The Writing on the Wall

Years ago I invited a hospice nurse I know to speak on the spirituality of dying at a religious discussion group I moderated at my church.  She was a former Episcopalian turned Buddhist, and I thought she might provide an interesting perspective on the topic.  Her most memorable insights, however, came from her own experience as a family recipient of hospice care.  Her husband, some 20 years her senior, had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.  When his disease reached a terminal stage, he was referred to the hospice unit at the hospital where she worked.  She was a trained professional who must have been thoroughly familiar with her husband's prognosis.   Yet until almost the very end, it did not occur to her that her husband was actually going to die.  She told this story on herself to show how denial can operate, even among those who have been trained to see it at work in others under similar circumstances.  We now use psychological terminology to describe the phenomenon.  In earlier times, we might have said she had failed to see the writing on the wall.

This is a reference to a biblical story in which a Babylonian king was unable to decipher a message that suddenly appeared on the wall of a banquet hall where he was dining with his lords.  King Belshazzar's court magicians and astrologers were likewise perplexed, so a Jewish exile named Daniel was summoned.  Daniel, who had already survived the lion's den, immediately saw that the message spelled doom for the Babylonian king.  Belshazzar, his lords, his wives and his concubines had been drinking wine from sacred vessels that had been looted from the temple in Jerusalem, and he was soon to discover there was a higher authority than the king of Babylon.  It fell to Daniel to inform Belshazzar that his days were numbered; indeed, his number was already up.  Belshazzar was killed that night, and Babylon fell to the Persians.

There is some debate as to whether Daniel can be formally classified as a prophet; however, he qualifies in at least one respect: he spoke the truth to power.  It is certainly no coincidence that prophets arose in Israel along with the first kings. Even King David, the best of the lot, had to contend with the prophet Nathan, who confronted him with his sins when no one else dared.  Later prophets sometimes had to flee for their lives when they incurred the wrath of misbehaving monarchs.  Notwithstanding such disapproval, there was apparently no shutting these guys up.

We can all understand the need for prophets who will speak the truth to power -- as long as the truth is not directed at us.  In the personal sphere, the self occupies a position as absolute as any monarch.  We are zealous in defending our prerogatives, such as they are, and we certainly don't want to hear anything that challenges our position, much less our existence.  Our instinct for survival normally serves us very well, but it sometimes shuts down if the news is too threatening.  We know enough not to step in the path of an oncoming car but tell ourselves that another cigarette won't kill us.

Disasters often arrive unannounced -- but not nearly as often as we would like to think.  In the investigations that inevitably follow a national calamity, the causes are frequently documented long before the event actually unfolds.  The scenario that played out in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina had been foretold with eerie precision by engineers who doubted the levees protecting the city would stand up to a major storm.  Field agents at the FBI were unable to persuade their superiors to allow them to investigate suspected terrorists who were later implicated in the 9/11 attacks.  NASA engineers warned administrators that cold weather at launch and flyaway foam insulation could destroy the space shuttle, and they were right on both counts.  The same pattern repeats itself with distressing monotony.  When the immediate risk is perceived as small, the tendency is to ignore the consequences, no matter how large, notwithstanding the fact that the outcome is later judged to have been all but inevitable.

We find it difficult to abide the truth because our lives are upholstered with softer material -- if not outright lies -- than the gentle illusions that allow us to remain comfortable when we should not be.  In their most benign form, they keep a hospice nurse from recognizing the approach of death when it lays claim to her husband.  At their most arrogant, they prevent a powerful king from recognizing the handiwork of a higher authority when it appears on the wall of his banquet room.  The trouble with truth is that it rarely presents itself as the obvious answer to our dilemma.  There are always alternatives, and when presented with a choice between truth and our immediate self-interest, we are predisposed to stick with the familiar, even at the expense of our long-term survival.

Daniel 5:1-31

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