On Blood, Soul, Spirit, and Life;
On the Grace of Giving Blood and Sharing Our Humanity
Last week, there was a blood drive at my local shopping mall..
The night before, as I was listening to the news, they announced the fact that only 50 % of all the people who are eligible to give blood ever do so- So I glibly thought to myself: So giving blood is a lot like listening to PBS: Many people benefit from it, but few truly support it!
Later that evening, the thought of giving blood became more important to me- maybe it was the crime show I was watching, and maybe it was the haunting announcement about the devastating winter weather back in the Northeast, where I cam from, that grabbed my conscience by the throat and said…. ” You know, its really been a long time since you gave, so what’s wrong with you? Its time!
Without belaboring the long and secure safety process, which I was grateful for, and the extended time it took for me to show up and find a vacancy (all wonderful delays!) It was a pensive and reflective experience.
I looked on the process of giving blood much the way you would give someone food to eat… ( no, there are no Twilight, or True Blood, or vampire references in this story!) What came to me is that the giving of one’s blood is an act of deep compassion and sincere humanity, for you are providing a life giving, and a life sustaining gift to some unknown person in a yet to be determined situation or health crisis. It was altruism at its best- as there is no reward for the act… other than a cookie or maybe a tee shirt… but the reward and the lasting value of giving is a rare soulful commitment to human good and survival when all around us, or so it seems, there is an incessant chatter of a culture of greed and self preoccupation, so such caring stands out as a noble and truly compassionate act.
Now, I am far from someone who would be designated as being heroic, but I do hold fiercely to my beliefs about the necessity for personal growth, for dramatic and necessary lifestyle changes, and to heed the mounting imperative for social and economic transformation. While I could not foresee the how and when of this personal gift, it did feel like it was the least I could do to stem the almost inevitable course of human suffering- and particularly personal and poignant for me was hearing all those stories about winter’s deprivations and struggles… Only a few glimpses of the snow plows and the shivering, quickly brought back to me wearisome commutes to school and work, many years of shoveling all that snow, and being exhausted by winter’s demands.
Turning to our Western religious history, culture, and theology, the importance of blood began to occupy my thoughts… And I have to wonder if those ancient notions still held a modicum of truth and still can provide us with some valuable insights for our giving, for our sense of connection and compassion today.
For the ancient Hebrews, the blood was the conduit of life… Not just as blood cells, but as the storehouse or as the way one’s soul is kept alive and flowing… The Hebrew word, Nephesh, becomes a central teaching here. The Nephesh, or the soul, or the essence of one’s humanity was believed to be contained and carried through our blood. So along with the loss of blood that would signal the end of our physical human lives, there would be the loss of our soul, our identity, our vitality, our consciousness and our conscience, all that truly sustains and gives meaning to our lives. Additionally, For the ancient Hebrews, there was no other place the soul goes after death; There was no Heaven or Hell as eschatological concepts, as places where a soul would go after one’s physical death. Those more metaphysical, fanciful, and elaborate concepts brought in from Zoroastrian beliefs later in the Prophetic period and were introduced during the time known as the Babylonian Captivity. In the pre-scientific and in the primitive world of knowledge, all there was for the discarded body and the now useless inert soul was the “garbage heap, the dump, or Gehanna- the inert place that the lifeless soul goes to and spends its undetermined undefined time being there… When Alexander and Greek philosophy and metaphysics came along, there was the idea or the notion of an immortal or eternal soul, and later with Plato, and then again with Neo-Platonist theological reference points, there was more exploration and understanding developed and accepted as they postulated that the soul went somewhere, and with adaptations to Christianity and its theological ancestors, what was believed and then taught was that it was an eternal soul that was always connected to God… Unless, of course, it was sent to Hell!
Thanks to modern medicine and psychology, we understand that the flow of our blood does contain the crucial elements of physical life and that blood and lymph also contain the emotions, energies, and all the chemical aspects of our humanity that allow us to feel, react, cope, strive, and deal with the many aspects and experiences of our lives. The vitality and health of our blood responds to everything: From a personal feeling, to a systemic infection- blood keeps us alive and involved in the many processes and experiences that states that we can agree with our ancient Hebrew sisters and brothers- that the blood does define what it means to live, and to be alive. So, from that general view, the ancient Hebrews were very close to modern truths. As for carrying the soul, in this short essay, I cannot tackle that, but it is safe to say that since the blood carries our hormones and all the chemistry of our emotions, much of what gives purpose and meaning to our behavior and our lives does indeed flow and live in our blood!
So, when a person chooses to give blood to the unknown stranger, what can that mean? We are reasonably sure of what it means when we are asked to give blood to a family member, because that is linked to our affections and to our sense of family and fidelity… but what of the stranger?
Would it be such a far ethical stretch to say caring for the stranger is another fundamental religious and compassionate imperative? An act equal to treating our neighbor as ourselves (presuming in this detached and aloof world that we even know our neighbor’s name!) Could we call the love of the stranger through universal and unknown acts of human compassion to be the 3rd Great Commandment?
Charity which originally was a word synonymous with love, brings our the best in our humanity and fosters the greatest peace promoting caring connections in our world. If only our country’s political policies would export as much charity as it does weapons, maybe the world could become a more peaceful place? Whether you tithe, whether you give whatever you can, or whenever you volunteer through a church or some social service group, in those acts, the blood of the common life is shared, and the unselfish love of your neighbor in one’s life can be found, and we can bear witness to a profound grace as being seen in action…
So yes, give blood- Please! But know that as St. Francis reminds us, for our soul’s sake, in his prayer he reminds us that it is more blessed to give than receive… And know that our whole lives, not just our temporary feelings of happiness, might well depend on it! So Be It!