Sunday, March 24, 2013

What I Have Come To Believe - Part 2: A Quest For Patterns and Control

The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not our circumstances. ~Martha Washington

Before my dad got sick, I felt lucky.  I felt happy.  And, like anyone else, I expected that my luck and my happiness would go on and on.  For the record, I still feel lucky, largely in part to the perspective imparted to me by my dad during the first 42 years of my life, and I feel happy overall, despite the bruise of grief and sadness and loss I have felt in my heart since my dad went on ahead.  I don't still think that happiness - or anything else, for that matter - is guaranteed, though, and I have to say that's been a really shitty realization.  Unlike most things about which I think that knowledge is power, this kind of knowledge sucks; it's weakness, doubt, and fear, all rolled up into one.    

I like control.  And on that note, to prove my point, I will even admit - and to all my old slumber party friends - you're welcome; you know it made things much more interesting all those years ago - I pushed the thing around on the Ouija board (I looked it up; it's called a planchetteso it would spell words to form a message. 

But now I know that there is no real control in life and that no one is immune to tragedy.  I guess that's part of growing up, to realize that, but I just feel like I wasn't grown up enough to have to deal with it yet - not that I ever would have been "ready."

Sometimes I try to make myself feel better by trying to make sense of things with the notion that everything happens for a reason, but in reality it's a product that I just can't buy anymore.  I think it's easy to say that things happen for a reason in retrospect, once we've had the time to find what often turns out to be a needle in a haystack; finding some good even in a very bad situation is our way of trying to survive emotionally, like putting a band-aid on a skinned knee with the intent of making some of the pain go away and hoping that the wound will heal with as little scarring as possible.  

When something bad happens to us, we want to know: who or what is to blame?  It seems like there should always be someone or something that caused it, as I've said before, some cause-and-effect relationship to everything that happens in life. But, what if, as often happens, there ends up being nobody and nothing to blame?  What if there is no explanation for what happened?  That's really something that seems impossible to reconcile in the aftermath of tragedy.

Personally, I don't believe my dad was "chosen" to have brain cancer - what kind of reward would that be??  I think that, like the majority of other tragedies and diseases out there that befall other innocent people, it just happened, and my family got through it the best we could figure out how to, based on our skill sets and our perspectives, both of which (especially the latter) we had in large part due to my dad.

I think it's human nature to try to organize things - not necessarily physical things, but intangibles and events in our minds, in an attempt to make sense of them and to find a pattern of some sort, which can be a source of comfort and give one a feeling of control, of being able to predict what's coming next.  One way that we attempt to do that is with the use of platitudes like "Live life to the fullest" or "Live each day as if it were your last."  

For the record, I hate the expression "Live life to the fullest." It angers me because I find it senseless: what does that even mean?  What are our other options - living to the quarter (quarterest?) or to the half (halfest?)??  If I sleep late every weekend or don't work my ass off to get that next promotion at work, am I not living life to the fullest?  And about living as if there were no tomorrow - does that mean I don't have to pay my electric bill or my taxes or watch my weight or weed my flower beds?

Another common way that we try to establish a pattern or even just attempt to ease our minds a little when something bad happens is by looking for things within a bad situation that we can label as Silver Linings.  Lately, I've been wondering if maybe the whole Silver Lining concept isn't just a crock, though.  I wonder if there is any research out there that shows that humans are genetically programmed to look for that in every situation.  I wonder if Silver Linings are just over-optimism or fluff, especially when I stop to consider the fact that in pretty much any given calamity, the people involved would be far better off not having had to endure the situation and not being left with whatever is being touted as a Silver Lining than they are with the tragic event and the Silver Lining.  Is using a "it could always be worse" type of Viewfinder to examine difficult situations just a way of using the tragedies of others as reflections of our own "luck" or as a way of ranking which rung we are on on the Ladder of Good Fortune? Is this obviously skewed logic necessary to survive?  Sometimes, for me at least, it's hard to get past the opposite of at least.

Here's a story about a man with brain cancer who says he feels lucky to have been not just able to finish but to win a marathon after having pushed his young daughter in a stroller the whole way:

To be honest, when I first read this article, I thought, "It's so unfair that this guy got to keep running after his diagnosis when my dad didn't; he's so lucky to have been able to keep doing what he obviously loves for at least long enough to accomplish this feat!"  But then I thought: Is he lucky?  Is it fortunate for him that at least he got to do one big thing on his bucket list?  I guess so - if he thinks it is.  But technically it would be luckier if he didn't have terminal cancer - and I'm sure that he would trade that marathon win for a clean bill of health in a split second.

Sometimes, what it comes down to is in the face of disaster is not how you got there or how you got through it but what you can pull out if the experience. What you choose to decipher and to take away from what you went through.  The perspective that you allow yourself to be given, so to speak. 
As I learned from Dad long before he got sick, it isn't what happens, it's what one's attitude about and one's reaction to what happens that  we can control.

"The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than the facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, the circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company ... a church ... a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past ... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convince that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you ... we are in charge of our attitudes."  ~Charles R. Swindoll

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