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Column Beurskens: Joy

The old convent sister Laetitia comes in to ask whether she can go to her family again this summer. She still loves life and she looks forward to the trip, but being 93 years of age there are doubts whether she is still fit enough to travel. I play a role in the fight with mother-superior, because the doctor is an independent power in the convent. Mother-superior doesn’t want to get stuck with a sick old sister abroad. But I of course approve and the superior is left with no choice but to follow.

An old priest just returns form the hospital after his broken hip has been replaced. He still lives on his own and the neighborhood loves him because of his cheerful nature. He says I am not afraid of death, he may come but … -he hesitates an instant trying to find the right word- my aspiration is also live some more. He chooses the word that prudently because a long life in the church has taught him that one shouldn’t love life too much. Nobody wants to be accused of what the Buddha called … O, o, that foolish hankering for life.

Once I visited a well-known painter. She was in the last few weeks of her life. Cake and coffee were on the table for the doctor. She was on the phone chiding a museum director for not hanging her paintings in the right light. Next I was told one couldn’t count on doctors either anymore nowadays, because I had estimated the time she still had to live too long, so her children were being kept form their work without purpose.

Yet the phenomenon these people show isn=t attached specifically to old age. I remember a patient of my own age at the time, when I was working on the ambulance as a medical student. I had to bring him everyday for weeks on end to another hospital for radiotherapy. He was a hopeless case and he knew that himself. Still I noticed in him something which can best be described with the English word ‘joy’. In Dutch we don’t have a apt word with the right ring to it. It is either too massive or too light. Years ago I once in a while referred a patient to the famous psychiatrist Anna Terruwe. She brings together in a unique fashion her science and her spirituality and she is a light to our profession. Once I had her on the phone and I asked how she was doing herself. She was already old at that time. Usually one hears as a response to this kind of question that everything is kind of OK and then follows a medical tale. Her answer however was so positive and enthusiastic, that I let slip the remark … indeed when you have gone through everything. That is probably what it is about. Past a certain threshold, across the storms of life, life can be beautiful and radiating again. Maybe one cannot say of these people that they still love life, but that they love it again. Life doesn’t only start with joy, that of youth, but it can also end with it. Rembrandt expresses this so magnificently is his portraits. It is in itself a mystery and people who can say this of themselves from the depth of their heart usually also know what suffering is. This kind of joy one encounters in people who know what it means ‘in cruce salus’ in the cross is salvation, in people who have been -like Dag Hammarsjk√∂ld expresses it- at the shores of the inner lake. At the end Saint Teresa of Avila found her life to have been one triumphal procession, a storm of glory and at that entirely undeserved, she would usually add to this herself. When he was still a small boy, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy went playing with his brothers in the forest of Zaseka. They sought for the green wand of happiness. Somebody who found it -according to the old Russian tale- would know the secret of happiness.

Of people like Tolstoy and Teresa it can be said that after in describable wanderings they found the green wand of happiness, to their own unutterable amazement. The greatest have found joy in the end. Joy is a characteristic of sanctity.