Locked-In Syndrome

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French edition of Elle, suffered a massive stroke that left him almost totally paralyzed.  His condition was known as "locked-in syndrome," meaning that his mind remained intact while his body was inert.  He could communicate only by blinking his left eye.  He managed to spell out messages by having visitors recite the alphabet and then blinking when they reached the correct letter.  By this laborious method he dictated a memoir that was published only two days before his death in 1997.

It occurs to me that those afflicted with locked-in syndrome differ only in degree from the rest of us.  They are locked in because they no longer have command over their bodies.  We are locked in because we think we are contained by our bodies and can find release only through death.

I remember driving past a small cemetery in town with my son when he was still a toddler.  Being an inquisitive three-year-old, he wanted to know what this strange place was.  I explained that a cemetery was where people's bodies were buried after they died.  Now my son wanted to know what death was, so I tried to explain that as well.  But he didn't understand and became upset at the thought of being buried in the ground.  Since we were driving in our car, I told him our bodies were like a car.  When they got old and worn out, we didn't drive them anymore.  Fortunately for me, a three-year-old's attention span is short, and we were soon well past the cemetery. 

I know why my son reacted so fearfully.  His little mind could only imagine being buried alive.  Already by age three he had become a prisoner of his own body, so that its fate became his fate.  By age three we have developed a sense of ourselves existing apart from the rest of the world.  We have staked out the boundaries of self, which very quickly become the walls of our prison.  

The door to our cell can only be unlocked from the inside.  In truth, of course, there is no cell, no door, no lock.  The boundaries that separate me from my world exist only in my mind.  We can create a mental no-man's land around ourselves, string up barbed wire, dig a moat and stock it with crocodiles; it doesn't matter.  They are still only thoughts.  

The self is not a container, and our being cannot be contained.  We can think of ourselves as being locked away inside a body that gets creakier and flabbier with each passing year until it is eventually buried in the ground.  Or we can be the earth under our feet and the sky overhead and recognize ourselves in everyone we meet.  I am not talking about some out-of-body experience.  I am talking about reclaiming our birthright as beings created in God's image and given dominion over the earth.  All we have to do is to step across the threshold of self. 
Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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