23 November 2005

The meaning of life ... (oh yes, no more, no less)

(Do skip this one if you're not in the mood for pseudo-philosophical, personal blather.)

I am still at home, recuperating from the malaria that started on 12 November. I have now accepted that my body has been seriously suffering from the malaria and that I need a lot of rest. My inner Calvinist has been put to rest too, so I don't do any work, although I am thinking of popping in the next couple of days for an hour or so. Last week there have been days that I slept almost 20 hours, so clearly there's a physical need for rest that goes beyond my usual laziness.

With so much time on my hands now, I have had lots of time to think, and these thoughts have not been invariably happy. The doctor has made it very clear to me that this was not your usual malaria, but the nasty one that breaks through the brain barrier and kills a significant percentage (about one in ten) of people affected by it, especially children. We started the treatment just in time, a few hours later and I could have been in a coma. George Ng. was not so lucky, but then again his illness was infinitely more complicated (Aids, malaria and meningitis at the same time).

Not surprisingly, with also M.'s surgery still very fresh in our minds, morale is not great these days, especially A. has been scared senseless. At the same time, a cerebral malaria can happen anywhere in a malaria zone, so in most of Africa and Asia. I may have picked it up during our rainy week in Kribi-Cameroon.

I sure can't complain about my guardian angel. He did his job well for a third time, after earlier interventions in Turkey (some 10 years go, when I dove from a 7-meter high bridge into a river and came out alive 'only' with a neck injury) and a highway car incident in Belgium in 2001 that I could do absolutely nothing about but that normally should have killed me. The first two instances at least served a purpose: I have stopped diving head-first into any water any where, and I have lost all impulse to speed (even though I wasn't speeding at the time).

But what lesson to draw from this malaria attack and its aftermath? Leaving Africa is hardly an option: this is what I do as a career, as a living, and, almost paradoxically after the medical hardship we have lived through recently, I am doing it with increasing determination and motivation. We're trying to bring the country up to a level where the level of health care that I received is more accessible to more people, although I have few illusions in that respect.

There are a few lessons though on a more personal level that I am reflecting on for the umpteenth time. Everything's possible, and my life is clearly not hazard-free. My father and my father's father didn't get very old. I am 39, going on forty, statistically speaking over the hill. Can I say at this very moment that I have done what's right, for A. and the children, and the rest of the world? Most importantly: have I been a good father, and a good husband? Furthermore: have I been a good son, brother, friend, in-law, colleague, employer, citizen? What about the balance work-family life? Have I sufficiently exploited any talents I may have?

This is all thoroughly personal stuff, almost embarrassingly personal. Some of you will be quite ready to give me some clear and rather unflattering answers to a number of these questions. Anyway, this is what I meant at the beginning of the year in a letter to friends and family when I said that I felt a need for 'spiritual deepening'. Not an exercise of the incense burning and mantra singing kind, but some thorough thinking about the things that truly matter in life.

I have, as countless others, on and off throughout my adolescent and adult life been interested in these questions.(*) It's only now, after having lived through a number of things (almost ten years of marriage, losing my father, being a father of three, professional experiences, expatriation, etc.) and after having been exploring for about a year now what seems to be a promising tool (**), that I feel ready to go and reflect on these questions more in-depth, find some answers perhaps, and, who knows, start living by them some day.

(*) I don t think however that my studies in Philosophy had much to do with it: they were perhaps more motivated by the pleasure of intellectual muscle flexing, hence my interest for ancient philosophy and philosophy of language - I liked it because it was intellectually extremely challenging and just intrinsically very beautiful, but living the theory was never an issue for me. My interest in ethics is only now truly developing.

(**) I am talking about (Tibetan) Buddhism. To avoid the smell of esotericism that forces itself upon the reader when novices like myself mention the word I prefer for the moment to refer to it as a powerful intellectual tool to understand and give more sense to a number of things in life. What I have read so far makes a remarkable lot of sense and is intellectually fulfilling. My only, not so minor, hang-up with it is its belief in reincarnation, which I can't come to terms with and which logically should undermine the whole sense of the concept of karma. Strangely enough the logical gap I am thus creating does not bother me yet. Maybe I'll take this on some other time.

P.S. This blog is by now getting way more philosophical than I intended it to be. I wonder if I make any sense at all, or whether I should return to anecdotal stuff only, such as disgusting and/or scary tropical diseases that hit us, or juicy village gossip such as the UN Representative with 11 children back in Senegal who is now fathering a child with the 45-year old Minister of Trade of our country of posting? I will try to do a bit of all. It's just that we've had lots of things to digest recently which have been making my recent blog entries un peu lourds. And anyway, what can I do. You don't like it, you don't read it.


Blogger David said...

E., why so hard on your self? I am - as you know - in the same spot. I am 39, we have moved across the world. My children speak broken Dutch and I am finding myself in a mood where I feel I have to do some soul searching - making a cheshbon nefesh - a bill of the soul, as they say in Israel. So I realistically will have to give up on some dreams. I - also have to look around me and decide - unlike you that this is a place where I am both a stranger and a local and that I have to start to think about taking care of end of life issues. I dealt with all if this by going to a lawyer and drawing up a will: who are the kids going to if and when, how will they get the money, etc. I know we don't talk regularly and that we do not see each other more often than once every few years, but you are always in my heart as a wonderful friend, who I can count on when necessary.

November 26, 2005 1:11 AM  
Anonymous Ruud said...

This blog got more philosophical than you intended it to be? Don't make me laugh bro'!!!

December 01, 2005 2:09 PM  

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