By Sy Safransky • May 1993
I can’t believe how naive I was when I interviewed Stephen Schwartz last year. I was drawn to his warmth, his humor, the beauty of his language. I was moved by his insights about emotional healing. There’s no ideal state of consciousness, he insisted, other than the one we find ourselves in right now. The body doesn’t need to be transcended. The personality doesn’t need to be fixed. Caring for ourselves begins with paying attention to feelings, not our tangled stories about our feelings.
I was moved, too, by his brave words about cancer. Though he had only recently been diagnosed with the disease, his attitude was one of profound acceptance: he was grateful cancer had come into his life, he said; cancer had been an ordeal of fire and a kind of grace as well. He had undergone chemotherapy, and the tumor was shrinking. From all appearances, he was on the road back to health.
After the interview was published — the response to it was tremendous, he said, hundreds of letters from around the country — we met in Washington, D.C., for a weekend of sightseeing and late-night conversation. We trooped through the Smithsonian, shuffled past the Vietnam Memorial, ate in overpriced restaurants, and talked and talked. I was interested in getting to know more about this unusual man who one moment would be quietly describing the invisible field of radiant energy surrounding the body, and the next be worried about Clinton’s dwindling lead in the polls.
But it was a mistake to let myself be charmed by Stephen’s ebullience, his affection for exotic food and big cities and roughhousing with his two sons. I would have been better off staying at home, curled up with a book about some long-dead saint. They say it’s better to pay homage to the teaching, not the teacher, for we get too attached. We’re supposed to care about their words, not their personalities; their ideas, not the blood coursing through their veins. Yet, drawn to the mysterious essence of a man, to his laughter, to the fire in his eyes, we want to stand beside him, see the world he sees.
And that’s naive, they say, because sooner or later the teacher betrays us, or leaves us, and we’re left with this terrible ache.
The author Natalie Goldberg, in Long Quiet Highway, describes the senseless murder years ago of Chris Pirsig, the son of Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.
After Chris was knifed to death near the San Francisco Zen Center, his attackers simply ran. “They did not take a wallet,” Goldberg writes. “I don’t even know if Chris had one on him. I was sitting a seven-day retreat in Minnesota. It was December. We all knew Chris. Rumors spread quickly during breaks, even though we were supposed to remain silent. We all awaited our teacher’s talk that morning. Katagiri Roshi was close to Chris. He would make it all better.
“Roshi walked into the meditation hall, bowed, lit incense, sat down. We chanted. Then he spoke. ‘Human beings have an idea they are fond of: that we die in old age. That is just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come. Chris Pirsig’s death has come now. It is a great teaching in impermanence.’ ”
At first, Goldberg said, she was furious. She thought Katagiri Roshi cared for Chris. How could he be so cruel? But years later, when the roshi himself lay dying, she suddenly remembered his talk and realized it hadn’t been cruel but brave. She wrote, “He was willing to cut through all sentiment and touch the fundamental truth of impermanence.”
I’m no roshi: I’m hardly able to accept bad weather, let alone the death of a friend. When they called to tell me Stephen had died, I was speechless. All I could think was that I’d meant to call him a week ago but never got around to it, never got around to finding out whether the herbs and the vitamins and the juices were helping, whether the tumor was still shrinking. . . .
My grief was like a battered old suitcase I didn’t want to claim. It circled round and round while I just stood there, shaking my head. I remembered telling Stephen, during our last conversation, I hope we’ll still be friends when we’re doddering old men.
I hope so, too, Sy, he said.
I wanted Stephen to be bigger than life, bigger than death. When he was first diagnosed with cancer, I was stunned. I wanted to believe that eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, not smoking, and, most important, living authentically and compassionately granted a person some kind of immunity. Yet spiritual teachers seem to die of cancer as frequently as the rest of us. Death welcomes them no matter how pure their diet or noble their thoughts.
“I worried sometimes,” Stephen admitted, “what people were going to think of me. I assumed vaguely that cancer was a violation of what I should be.” After all, he explained, he had spent almost a decade as a spiritual teacher. He was known as a vital, alive man with great endurance. Maybe people would think the cancer indicated some negativity, or a poor self-image. “Many people assume we create our own illness in some inexplicable way, or that God gives it to us as a kind of lesson,” he wrote. “None of these notions had ever been part of my teaching, but having cancer suddenly felt like an embarrassment.”
If he had eaten poorly, if he hadn’t been involved in spiritual work, it would have been easy to suggest he needed some kind of lifestyle change. “But I had eaten well for twenty years,” he continued, “and lived a relatively clean and peaceful life, so this didn’t fit into any particular conceptual category. It needed to be put into the realm of mystery, and sometimes that requires a walk through fear.”
Stephen didn’t know how seriously ill he was until January 1992, when he collapsed at home and was rushed to the hospital. The doctors discovered a tumor in his chest so big it was actually pressing against his heart and lungs. During the biopsy, the tumor shifted, completely blocking his windpipe, and he almost died. He was put on chemotherapy immediately.
One of the reasons it took him so long to do something about his illness, Stephen said, was that he knew instinctively it was going to lead him into a system he distrusted. Stephen was convinced that hospitals and drugs had little to do with real healing. Finding himself on chemotherapy in the intensive-care unit of a major New York City hospital was, he said, a direct violation of his beliefs.
Eventually, Stephen decided to stop the treatments, convinced they were doing more harm than good. His oncologist was enraged. If Stephen wanted to commit suicide, he could, the oncologist said, but he wouldn’t have any part of it. He said Stephen’s kind of lymphoma was so deadly he must continue to take the chemotherapy without interruption.
Certainly people have healed themselves of cancer through prayer or nutrition. It’s true, too, that traditional cancer therapies are for the most part ineffective; some studies show that those who undergo surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy are likely to die sooner than those who don’t. So I could understand the appeal for Stephen of any approach that focused on building up the immune system with diet and bodily cleansing.
But lymphoma is more responsive to chemotherapy than most cancers. Would Stephen be alive today if he had sought medical help sooner? Maybe the oncologist was right. Maybe Stephen should have given the chemotherapy more of a chance.
Yet I can’t pretend to know what was best for him. As I write this, I’m running a fever, ignoring my aching body. Instead of being home in bed, I’m at my desk. I’m someone who never misses a day of work, who doesn’t get sick. Do I know why I came down with the flu, or why being ill makes me feel vaguely guilty? Didn’t I take enough vitamin C?
During the last week of his life, Stephen was in pain, and breathing was difficult. But, according to his wife Donna, he practiced the kind of direct and unsentimental self-care he always encouraged in others, embracing the pain and the fear, returning again and again to the breath, to the body. He refused painkillers and asked Donna to promise that no heroic measures be taken to keep him alive — no more chemotherapy, no respirators, not another grim hospital ordeal. When his breathing finally became so shallow that Donna knew the end was near, she considered calling an ambulance. Then, she said, she remembered her promise. A moment later, Stephen was dead.
“I have learned,” Stephen wrote last year, “there is nothing to fear about death. There is no failure in it, even though this life in form is precious. When it comes time for us to depart, and I say this from the bottom of my heart, we will find something soft and beautiful on the other side. Something waits for us. We don’t need to fear it, run from it, or hide.”
I would have preferred some kind of healing miracle, a home run in the bottom of the ninth. Stephen was only forty-three. I wanted him around for years. I wanted to learn more from him about genuine compassion. I wanted him to show me how to move my attention from the tangle of thought to the energy of the body, how to come to my sadness openly, how to really give myself permission to exist. And I wanted to become better friends. I was only beginning to respect instead of idealize him, to let him come down from his pedestal and be an ordinary man. As an old friend wrote to me recently, “I know you love me for my weaknesses, as well as in spite of them — even when my weaknesses include trying to hide them.” But it can take years to accept another person in all his shabby glory, to suffer and forgive a friend’s weaknesses, and to be forgiven.
I thought about waiting to write this until the door to my heart was back on its hinges. I thought about waiting until I had more time. But I didn’t call Stephen when I had the chance. I waited until tomorrow, and tomorrow is a lie. Not having time to make this more polished or more thoughtful reminds me we don’t get to linger forever over our sentences. In this way, too, Stephen was a teacher right to the end.
By Sy Safransky