s worth it.” Peter
Dec. 12: Peter left Methodist Hospital this afternoon and is now in residence at Courage Center – see www.courage.org – in Golden Valley, where he’ll continue his rehabilitation.
Dec. 13: Peter expects this to be home until sometime in the spring.
Dec. 17: “This week I moved to Courage Center, a very fine rehab facility in the Twin Cities metro area, where I expect that I will be able to target the things I need for recovery more effectively than at Methodist Hospital. In addition, I was increasingly less able to justify to BC/BS the medical necessity of being in an acute care hospital. My last day at Methodist, I walked about 25 feet with the help of some plastic leg casings and parallel bars for my arms. Very exciting!
“In my continuing project to develop an effective way of thinking about what has happened to me, I have been reminded recently of a couple of quotations. I have used them in my ‘permanent white water’ presentations but somehow had not made the connection of their relevance to my present situation.
“The first quote was occasioned by the Gingrich-led Republican takeover of the House in 1994. You’ll recall that it shocked everybody, none more than Democrats who were left behind. A few days after the election, I called up a Democratic Congressional aide-friend of mine, whose own congressman had been re-elected, unlike so many of his colleagues. ‘Well, Suzanne,’ I said, ‘I’ll bet you’re grappling with a whole new set of issues now.’ ‘Actually, Peter,’ she replied, ‘We’re grappling with ‘having to grapple.’
“This epigram certainly captures my situation quite neatly. I’m having to be conscious and intentional about a huge range of stuff that I always took for granted before.
“Second, here’s a poem by Robert Graves which I’ve loved for at least 25 years. Again, I had a shock of recognition when I realized the images he’s talking about can be all the life skills that I’d taken for granted before my illness. I think his poem can apply to anyone who’s undergoing profound ‘second-order’ change, whether in their personal or professional lives (and I apologize on Graves’ behalf for the lopsided pronoun):
He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He continues quickand dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.
“Now, of course, if I can just DO this. I especially like the idea of ‘slow and sharp.’ So many times in the last three months I have had to slow myself down, and be a little sharper about what I was doing, what was going to happen next, what I needed, and who I should ask for help.
“It’s interesting. We all are talking so knowingly about paradigm shifts these days, and here’s a poet who caught the essence of the issue several decades ago.
“I hope you all are doing well as we head into the holiday season, and not grappling with too many broken images. Thank you once again for your continuing love and support.” Peter.
Jan. 2, 2002: “Happy New Year, everybody! I hope a lot of good things have been happening to you all this holiday season, even as so many of you have helped make my own Christmas and New Year’s relaxing and enjoyable, and even exciting.
“The exciting part is due to the Yamaha electric keyboard the St. Thomas faculty gave me. Now many of you know I’m a somewhat assertive barroom pianist whose performance motto is, ‘The more you drink, the better I sound.’ But this thing, THIS thing, has literally got bells and whistles on it you can’t imagine: hundreds of different voices and rhythms; controls on top of controls; a 90-page user manual; reverbs and wah-wahs and MIDI interfaces (don’t ask me …). I mean, my dear, this thing merits a New Year’s resolution all its own to learn to play all its options. Wow! What a gift! The honky-tonk faker will never be the same. (The instrument even has a honky-tonk setting on it that’s funkier than its owner.)
“On a more serious note, everybody I’ve talked to about the new year is in a reflective mood about the milestone. Two-Double Ought-Two has to be better we seem to be saying.
“My favorite book of spiritual thoughts, Daily Strength for Daily Needs, has a quote for December 26th that I think makes a very good New Year’s resolution for me, and I’d like to share it if I may. The source is an 18th century German Pietist named Gerhard Tersteegen, and his blessing goes as follows:
‘Through the spirit of Divine Love let the violent, obstinate powers of thy nature be quieted, the hardness of thy affections softened, and thine intractable self-will subdued; and as often as anything contrary stirs within thee, immediately sink into the blessed Ocean of meekness and love.’
“‘Obstinate powers …?’ ‘Intractable self-will …’ (Moi???) Well, errrrr, ummm, yes, moi! Gerhard has my number, so the only thing to do is try to listen. I can’t control what happens in 2002, but I can keep trying to envision that Ocean and what sinking into it entails.
“Have a wonderful year, dear friends.” Peter.
Jan. 31, 2002: “Hi everybody! As I write, it’s finally snowing here in Minnesota, albeit just a dusting. This storm has mostly passed to the south and our lack of winter in Minnesota is getting serious. Our regional self-image is in jeopardy. Those of us who like to dominate conversations by bragging about the weather have had to find other pretexts. The Vikings, unfortunately, have not been a satisfactory substitute, nor have the political fortunes of Jesse Ventura (who is actually not nearly as intellectual as he seems to be on television).
“I have been at Courage Center for six weeks now. I brought an intestinal virus with me from the hospital, and it curtailed a lot of my early activities here. But I think it’s gone now and I’m maintaining a full schedule of physical, occupational and speech therapy. I have also just finished an intensive neuropsychological assessment designed to discover what brain function, if any, has been impaired by the meningitis. I came through that o.k. Whatever my brain-mind was good at before the illness struck is still there.
“It was sobering, though, to see how seriously the neuropsychologist was taking the evaluation. It gradually dawned on me that I really dodged a bullet last September when this staph infection was raging in my body. I could have had a good portion of my cognitive functioning impaired or even wiped out!
“I can now lie on my back and slowly draw my knees up halfway, and then, even more slowly, push them back out straight again. I can roll over on my stomach and get up on all fours, though I can’t quite yet keep myself from toppling over to the left or right. This all-fours position is essential for another skill, which is getting up off the floor in the event that I take a tumble out of the wheelchair, something that is amazingly easy to do though I haven’t yet. Sitting on the edge of the bed dangling my legs, I can now get a ‘kick out’ motion going.
“All of these achievements of the past 30 days involve the trunk muscles and the upper leg muscles – quads and hamstrings and hip abductors. In other words, messages are getting sent, nerves are firing, and muscles are responding. This is very exciting to me.
“No one will say how far this recovery process might go, but I’m optimistic about walking again. I am already ‘walking’ back and forth on the 25-foot runway they have in Physical Therapy, with parallel bars for support and using some plastic leg casings called “KAFOS” (an acronym that stands for ‘knee, ankle, and foot orthotic system’). They keep my legs straight, and I’m learning to walk swinging from side to side, sort of like Frankenstein’s monster. Eventually I’ll be able to replace the parallel bars with a walker or crutches, and then, away I go.
“All this progress is wonderful tonic for my mood. I still get the blues from time to time, but it is due more to the fact my life’s been turned upside down than it is to my disability as such. The more efficacy (a favorite word of Elton Mayo’s for describing good leadership) I attain in this new condition, the easier it is to stay positive and cheerful. I can see why the various therapists here and elsewhere focus on teaching disabled people all the little life skills that they have lost due to their disability: a feeling of ‘efficacy,’ of being able to do things no matter how ordinary, is psychologically quite essential.
“I’m not spending any time cursing anything or anybody for what has happened to me. My freedom from that impulse is truly one of the great blessings of my entire life. Again, my deepest thanks for all the expressions of support so many people have sent me. You have helped me, more than you’ll ever know, to trust that I will come through this experience intact and a deeper, healthier human being.” Peter.
Feb. 20, 2002: #8220;Where has February gone? The time flies by far more swiftly in this facility than I would have ever believed possible. I passed two months in Courage Center a week ago and am now looking at a discharge date in the middle of March! So I’m busy making plans to reoccupy my condo and, to that end, am making some changes – taking up rugs, enlarging door frames, lowering clothes rods in closets – that sort of thing.
“I am also beginning to get back into the professor groove: remembering what my favorite issues were before I got sick, beginning to think again in ‘syllabus terms’ for my subject matter, rehearsing the slightly condescending tone of voice that is second nature to any professors worth their salt. (That was a joke, folks, about the condescending tone – with a little thorn in it for me – because one of the consequences of this disability has been lack of confidence in myself, wondering if I’ll be taken seriously, and so forth. My head says it’s ridiculous, but my gut tightens when I think about getting back in front of groups. Stay tuned.)
“Did you see Warren Bennis’ op-ed piece about Enron in the Feb. 17 New York Times? He was pointing out what he considers a neglected aspect of the whole mess – the tendency of the Enrons of this world to evolve organizational cultures that suppress truth-telling, and the search for truth, in favor of what ‘works’ and what the boss seems to want. I think it was Sherron Watkins who testified that Enron had a climate of fear and unremitting performance pressure. Most of us are probably so disgusted that it is hard to get up the energy to spell out for lay people just how an Enron climate can come to exist – how people like Fastow and Skilling can get into positions of power and control. But I think we have to speak up, and I’m glad Warren has taken the lead.
“All of this is to say I’m thinking about getting back to work. I’ll probably be moving home some time around mid-March. I’m taking the driver’s test for cars with hand controls on March 1st and getting ready to buy a car and have it modified. My big news in recovery is that I got on a stationary bike last week and actually moved the pedals in a circle for several minutes. And then I came back yesterday and did about three times as much. I think if I have muscles to move bike pedals, with enough conditioning those same muscles will let me stand and walk.
“I tried this idea on our rehab physician, and he said there are no guarantees, but it is a reasonable assumption. Needless to say I am thrilled. Life feels good – and I hope for you, too.” Peter.
March 26, 2002: “March 31 will be the one-year anniversary of my long run on a cold and rainy Saturday morning when I slipped the disk that led to the surgery that led to the further surgery that led to my current condition. Parenthetically, let me suggest that if you injure yourself halfway through a long run, contrary to your deep programming, there is NO system of ethics that demands you complete the run no matter how much pain you are in. You would think I would have learned that lesson during 30 years of jogging, but apparently not … to my regret.
“But I digress. I think this will be my final bit of commentary on this wonderful Web site. I’m home now, having moved back from the Courage Center last week.
“Thanks to my kids, Emily and Tim, and Bill Monson, the move went smoothly and I’m well-fixed for supplies of both the material and the spiritual kind. As with all the other phases of this experience, I’m in a continual learning and discovery mode of things that have to be dealt with one way or another.
“Trundling back and forth among the rooms of my place the last few days, I have had a series of the ‘small wins’ that Tom Peters says are so important – and fortunately so far only one small loss when my transfer board chose to break in half when I was on it between the wheelchair and the bed. I managed to catch the wheelchair with one cheek (yes, that kind), which was enough to keep from falling to the ground, but it was dicey there for a minute. At Courage Center they made me show them I can get back into the chair from the floor, and now I know why.
“I have been musing about what I would like to say in this last communication. Of course I want to say again how much I appreciate everyone’s prayers and help and ideas and love. That is all just so real for me. I simply could not have gotten through this experience without it. I think if someone had proposed a trade of this much love and support in exchange for a case of paraplegia, I’d probably have turned it down.
“But now in retrospect I can say it is really not such a bad exchange after all. I do have a new learning that I would like to share with everyone. I don’t have it very well formulated yet – that’s how it is with new learning – but my intuition tells me it is very important and worth a lot of continued reflection. It is especially powerful for one such as me who is very analytically minded, who is constantly examining events and experiences for their possible meaning, who never thinks any subject is decided once and for all, and who takes pride in his ability to think deeply and creatively about lots of different things. Including God.
“I lived my first 40 years or so as an adult assuming I could figure out God. I remember how surprised and then amused I was when I discovered I had been unconsciously making this assumption – that if anyone could wrap his head around The Infinite, Peter Vaill could. Quite an assumption.
“But the truth has been that I haven’t gotten very far with figuring out God. I’ve been vaguely unhappy about this state of affairs for quite a few years. I have journaled many, many pages about it. I’ve had lots of insights along the way in my informal and amateur theologizing, some of which I’ve even had the temerity to publish. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time, and I certainly don’t think that God – assuming there is at least one – finds my efforts ridiculous or blasphemous. All my analysis has been in good faith, though that phrase is a contradiction in terms.
“As I say, rich and rewarding as it has been, all this work hasn’t brought me to feel any nearer to God or to comprehend God any better.
“That’s where I was when I woke up late in last September to find myself paralyzed and otherwise pretty sick and wasted. I have done a little more of the amateur theologizing since then, but that is not where the learning has been for me. Because the learning is beyond words, it is a little hard to convey. What I discovered, somewhere along in December or January, is that behind or beneath all my analyzing, God is not really an open question for me.
“Everything I want to ‘know’ about God through high-powered analysis, I already know through faith. I didn’t know I had faith, and I don’t know how to put it in words without going off on another analysis tangent.
“I remember when John F. Kennedy was shot and I walked across the bridge over the Charles to Christ Church, Cambridge. It took me maybe 20 minutes. By the time I got there, the church was full and I remember how surprised I was that this many others beside myself felt that church was the only place to be that afternoon. I suspect the same thing happened all over America, maybe the world.
“Though I was personally almost dead to the world, for a lot of other people it seems that Sept. 11, 2001, had a similar effect. That event brought us in touch with our belief and faith in a foundation – Tillich’s ‘ground of being’? We knew suddenly what things meant to us, maybe without knowing we knew it: what other people meant to us, what our work meant to us, what America meant to us, what our Islamic friends meant to us, what police and firefighters meant to us, and that we really did love New York.
“For many of us, those hours and days were not occasions to step back and deconstruct our experience. Rather, they were occasions to experience the feeling of our faith – that we knew in a deep way that the real and abiding presence of truth and goodness and love and beauty is stronger than whatever evil may befall us.
“And that, dear friends, is what I take out of what has befallen me: the discovery of this core faith in myself that had been obscured by all the thinking and analyzing I had been doing.
“A 17th-century writer in my beloved book of spiritual quotations, Daily Strength for Daily Needs, puts it this way: ‘It is the Lord’s mercy, to give thee breathings after life and cries unto Him against that which oppresseth thee; and happy wilt thou be when He shall fill thy soul with that which He hath given thee to breathe after.’
“Theologizing is fine, and I’ll probably keep it up. But I will be doing it, and everything else, on a foundation of conscious faith, a ‘breathing after life’ that, without the jolt I received, I might never have known existed. And happy I am.”