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Spring arrived this past weekend. I parked myself outside on Monday for a couple of hours and accumulated a little bit of a sunburn and a few more crows’ feet, both of which were preferable to the tuberculosis I was destined to pick up on the Theology floor of the library, where a couple of undergrads were hacking up their lungs like they’d just escaped a sanitarium. (Seriously, guys, Jesus is not shielding us from your germs. Go to the Health Center! … Or at least back down to your area of the library.)
Spring is my favorite season, and I truly don’t understand people who love winter (or beets, black licorice, or comic books). There’s such a sense of renewal and promise to spring that you can’t help but feel hopeful. In my conception of heaven, it’s always a sunny day in the spring.
I’ve been thinking about heaven lately, not because I plan on going anytime soon, but because someone whose opinion I value on all matters, and who has a great deal of theological knowledge, recently asked me if I believe in heaven. The question surprised me, but as soon as I’d said yes, and described how I think of it, I had to wonder why my heaven seems so much like a giant outdoor cocktail party… an idea for which there is no textual support at all! (Although there is, of course, support for Bartender Jesus in the Gospel of John…)
When Steve Jobs died, his sister told the press that his last words were Oh wow, Oh wow, Oh wow! I’d like to think that this is what heaven will be like, each Oh wow! representing the face of someone long departed and never forgotten; a celestial reunion with everyone I’ve ever loved. But who knows? The accounts of people who’ve actually clinically died differ, and like most things, our entry into the afterlife probably depends largely on how we think about it now, given how often attitude informs experience.
Last week, when I was supposed to be doing some light theological reading (that’s a joke; I’ve yet to encounter any theological reading that hasn’t made me want to stab my eyes out with seafood forks), I watched a documentary on Netflix instead. The film I watched was called My Beautiful Broken Brain, and it chronicles a year in the life of Lotje Sodderland, a young woman living in London who suffers a hemorrhagic stroke that leaves her near death and unable to communicate. After recovering the ability to speak (albeit with serious trouble recalling words), she is left unable to read or write, with serious vision, hearing, and sensory processing difficulties.
As if this weren’t enough — try to imagine your life without the ability to read or write — Sodderland’s professional life was based on communication: she worked at an ad agency as a producer, was developing a documentary film, and was an avid reader and socializer. And then? poof. Her life was forever changed.
When we first meet Sodderland, she’s just a few days post-stroke, freshly awake from a medically-induced coma and major brain surgery. She looks at her iPhone, having re-learned how to use the Record feature in the hospital so that videos could function as her brain in the absence of memory, and says,“Okay, I’m alive.” Then she smiles and gives a thumbs-up. “I’m not dead. That’s a start.”
Always a fan of his work, one of the first written texts Sodderland struggles to make sense of is an article about filmmaker David Lynch, to whom she sends a video clip of herself saying hello. To Sodderland’s joyful surprise, a conversation of sorts ensues — Lynch emails a response to her video message — and a year or so later, the two meet. (Lynch eventually comes on board to executive produce the documentary, as well).
For Sodderland, stripped of the skills and abilities that formed the foundation of who she believed herself to be, life after the stroke is a series of setbacks and challenges. One of the setbacks is so startling and so severe that you wonder, watching the aftermath, how Sodderland was able to retain any sense of hope. She gives a huge amount of credit for that to Lynch, who helped her move from viewing her post-stroke life as a series of drastic limitations to understanding her life as new and dramatically different, but loaded with infinite possibilities.
After months and months of rebuilding, Sodderland now sees her life as demarcated into pre- and post-stroke eras; but as difficult as the experience was for her and her friends and family (her relationship with her older brother is particularly sweet), Sodderland is at peace with what happened to her. In a Vogue interview, she described her thinking this way: “It’s like, Okay, I’m never going to be the same as I was before, but then nobody is. Things change constantly for everybody. This was a very dramatic change and it happened very suddenly, but you have to accept that change is part of life.” As Sodderland wrote (or rather, dictated to her iPhone) in an essay published in The Guardian, “I see my stroke as a kind of rebirth; unexpected and painful, but also more vivid, filled with purpose, meaning and potential.”
Lynch helped bring spring — and a sense of hope and the possibility of renewal — back to Lotje Sodderland. And while we’re not all lucky enough to be pals with successful filmmakers (much less the amazingly talented and probably actually demigod, if not fully divine, Robert Duvall), we all have within us the possibility to be reborn into lives that are filled with purpose, meaning and potential.
The challenge, then, of Lotje Sodderland’s story, is this: What will it take to make each of us embrace the promise of springtime? What will it take to make each of us reach for a life that’s filled with purpose, meaning and potential?
It shouldn’t take a catastrophe.