October 9, 2011

A Man's Life

This Too Shall Pass

When I turned 16 years old, I got my first car. A red Isuzu Hombre pick-up truck. Yeah, my first car’s model was named Hombre, the Spanish word for man. Though, Hombre’s weren’t a very manly model of pick-up; they were actually kind of dinky. I really didn’t care. I just saw it as the object that finally granted me freedom from relying on mom and dad to take me places I wanted to go. The world was my oyster!

Two weeks after I got the ol’ Hombre, my best friend turned 16, and we went out for a night of fun. On the way back from an epic match of laser tag, I rear-ended a guy.  I got out and made sure the guy I hit was okay. After I saw that he was fine, I assessed the damage. The front end of my little Hombre was no match for the bumper of the F-150 I had collided into. My friends tried to console me.

“It’s not so bad, Brett.”

My response.

“MY CAR IS SCREWED!!!” Repeated over and over while I paced frantically back and forth.

The insurance agent declared my car totaled. And since I only had liability insurance, I was out of a car, period.

Man, I took it hard. I didn’t go to school for two days because I felt so sorry for myself (*facepalm* how freaking lame). I had taken my first steps towards freedom and independence, but in a matter of seconds I was back to relying on my parents to haul me around.

In the middle of one my pity parties, my parents told me, “Brett, this too shall pass.”

Of course they were right. That car accident, which seemed like the end of the world, like an event of earth-shattering significance, is now just a little memory from my teenage years, a funny story to tell.

In the years since that day, I have faced challenges and setbacks far more trying than a totaled car, but that simple advice—this too shall pass–has stuck with me during those low moments, offering a bit of perspective and hope that what seemed permanent, wasn’t, and that things would turn around after all.

You’re More Resilient Than You Think

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, ‘this too shall pass’ might be true about totaling a car when you’re a teenager, or challenges of a slightly more traumatic variety, but not for real, soul-grinding adversity.

What kinds of things fall into that category? Becoming paralyzed in an accident? Losing your spouse after 50 years of marriage? Surely you never really recover from these kinds of blows, right?

Certainly that’s how we feel when we imagine these things happening to us. But the research doesn’t bear out our fears.

In studies done on older couples–those who had been married for decades–6 months after losing their spouse, 50% of the surviving partners experienced little to no symptoms of acute grief or depression, and only 10% of participants suffered from a chronic depression that lasted longer than 18 months. This is not to say the participants did not miss their deceased spouses a good deal, but that happiness did return to their lives relatively quickly, and their grief was not as debilitating as many people imagine it would be.

Another study that followed people after they had become paralyzed in an accident found that the happiness of the victims returned to near their baseline pre-accident levels within months following the injury. And they took more pleasure in mundane tasks and felt more optimistic about their future prospects of happiness than another group which was also studied–those who had won the lottery.

In contemplating these traumas and others, people routinely overestimate how devastated they’d be and how long their funk would last.

Why does the way we imagine our reaction to a tragic event not match the reality of how people actually experience and heal after one?

In the book Stumbling on Happiness, Dr. Daniel Gilbert describes the human inability to notice and think about absences. We think more about what did happen, than what did not happen. Gilbert uses the example of getting pooped on by a pigeon; it might seem from this experience that pigeons aim for people’s heads. But if you took into account all the times you walked in the same spot and didn’t get pooped on by the pigeon, you would quickly realize the folly of that conclusion.

This inability to consider absences applies to the way we imagine the future as well, as Gilbert explains:

“Just as we tend to treat the details of future events that we do imagine as though they were actually going to happen, we have an equally troubling tendency to treat the details of future events that we don’t imagine as though they were not going to happen. In other words, we fail to consider how much imagination fills in, but we also fail to consider how much it leaves out.

To illustrate this point, I often ask people to tell me how they think they would feel two years after the sudden death of an eldest child. As you can probably guess, this makes me quite popular at parties. I know, I know—this is a gruesome exercise and I’m not asking you to do it. But the fact is that if you did it, you would probably give me the answer that almost everyone gives me, which is some variation on Are you out of your damned mind? I’d be devastated—totally devastated. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. I might even kill myself. So who invited you to this party anyway? If at this point I’m not actually wearing the person’s cocktail, I usually probe a bit further and ask how he came to his conclusion. What thoughts or images came to mind, what information did he consider? People typically tell me that they imagined hearing the news, or they imagined opening the door to an empty bedroom. But in my long history of asking this question and thereby excluding myself from every social circle to which I formerly belonged, I have yet to hear a single person tell me that in addition to these heartbreaking, morbid images, they also imagined the other things that would inevitably happen in the two years following the death of their child. Indeed, not one person has ever mentioned attending another child’s school play, or making love with his spouse, or eating a taffy apple on a warm summer evening, or reading a book, or writing a book, or riding a bicycle, or any of the many activities that we—and that they—would expect to happen in those two years. Now, I am in no way, shape, or form suggesting that a bite of gooey candy compensates for the loss of a child. That isn’t the point. What I am suggesting is that the two-year period following a tragic event has to contain something—that is, it must be filled with episodes and occurrences of some kind—and these episodes and occurrences must have some emotional consequences. Regardless of whether those consequences are large or small, negative or positive, one cannot answer my question accurately without considering them. And yet, not one person I know has ever imagined anything other than the single, awful event suggested by my question. When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter.”

This really gets to the crux of why, when we’re in the midst of a funk, we feel like it will last forever, and yet it inevitably passes. When we imagine the future, we think we will always feel the way we do at that moment, but we do not imagine all the life events that will keep us from sitting in our room and brooding 24/7. The vast majority of minds cannot ruminate on the same thing indefinitely. Life goes on and takes us along with it.

This is not to say that the ache of some losses and setbacks ever completely goes away. The memories of painful events in your life can still hit you out of the blue like a ton of bricks  and take your breath away years after they happen. People say that time heals all wounds, which is true, but while the open, gaping wounds close up, the scar remains.

And yet,  battered and bruised we keep on trucking. Humans have an almost infinite capacity for adaption and a greater ability to bounce backs from trials than most of know. As the author on the aforementioned study on widows wrote, “Resilience to the unsettling effects of interpersonal loss is not rare but relatively common.”

Not only should understanding this fact give you a glimmer of hope when you’re in a season of despair, it should also buoy up your confidence about taking risks in the future. Too often we think, “I cannot try that because if I failed/lost that person/made a mistake I couldn’t go on living. In fact, you could, and you would.

Getting Through the Trial

Sure, this information does offer a bit of hope to those down in one of life’s low points, but information can’t really pull you out of it. It is quite difficult to pull yourself out of a funk by thinking it away.

Your mind may say that the dark time will pass, but it still feels like it will last forever. And that’s where a lot of the pain comes from during challenging times: you look ahead down the road and wonder how you will ever make it. You gaze all the way to the horizon and the path ahead looks so long, so daunting, you feel like collapsing under the weight of that huge burden.

How do you cope during those times?

Take a page from Alcoholics Anonymous. Staying sober is no easy task–if alcoholics thought about not ever having another drink for the next 50 years, they’d easily get overwhelmed and feel like it wasn’t even worth trying. So they take it “one day at a time.” Staying sober for decades seems impossible; staying sober for 24 hours seems very doable.

This is how Don Gately, a character in David Foster Wallace’s book, Infinite Jest, deals with the grueling drain of detox. Only he makes the period in which he must live even smaller than a day—he narrows it to “the space between two heartbearts.”

“Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he’d be feeling this second for 60 more of these seconds—he couldn’t deal. He could not f—-ing deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second—less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp. An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses.”

Later in the book, Gately gets shot in the shoulder and, not wanting to relapse, refuses to take narcotic painkillers. He chooses to deal with the pain the same way he did during his detox–by living fully in the tiny spaces of time:

“He could do dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants lined up and stretching ahead, glittering…It’s too much to think about. To Abide there…He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live there. Not let his head look over.”

It’s hard to have the will to live a micro-second, but whatever the shortest amount of time is that you can build a wall around, just live in that space. Don’t look over the wall and think about the future. Just make it through that day. And the next morning get up and do it again. Live in that space for awhile, and the seasons will change around you. If you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, winter will eventually give way to spring.

Peaks and Valleys

I just wanted to leave you with a visual reminder of the “this too shall pass” principle that a friend once showed me. I often reflect on it when I’m going through a hard time. Make a fist and look at your knuckles. You see peaks and valleys. Such is the nature of life: peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. You may be in a valley now, but you will be on top of a peak once again. Just keep putting up your dukes each day and fighting the good fight.


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