In Dying, an Engagement with Life

Haven faculty member Ernie McNally lived his belief in relationship even as he was terminally ill.

By Julie Chadwick. This article originally appeared in the Nanaimo Daily News, March 31, 2014.

When Ernie McNally was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour 18 months ago, he approached the looming potential of death much like he had his life: with a deep sense of love and profound honesty.

As a former director and teacher at The Haven Institute on Gabriola Island, a centre for personal and professional development, Ernie utilized his skills in music and counselling to facilitate workshops with his wife Cathy that touched the lives of hundreds of people all over the world.

He viewed The Haven less as a retreat centre and more as an “engage centre,” said Cathy.

“The commitment of the founders is that their workshops would be heuristic, which means you learn through experiencing. So you may get a bit of theory, but if that’s all you get, it’s useless.

“The idea is that when you leave the place, you’ve actually already skinned your knees trying the new stuff … which gives you a better chance to keep going when you get home.”

Using this experience-based approach to enact change in one’s life and develop deeper and more meaningful relationships was an idea that appealed to Ernie’s existing philosophy, and he took to it immediately.

“He stuck out for me. I saw this guy, and I knew there was something really special about him,” said Jock McKeen, who founded The Haven Institute with the late Bennett Wong in 1983.

“He had an open heart and an extraordinarily quick mind. He grasped what the concepts were – about human values and about relationship, and he understood them.

“And with a really glad heart he just said, ‘I’m going to live like this,’ and he started.”

As his illness progressed, so too did the intensity and depth of his engagement with other people, said Cathy. Though McNally died on March 1, surrounded by family and loved ones, the legacy to the lives he changed during his work were immortalized in a song his brother Steve wrote for him not long after he was diagnosed with the tumour. Titled “We Got This,” it was a collaboration between 63 musicians, family members and friends spread out over 18 countries. The entire project was a surprise for Ernie, who was given an emotional presentation of the song by Steve and many of their friends at The Haven’s New Year’s Reflections ceremony in December of 2012.

“One of the most remarkable things about Ernie is that even as a boy, in the stories his dad told me. .. I think he had a sweet romantic dream that if everyone cared for everyone, if everyone was kind to everyone, that we could make it work – that the world could work,” said Cathy.

“When he was somewhere between 14 and 16, his dreams of the world working – he had to shove that away a bit. It was too hard, he kept seeing things that weren’t working. But I don’t think it ever disappeared from who he was.”

Ernie and Cathy met in 1996 at a 26-day intensive Haven “long program” workshop where they were part of a team of four interns assisting the teacher.

The interns decided among themselves that they would try out being “rigorously honest” about their lives, and in all of their interactions with one other. On a day trip to Victoria, Ernie and Cathy decided to deepen the experiment, deciding to each reveal and discuss the very things about themselves that they hoped the other would never find out.

“In a funny way, I assumed that this mess of another possible relationship would just get done with, because once he’d heard the messy, not-nice parts of my life, that would put him off,” said Cathy. “It was, all in all, about an eight-hour journey. .. and we talked, and we cried, and we went about as deep, I think, as I’ve ever been with anyone.”

It was beautiful, she said, with tears in her eyes. Rather than something that repulsed them, the honesty actually made them view each other with an even deeper admiration.

Though she was living in her childhood home of Hong Kong at the time, when they later began a relationship that initial honesty provided a rock-solid basis from which their love grew, unfettered.

From there they spent 15 years teaching workshops together, and managed The Haven Institute for four years.

Once Ernie was diagnosed with the tumour, they both decided to keep their loved ones aware of what was going on. What started as a series of update emails to friends and family ended up blossoming into a narrative of their experiences and lessons along the way. Email topics ranged from analyzing how to make the most of every “right now,” to “What do you want to hear as you’re dying? What do you want to know?” said Cathy. “All kinds of conversations that I would never have had, because I was too busy living. But none of us knows how long we’ve got.”

True their philosophy, these were not theoretical musings but their real-life experiences; the confessions and questions of a couple passionately in love and facing the challenge of a lifetime.

It transformed the lives of those around them. People in their apartment complex would stop them in the hall and remark on how the latest email had caused them to pause and reflect, to open up to one another in new ways.

It also normalized the discussion of death, said McKeen. “That was incredible, because most people would pull into themselves, and lick their wounds and become isolated,” he added. “And he became more and more and more engaged, right up into the last days of his life.” 250-729-4238

© Nanaimo Daily News

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