An anecdotal report on my encounter with an ontological shock

by Arvid Adell

I. “Just to be is to be holy”

When I was teaching a course in Existentialism at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, a few years ago, I received a card from one of my students quoting Paul Tillich which read “Just to be is to be holy.” As the instructor and also the dispenser of grades, one often wonders if there is an ulterior motive whenever a student sends a salubrious message to a professor. Regardless of the motive, I have never forgotten that quote and at propitious moments have found it useful for dealing with some of life’s less than joyful experiences.

About three months ago I would have articulated and embraced both the philosophical and the religious meaning of that aphorism. Although I had moved into the eighth decade of my existence, there were numerous reasons to rejoice in the holiness of my being alive. A rather pedestrian one was a note from my family physician reminding me that my insurance policy included a “wellness” examination at no cost to me and that he would be glad to administer the exam. When we met for consultation, the most pressing task was to identify some issue where we should invest our opportunity and resources. So the doctor began by examining my genealogy to locate what might possibly become a problem in my future.

What illness would most likely bring about my failure to achieve the lifespan which actuaries projected as “normal” (for men like me, this is 87.5 years old). The answer to that question was simple: except for my father who died at a very early age from peritonitis, my mother and all of my grandparents and other relatives died from heart failure. So it might be wise to visit the Swedes Heart Hospital and examine both my heart and my blood vessels. If it’s free, go for it. So we did. Within a day or two my test results were emailed to me: All indications were that I was in remarkably good shape and need have no concerns about cardiac problems. My response to these tests was “relax, give thanks, and reiterate the mantra ‘just to be is to be holy’.”

II. The ontological shock

The late Carl Blomgren has always been a special friend of mine – and Pietisten, as well. Ever since I witnessed him play an entire half of a football game for North Park Junior College against LaSalle Peru with a dislocated shoulder that the trainer had “duct taped” (or a reasonable facsimile) at half time so as to keep it in place, I recognized him as a unique blend of bravery and unflappability. Plus Carl had a special interest in both theology and in philosophy. Every time my wife Karen and I visited him and Marcia on Vashon Island he would greet me by an existential exhortation to always remember that God is the “ground of our being” and also that this God transcends the theistic definition of God as being a part of the furniture of the universe. Those are dictums from Paul Tillich, an existential theologian whose ideas resonated loudly and clearly with both Carl and myself. God is NOT “a” being, no matter what Anselm wrote in his ontological argument for the existence of the deity. If God is defined as “a” being, that implies that God is in competition with and circumscribed by many other entities and perhaps even susceptible to influences of non-being. Instead, God is the foundation and source of all things, as well as the answer to our experiences of finitude and “non-being” including that of our personal deaths. This ultimate foundation of our existence is not an object to be contemplated but a primal power to be encountered. And we are made keenly aware of this power when we have an ontological shock.

I heard that late one night in 1989 when my friend Carl was placed in a helicopter and flown from his self-constructed home on Vashon Island to a cardiac hospital in Seattle. Subsequently I called him to inquire the reason for his trip. His answer was typically Carl and definitely Paul Tillich. “I suffered,” he said “the ontological shock of non-being.” Not the language most persons would use to address a scary life-threatening heart attack but I knew immediately what he meant. “However, with the help of the power of being-itself, the God above God, I had the “courage to be” and I was able to overcome the threat and ride home in a private car in a few days or so. Now I am fully alive and ready to go.”

I mention this because about four months ago I personally encountered this “ontological shock.” My wife and I had taken separate cars to our shopping destination in the mall and were leaving to finish other projects when I made a most unusual discovery – I couldn’t talk. (When Dr. Adell cannot talk, something is very amiss.) My efforts to communicate resulted in meaningless gibberish. The left side of my face and a few other parts of my body were inoperative. In sporting fashion, Karen inquired “have you been drinking?” I was unable to offer any cogent reply. My initial supposition was that I was having a stroke – but after about five minutes all symptoms disappeared and I drove home without incident.

These episodes (that’s what my spouse prefers to call them) were periodic but persistent. Sometimes I felt like the “just to be is to be holy” person. At other times I felt like I was an alien in an eighty year old Swedish body. No pain; just a lot of confusion.

For four days I was more or less tethered to a hospital bed, except for frequent forays to all kinds of strange places (not to mention rest rooms) equipped with a collage of imposing machines designed to identify what it was that was contributing to my “strange acts.” Finally a neurologist issued a verdict: partial seizures most likely caused by some mysterious protein residing in a few blood vessels of my brain. Personally, I preferred the esoteric language of Carl and Paul Tillich: “an ontological shock due to the invasion of some life-threatening power of non-being” but that did not seem to be in the medical doctors’ lexicon.

The “partial” was the good news. All the action was confined to the left side of my body. The seizures were the obvious enemies. However, with considerable happiness I can say that I have had no invasive episodes for several weeks. Still that doesn’t mean that I don’t welcome a lot of attention and empathy!

III. “All healing is divine healing”

During my Junior and Senior years at Augustana College, I had a summer job working at a funeral home and ambulance garage on the corner of Foster and Western Avenues on the north side of Chicago. (I always wondered if having an ambulance to rush persons to a hospital so their lives could be extended and housing the necessary implements for offering a hospitable burial constituted a conflict of interests, but apparently not.)

I worked the night shift, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. My senior partner and the ambulance’s driver was Jim, a fifty-year-old man whose punctilious modus operandi always confounded me. The phone would ring in the middle of the night, the person needing our immediate life saving assistance was, almost always, an overweight super senior with severe chest pains. Both Jim and I would find our appropriate wearing apparel, and I was ready to “rescue the perishing” as quickly as possible. Not Jim. Meticulously he would straighten his tie, wash his face, comb his hair and – I never could make peace with this next act – smoke a cigarette down to the last bit of ash. Finally we jumped into the wagon, turned on our spotlights, and zoomed down the darkened streets of Chicago, assiduously scouring the addresses until we spotted the proper one.

Chicago zoning did not require apartment buildings with three stories or fewer to have elevators and inevitably our patient was a rather overweight, slightly older male who needed to be placed on a portable gurney and carried down three flights of winding stairs as smoothly and quickly as possible. Plus, as often as not, our rider needed an oxygen tank from the moment we entered the apartment. My assignment was to monitor the tank and to carry the lower part of our carriage down the steps. Definitely tricky business. Fortuitously – or was it providentially – not once in two years did we ever drop a customer!

Upon reaching the emergency entrance, another mindboggling bit of officious requisites had to transpire. Papers dealing with all kinds of matters had to be read and signed before we could hustle our cargo to the place where intercessory healing could begin. Cynicism has its roots in contexts like this. Live and learn, I told myself.

I remember one rainy, dismal 3 a.m. when I experienced a happening which has stayed with me all of my life. Our patient insisted on being delivered to a Catholic hospital on the near south side of Chicago. I had heard of the place, but never been there. Upon entering the emergency department I noticed a rather large sign which read: “All healing is divine healing.” Those words are both challenging and instructive for those of us who were and are in the healing professions. We are agents not only of professional institutions and agencies but as co-operatives with the divine as well. I have never forgotten this message. And in my recent “ontological shock” they assume a special relevance.

My wife thought it advisable to inform a number of our relatives and acquaintances about my condition. The diagnosis seems rather stark and perhaps disturbing. But word gets around regardless and we decided it would be better to be pro-active. Also, it precipitated a wonderful supply of empathy and encouragement. Interestingly, messages sent to me consisted of two somewhat different approaches, both grounded in Christian faith, hope, and love. Many focused on the singular power of God and used the word miracle. “We are praying for a miraculous cure for you.” Others suggested that many persons were involved in the process of renewing “wholeness” and prayed that their wisdom, compassion, and energy would contribute to my restoration.

My opinion is that the expression “all healing is divine healing” is inclusive of both the miraculous and the collaborative. God as understood as miracle-worker, or as ultimate being overcoming the threat of non-being, contribute to one’s wellness and healing. The power of the Almighty whether expressed in the pious prayers of persons of faith or by the dedication and scientific skills of persons in the healing professions all contribute to our restoration and wholeness.

Many of the persons who sent emails, text messages, phone calls, cards and letters are somehow affiliated with Pietisten in a variety of ways. So I wanted to take this opportunity to express my extremely heartfelt gratitude and to tell you that even the ontological shock is subject to the healing affects of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.

On the one hand, ontological shocks are profoundly private, personal and subjective occurrences. I hope it was not too intrusive that I shared mine with you readers. But there is also something universal, inevitable, and objective about them as well. They constitute a part of what it means to be a human. Who has them? I do! You do! Everyone does, although we may define them variously and their proximity may not be obvious.