By Donella Meadows
–October 9, 1997–
My Dutch friend Wouter Biesiot (pronounced “Vowter Beesio”) was diagnosed with colon cancer in December 1993. He was operated upon, he endured a year of chemotherapy, and for two years thereafter we hoped for the best. Then last spring they found a tumor near his liver, and the doctors told him he is beyond medical help.
What can one do, when a friend receives a sentence like that? Wouter is only 46 years old. He has a loving wife and three beautiful daughters. He used to be a nuclear physicist, but he quit to work on reducing energy waste and using solar sources.
Wouter’s calculations of the direct and indirect energy consequences of our daily actions have earned him an international reputation. If you want to know the full energy cost of building, driving, and discarding a BMW, or why you should buy locally grown food in season, or the difference in greenhouse gas emissions between a cycling vacation near home versus flying across the ocean, Wouter has the numbers.
I am part of a community of analysts around the world who value both Wouter’s technical expertise and his gentle friendship. We were shocked by his diagnosis. We inundated him with flowers, good wishes, books and vitamins. Over e-mail and in person when we could arrange it (knowing what he thinks of airplane flights, we combined our meetings with him with other missions), we’ve done our best to support him. But how do you support a person after the pronouncement “terminal?”
Some of us banish the thought. We have heard of “miracle” cures. Whether they come from positive thinking, transformations of the soul, biological flukes, misdiagnoses, or interventions from God, we don’t care; we see Wouter as an excellent candidate for miracles, so we try to invoke them. In any case, this kind of faith amuses and cheers Wouter.
Others of us are perhaps too literal scientists. We have heard of folks with miracle cures, but we have experienced directly friends or relatives dying of cancer. Our concern is that Wouter’s remaining time, however long it turns out to be, is turned to the best possible uses.
Like many cancer patients, Wouter has discovered that the best uses of time are to express and receive love without hesitation, to tell the absolute truth, to ride the full waves of feelings, and to serve the world. Those activities make sense to both the “miracle” camp and the skeptics, so Wouter pursues them with blessings from all his friends. Meanwhile, around the world, those friends have instituted a practice we call “Wouter Time.”
We decreed that Wouter Time starts at 5 pm Greenwich mean time. That makes it 6 pm for Wouter in Europe, noon in the eastern U.S., 11 am in Costa Rica, 9 am in San Francisco, 9:30 pm in India. (Midnight in Thailand, unfortunately, and 5 am in New Zealand.) Wherever we are, we take five minutes to conjure up strength and love for Wouter.
Being the scientific type, I closed my eyes for my first Wouter Time and wondered, “Now what? What can I realistically wish for a dear friend with a terminal diagnosis?” After a few seconds a well-worn prayer popped into my head. “May Wouter have the serenity to accept the things he cannot change, the courage to change the things he can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That sounded right to a skeptic.
I sat in silence awhile longer and realized that this prayer should apply to Wouter’s family as well. So I repeated it for them. More silence. Then I realized that I too need all the serenity and courage and wisdom I can get, either to prepare to let Wouter go, or to know how to help him toward a miracle. I said the prayer a third time for myself and for all of us who care. And as I prayed, I felt my skepticism flaking away.
At the next Wouter Time I started with the serenity prayer. Then I remembered a meditation by Stephen Levine (from his book Healing into Life and Death.) “May Wouter dwell in his heart,” I prayed. “May he be free from suffering. May he be healed. May he know peace.” Once again I realized that I needed to include his family. May they all, especially the children, dwell in the heart, be free from suffering, be healed, know peace. And yet again I saw that I needed the prayer myself. I remembered that in his book Levine expands that meditation to the whole world. I repeated with heartfelt intention, “May all beings dwell in the heart. May we all be free from suffering. May we be healed. May we live in peace.”
Wouter Time brings me to a screeching halt in the middle of my hurtling days, but I look forward to it. It quiets me, reminds me of what’s important, and opens my heart not only to Wouter, but to everyone. It works that way every time.
“Give Wouter the full value of every minute remaining to him, whether those minutes add up to weeks or months or years,” I find myself saying. “Help him to live to the fullest, facing life wide awake, welcoming every experience, wringing out all its lessons. Help me to live that way too. Help us all.”
“May he rejoice in every beautiful thing,” I pray. “May he notice every touch of sunshine, every leaf falling in the wind, every light in his daughters’ eyes. May he embrace the blessings with which he is surrounded. May I do that too. May we all.”
“Wouter Time” has become “Everyone Time.” There is nothing special about Wouter except that he has been forced to look his mortality straight in the eye. But we are all mortal, all terminal. Like him, we don’t know how much time we have. Love and truth and serving the world are the best uses of everyone’s time. Wouter knows these things, and somehow simply by connecting with him, we who love him are learning them too. It’s a wonderful gift he’s giving us. You could even call it a miracle.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997