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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Prepared Life

I have been off thinking for several days (and I've had more than a couple of things to do), and I'm still not quite sure how to write what I want to say.  Nonetheless...

I watched a TED talk on how the speaker is "preparing" to get Alzheimer's disease.  She prays that she will not--that the research will find a treatment or a cure in the next twenty years.  She has watched, however, as her vital and intelligent father has moved further into his gentle dementia.  She knows the genetic component and wonders what she can do to....well, to have a better Alzheimer's experience.

She talks about physical exercise, mental stimulation, having hobbies her hands can remember when her brain can't, and working on being a kinder and more loving person as a habit when it can no longer be a choice.  It's a good program.  I'm considering those issues now for myself.

The talk made me wonder as well what I have learned about loss and grief that would have been good to know before Anne died.  How might I have prepared to live through the loss of one I loved?  Perhaps that is a morbid thought for many.  That is why I hesitate to even write this out.  I think, however, that I know things now that might have helped me live better during the first months of bereavement.

For example, I wish I would have known then what I know now about personal regret, self-recrimination and the self-loathing which can arise from all that.  I am much better now at feeling regrets, making amends where possible, and then getting on with this imperfect life.  I have spent much time letting go of the "I should have done more" series of ruminations.  Had I been equipped with some of those skills earlier in life, both daily life and bereavement might have gone better.

I suppose that's part of this reflection as well.  Building the skills to deal with the loss of a loved one will make daily life better whether that loss comes or not.  For most of us the losses will indeed come. But in the meantime, we will be better people with better lives if we work at preparing for such losses.

I wish I had known the difference between rumination and reflection earlier in my life.  And I wish I might have known how to break the rumination cycle and how to keep introspective reflections positive and life-affirming.  I have a much better handle on that now, and for that I am grateful.  Here is another area, however, where preparing would have made my life better.

I am glad now that I am more grateful, get more exercise, seek out a larger network of friends and acquaintances, spend more time laughing, practice savoring experiences when they come, make positive choices about how I react and feel, understand the value of helping others no matter what, engage in a spiritual life rather than a merely religious profession...that's a partial list.

What might you suggest as ways, not only to prepare for surviving the loss of a loved one, but simply living a better life?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Living in the Moment Doesn't Require Brain Damage

Nearly every author who writes about brain function mentions two paradigm shifting cases: Phineas Gage and Henry Molaison.  If neuroscience ever establishes a list of saints, these two will "head" the hagiography (bad pun intended).  Gage was a rail worker who survived the high-speed passage of an iron rod through his prefrontal lobes.  Molaison was the unfortunate victim of a surgical treatment for epilepsy which removed most of his hippocampus and deprived him of the ability to form any new memories.

The Wikipedia article on Gage is a good and brief summary of his case (with pictures).  You can see that article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage.  There is a lovely tribute from earlier this year in Psychology Today to Molaison at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind/201201/hm-the-man-no-memory.

Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske describe Molaison's case in The Winner's Brain.  I was struck by their conclusion (page 22).  Because poor Henry forget who you were even if he turned away from you for a moment, they suggest that he "truly lived in the moment."  By the way, if you want to see a humorous and accurate portrayal of something like Henry's case, watch the movie Fifty First Dates.  One of the characters at the fictional neurological institute exhibits symptoms identical to those of Mr. Molaison.

Is it accurate to say that truly living in the moment would require the obliteration of past memories?  I think not.  If this moment is the only moment, then the statement by Brown and Fenske has no real meaning.  I know they weren't making some deep existential point.  They were just being a bit cute, and I don't blame them.

Truly living in the moment, however, must include acknowledging the past as real.  The past is part of who we are in the present.  Living in the moment is not radical forgetting.  It is, however, fully letting go of the power of the past to control us in the present.  So embracing the past as indeed real and powerful is part of living in the moment.  Letting go of the past as past is necessary to that living in the moment as well.

I never forget the things that have happened to me that make me who I am.  Instead, I deal with the past.  I integrate it into my present.  I use my past as a resource for wisdom, gratitude, humor and hope.  I pray that I would not suffer from the forgetfulness of poor Henry.  That's not serenity.  That's pathology.

In fact, it is in those moments when I am not conscious of my past that I am most controlled by it.  When I have those crazy responses to present stimuli, I must remind myself that something else is going on.  It's time to stop and reassess myself and deepen my awareness of what is driving my reactions.  A loss of memory cuts off that process in tragic ways.  It is no wonder that recovering suppressed and damaged memories can be such a powerful part of therapy for some of us.

It is telling, after all, that we would regard Mr. Molaison as damaged rather than fortunate.  At times I do envy the utterly carefree life he must have lived after his surgery.  But imagine the swirl of confusion that filled his brain.  Parts of his brain in fact could remember things.  He could develop skills and retain those skills at a subconscious and pre-verbal level.  He couldn't however, remember why he could remember.

That must have been terrifying.

The past is a resource for choosing to hope in the future.  Embracing the past and using what is there is part of that choosing process.  We let go of the power of the past but we learn the lessons that lie there.

That is part of really living in the moment.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Grief and Instant Intimacy

The framework of "quick-set intimacy" as proposed by the brothers Brafman (Click: The Magic of Instant Connections) is a helpful one in understanding the nature of bereavement ministry.  Perhaps it's not hard to understand the affection the bereaved my feel for a long-time minister, rabbi, imam, etc., in the context of a household death and the aftermath.  That loss takes place in the framework of a supportive friendship that may have years or even decades of history.

The mystery for me often has been the moment when I have ministered to strangers or new acquaintances in times of loss.  How can I go from interloper to beloved friend in a matter, sometimes, of seconds at the bedside of the dying?  It has been an awesome privilege and a profound mystery of the heart.

I've had that experience in hospital chaplaincy situations, in interim assignments and when I have been brand-new to a parish.  I experienced "quick-set intimacy" with the interim pastor in my home parish when my dad died.  I had never met her before.  I don't even remember her name now.  Nonetheless, I remember her with gratitude and deep affection because of her ministry to us.  I have experienced the same thing with children and grandchildren of the dying and dead--often people I've never met before.

How does this happen?  How is it that this complete stranger of a pastor or chaplain is taken in to the inner emotional circle of the family in a matter, sometimes, of seconds?  I remember three decades ago in my Clinical Pastoral Education how this happened.  

A family from hundreds of miles away lost the momma to a sudden, unexpected and devastating heart attack.  I was there when she died.  We spent all that night until the next dawn praying, drinking coffee, eating stale doughnuts and talking about that wonderful woman whom I'd only "met" as the attending physician and staff were performing desperate CPR.  When they left, the oldest daughter kissed me on the cheek in gratitude.  I never saw them again, but I think about them every time I make a hospital call.

Here are the elements of "quick-set intimacy" (as listed in Click on page 32)--vulnerability, proximity, resonance, similarity and a safe place.  A chaplain or pastor is present at the moment of ultimate human vulnerability--our helplessness in the face of death.  And the chaplain or pastor is just as vulnerable as everyone else.  I've haven't raised anyone off a gurney in an ICU yet, no matter how much I have wanted at times to do just that.  I know that shared vulnerability creates an instant and deep bond.

We chaplains and pastors can spend hours and sometimes days with the family and friends.  We wait and watch and pray.  Often we're there at the moment of death.  We laugh with those who laugh.  We weep with those who weep.  We wait with those who wait.  We grieve with those who grieve.  This is the definition of proximity.

Spending that much time together in such intense circumstances builds irresistible resonance.  Only an emotional lump of stone could stand outside of such a process and not be formed by that process.  I know that I have taken on the rhythms of speech and become familiar with both the stories and habits of bereaved families.  Resonance leads to similarity.  Similarity becomes a tool of pastoral care.

Finally, it is our vocation to provide a safe place--a safe place to grieve and say goodbye.  More than that our Christian calling is to provide a safe place in the face of death.  We do really believe that nothing in all of Creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord--not even the stark wall of death.  It is our job to point out the bright door through that apparent wall and to bring words of hope.

Quick-set intimacy is the intimacy of hope.

Whether the brothers Brafman intend it or not, they provide a template for understanding the pastoral care dynamics of the death bed.  They help to explain how I can become such an intimate and beloved part of a family system that had never even heard my name an hour before.  As I think of it, one of the amusing elements sometimes has been that these intimate companions don't even know my name until hours after I first showed up.  "Pastor," "Chaplain," "Reverend"--these labels are more than enough to serve as a foundation for such quick-set intimacy.

I'll finish the book today, Omaha friends, and get it back to the library for those who want to check it out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Vulnerable Enough

I love to wander the stacks of the public library, browsing without agenda and waiting for those books that call out, "Read me!  Read me!"  Ori and Rom Brafman, brothers who work as a psychologist and an organizational consultant, have written one of those books.  It's called Click: The Magic of Instant Connections (2010).

They discuss, for example, relationships that really are "love at first sight" and then last a lifetime.  So that's attractive to Brenda and me for further exploration.  They use such discussions (and the work, for example, of a police hostage negotiator) to explore the nature of immediate and deep connections.  The brothers Brafman suggest five elements necessary to these immediate and lasting emotional bonds:

  • vulnerability
  • proximity
  • resonance
  • similarity, and
  • a safe place.
They refer to these five elements as "click accelerators," and they discuss each in turn.


I was intrigued by their discussion of the power of vulnerability to engage others in immediate and deep emotional connections.  They write,
"Allowing yourself to be vulnerable helps the other person to trust you, precisely because you are putting yourself at emotional, psychological, or physical risk.  Other people tend to react by being more open and vulnerable themselves." (page 32)
My first interim assignment was, in retrospect, an exercise in extreme vulnerability.  I didn't intend it, but I also couldn't really help it.  The sermons I preached all spoke in one way or another to the issues I faced less than six months after Anne's death.  I dealt with my own grief as much as that of others when I officiated at funerals.  Ash Wednesday worship nearly did me in with the intoning over and over of "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

I feared that such emotional displays would put people off.  I had been taught that pastors should not work out their own emotional stuff on the parishioner's dime.  I assumed people would tire quickly of my grief.  

Quite the opposite happened.  I really did "click" with the folks in those congregations in ways that surprised me.  As I look back, I see now that it was that vulnerability itself that opened the door to such quick and deep connections.

My response was not all I might have hoped for.  I was exhausted by how the emotions simply leaked and sometimes poured out of me all the time in that setting.  At that time, being alone did not recharge me but rather left me even more depleted.  For the first time in my life my introvert habits did not serve me well.  In a month I simply collapsed from emotional exhaustion.

In those days I said I needed a life before I could have a ministry again.  That part was right for me, but it is all so complicated.  I think that I moved a bit too far in the other direction when I returned to another parish.  I was tired of the "you poor man" looks I got from people when I told my story.  I was weary of the incessant vulnerability and the sense of exposure that went with it (I really am an introvert, after all).  I still engaged in that process of vulnerable self-revelation in smaller settings--classes, counseling, meetings, etc.  But in my big public activities I began to shut it down.

That was not helpful.  Between my introvert habits and my desire to appear somehow "normal," I became for some people aloof and unapproachable.  They were folks who did not interact with me in the smaller settings.  So their assessment, in hindsight, is not surprising and probably not far off from the truth.

Now I have hopes to find some balance between public vulnerability and managing my own emotional resources.  I know that being vulnerable is the most powerful and liberating model for ministry that is available to us humans.  It is, after all, the model of ministry that Jesus himself has chosen (see Philippians 2, for example).  I think I am ready to engage in healthy vulnerability, but I am nervous about how that will work out in the future.

Is that vulnerable enough for now?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It's a Cinderella Story

First--a humble disclaimer.  I don't golf.  I know nothing about golfing.  If I picked up a club I would flop back and forth between dangerous and ludicrous.  None of that, however, keeps me from being an amused and bemused spectator.

Living next to the first fairway on the Johnny Goodman golf course is a little bit like living on the set of Caddyshack.  I keep waiting for Bill Murray to show up mumbling about "a Cinderella story."  When there is lightning and thunder I wait for some Episcopal bishop to come along in the midst of the perfect golf game.  And I wonder sometimes how squirrels might respond to the application of plastic explosives.  After all, I can't get to the gophers.

Bella, our Viszla pup, and I were walking along the boundary fence this morning.  A foursome was just getting underway on the first hole.  I heard the "plink" of a plastic wood against the ball.  Then I ducked for cover.  I heard a small branch snap and leaves fall as a screamer went a bit off course.  Fortunately it hit a small tree on the other side of the fairway, but it's best to be cautious under such circumstances.

We kept walking as I heard the next "plink" and then the slight thud as a ball landed about four feet inside the fence near us.  The ball rolled away from the fence and down the hill in the right direction.  It's better to be lucky than good, both for the golfer and for us.  We kept moving and got out of range.

As we made our way back toward the apartment, I noticed a cart roving the outer boundaries of the landing area.  I thought perhaps they had missed the fortunate ball closer to the hole.  I was wondering if they were surprised that one of their shots might have gone so far, so I pointed out the ball location.

Then I saw the issue.  A brand new Titleist was lying in the grass on my side of the fence.  I leaned down, picked it up, and then I couldn't help myself.  "Titleist?" I asked innocently.  Suddenly I teleported from Caddyshack to the Seinfeld episode where Kramer knocks the golf ball into the whale's blow hole.  I bit my lip and tossed the ball over the fence.

The owner frowned so loudly that I could barely hear his muttered "Thank you."

Then it struck me.  I was having a poopy morning--an introvert hangover from so much interpersonal relating yesterday.  Nothing was good.  Now I ran into this guy who was golfing with buddies on a beautiful course on a crystal clear and cool morning without a bit of breeze.  This guy was lucky enough to get his errant ball back and have a great day, and all he could worry about was taking an f----ing extra stroke.

Life is far too good and sweet to worry about such little things.  We have so much and it is all so wonderful.  Thank you, Lord, for the reminder and the helpful kick in the spiritual pants.

It is a Cinderella story every day.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Living on the Impasse Frontier

I am working through Timothy Butler's book, Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths.  I was taken both by the title and by Butler's interview for the Harvard Business School's interview column, "Working Knowledge."  You can read the full interview at http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5548.html.

In the interview, Butler describes the reality of psychological impasses in our lives.  According to Butler, the realization of being at an impasse often comes upon us slowly rather than all at once.  The impasse presents itself at the feeling level: frustration, stuckness and even some measure of depression.  "And along with that," Butler notes, "typically, is a self attribution: feeling that there is something wrong with us and [something wrong with] feeling stuck."

This is more than an episode of frustration or some momentary emotion.  A real impasse is, according to Butler a developmental necessity.  "The meaning of an impasse," he continues, "although it's usually first expressed as a failure or an internalized notion of inadequacy, is a request for us to change our way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world."

That sentence jumped out and grabbed me by the collar, demanding attention.  I know that many of us experience the death of a loved one as a failure on our part.  We tried somehow to save our loved one and were not successful in that effort.  Such a sense of failure can produce intense shame--the response most of us make to that "internalized notion of inadequacy."  The loss of a loved one can produce, I think, the textbook example of a psychological impasse.  The death creates a roadblock on my life path which cannot be circumvented.

So we are required to choose a different path.  "Impasse means that we need to change our whole approach to the problem," Butler notes in his interview.  "We need to change our understanding of the problem.  We have to change our repertoire of ways in which we approach life challenges."  Butler invites us, whether he knows it or not, to choose to re-frame our experiences of loss and grief.  Losing a loved one is a profound "request for us to change our way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world."

Refusing to honor that request will leave us stuck in the pain of our loss and grief.  Again, Butler is not addressing bereavement issues--otherwise he would have used different words (I think).  Nonetheless his words are powerful. "When loss or change brings us to impasse because we feel that we are at a dead end, we have to look at life anew because our old ways aren't working.  If we continue to try to use the old ways it will just mean more pain."

For those who can embrace the impasse as such a request and opportunity, the outcome will be some measure of personal growth.  At all those moments when I have been able to re-frame my loss as an opportunity to learn and grow, my life has gotten both easier and more interesting.  When I have returned to the impasse and nourished the sense of being stuck, my life has gotten harder and less fulfilling.

Butler describes six phases in overcoming the impasse.  I think they are a bit too linear for real life.  Instead, they appear to reflect the dual process model of bereavement.  The first three steps are about losing and letting go of the old life.  The last three are about embracing and growing into the new approach to life.  Those two patterns are in a rhythmic dance throughout our lives after loss.  One key to happiness is making choices that move us toward the second pattern more than the first.

I do appreciate so much Butler's description of an impasse as a liminal or boundary experience.  "In this sense," he notes, 
"impasse is the frontier of what needs to happen next for us if we are to live life as openly as possible...An impasse crisis happens when we have been, for some time, avoiding the work of living fully at our border.  We are missing something essential in our lives, and it is as if the impasse crisis is saying 'Enough!  No more evasion!  You can no longer avoid this, you must deal with it now or these symptoms will persist and grow more intense.'"
It was not Anne's death that created the impasse.  Rather it was my reaction to her death.  Making different choices about how to live after the loss has been the opportunity to live on the frontier of my life in ways that weren't available before.  I love Martha Lagace's summary of the conversation:
"Impasse invites us to shed our fears and move to the border of what is actually presenting itself to us, right now.  This returning offers us a bargain, an opportunity to exchange certainty for vulnerability, sentimentality for depth of feeling, and the comfort of the familiar for the energy of a world that, as hard and exciting as it may be, is always beckoning."
Preach it, sister! 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Here is a review of the 7th Biennial Meaning Conference, held in Toronto Canada from 27th through July 29th, 2012. This article covers some of the viewpoints presented on day 1 of the conference. A subsequent article will cover days 2 and 3.  It is a good overview of several topics.

http://by148w.bay148.mail.live.com/default.aspx#n=1058519525&fid=1&fav=1&mid=741bd042-e742-11e1-b406-00237de33370&fv=1

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Little by Slowly

Brenda and I heard a speaker some months ago who used the phrase "little by slowly."  It was so much a part of his vocabulary and cadence that he didn't even wink anymore when saying it.  It was his way of talking about the need in this life to wait for constructive changes to happen.  It was his way of talking about how we do the day by day footwork as God brings about the larger alterations in our lives.

Little by slowly--that's how living with loss goes.  I stand by sometimes and watch as fellow travelers meet and support one another.  We find each other, we who have lost a loved one.  We gravitate toward one another, we who have that amputated emotional limb.  Many of us are doing well.  Many of us have moved on in significant ways.  Many of us live happy, grateful, productive, present-centered lives.  But we still know.

We know the ways of little by slowly.

I stand by sometimes and watch as fellow travelers meet and support one another.  There is the flash of recognition as we think, "Oh yes, here is someone who will understand."  Tears that have been dammed up for days or months or years flow freely again.  It may take just a word or a look or a squeeze of the hand.  But there is that immediate connection.

The changes take place in such small ways, almost imperceptibly.  The difficult times get further and further apart--at least for many of us.  We have those moments where realize, "Well, isn't that interesting.  That thing that used to bother me so much is now just another thing."  The gratitude overwhelms the grief more often than not.  The hurt becomes history more often than not.  It happens for the most part little by slowly.

My experience of so much of this was that I am waiting as fast as I can.  That is my response to little by slowly.  I can't force the pace.  I can't make things happen until they are wanting to happen.  I can't craft an outcome other than the one God intends.  I'm waiting as fast as I can and doing what is good for me in the meantime.

Some days that's a miserable prospect.  But most days it is the path to peace and...hope.  The journey toward hope, made of a million little choices, is a journey we take little by slowly.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Insight Problems, Part Two


In my last post, I described David Perkins' book called Archimedes' Bathtub.  Perkins explores the dynamics of creative insight, particularly in terms of what he calls "insight problems."  Insight problems are the ones that require a fundamental shift in worldview before they will surrender to a solution.  

Living with loss, I think, fits Perkins' description of an "insight problem."  Perkins describes four elements of normal problem solving that create issues when we address insight problems: 
  • getting lost in the possibilities 
  • finding experience to be featureless and empty of clues for going forward 
  • tunnel vision
  • "almost" solutions that don't quite work
Perkins' suggests some solution strategies for responding to insight problems.  Those strategies include "roving, detecting, reframing, and decentering."  I think we can use each of these and all of them in combination to move ourselves out of those periodic funks that are normal to living with loss.

He describes roving as "exploring the possibilities widely, trying this and that."  I find this to be as simple as doing some physical roving--taking a walk, working out, getting a change of scenery, or finding someone else to help for a while.  I continue to be pleasantly surprised by how effective that one choice can be for feeling better.  Sometimes it is helpful to do some mental and emotional roving as well--to watch a funny movie, read a mindless novel, or play a brain-building game on the Internet.

A second strategy Perkins labels as detecting.  He notes that many times what is not said in the statement of a problem is more important than what is said.  What have I assumed that I know about living with loss?  Perhaps it's time to become a bit more of an expert on my own condition in order to see if I've missed an opportunity or insight.  Maybe I need to go back and read something that didn't quite connect the first time or review my journal to notice a pattern I overlooked before.

Reframing is a third strategy for moving forward in bereavement.  What am I supposed to learn today?  What is my part in my own struggles?  How might I look at my life from the perspective of my loved one lost or another family member or friend?  How can I get a bit of distance in order to have some self-empathy rather than self-pity?  How can I step back in order to move forward?

The fourth strategy Perkins mentions is decentering.  "To decenter," he writes, "is to move away from seductive approaches that don't really work."  The most seductive approach, especially for most of us men, is to just tough it out and act like nothing is wrong.  That doesn't ever work.  What we can do is feel the feelings and remember that feelings come and go.  They are temporary.  If we can refrain from focusing our full attention on them, we can let them arrive and leave.  I feel my feelings, but I don't have to be defined by them.

Roving, detecting, reframing and decentering--these are strategies worth considering as we live with the ongoing insight problem called living with loss.

Insight Problems

So, friends, I'm back at my desk.  We're in an apartment for now.  The house we shared is sold and closed.  We're looking for the home that will be ours together, that will allow us to make space for others, and that will be a place where we can carry out our businesses in addition to our jobs.  We don't ask for much, do we?

I've been reading David Perkins' book called Archimedes' Bathtub.  Perkins explores the dynamics of creative insight, particularly in terms of what he calls "insight problems."  These are problems that simply won't surrender to standard, linear, inside the box thinking and the sheer brute force of trying every possible solution.  Insight problems are the ones that require a fundamental shift in worldview.  These are the problems that require us to give reality a quarter turn and a second look.  These are the problems that produce the "Eureka!" of Archimedes in his bathtub.

Living with loss, I think, fits Perkins' description of an "insight problem."  I'm not suggesting that we can just think our way through loss and back into ongoing happiness.  No, it's not that simple--no matter how much we might wish it were so.  On the other hand, we can make some choices about how to think, about how to react to our feelings, and about how to solve the day to day problems that living with loss can present to us.

I was talking with someone who was remembering the death of a loved one.  We could have spent an hour examining those feelings of hurt, loss, loneliness and longing.  Those feelings are real and not to be denied.  But he had already spent a full day in such ruminative thinking.  We needed a mental snap of the fingers and a change in perspective for him.

Perkins describes four elements of normal problem solving that create issues when we address insight problems.  He uses an analogy that is too cute by half, but his information is useful.  

One element is that we simply have "to struggle and persist simply to cope with the sheer magnitude of the task."  

A second element is that we can experience all of life as a flat, featureless problem with no obvious way forward out of our pain.  There are "no apparent clues to point in the direction of a solution."

A third element is the opposite of the second.  We can develop tunnel vision--a common experience of the bereaved--where our thinking and feeling are narrowed down to our experience of loss and nothing else.  We can be so preoccupied with what we think and feel and sense right now, that we are unable to be open to any other experience.

A fourth element is that we can get stuck in what we're doing now, even if it isn't working. Our problems may "tempt the problem solver with answers that are almost good enough, but not quite.  It's hard to move away from them."

Perkins refers us to a literal "outside the box" example in the classic "Nine Dots Problem."  You are probably familiar with this insight problem.  If not, you can see some creative solutions at http://www.jimloy.com/puzz/9dots0.htm.  My point is that living with loss in an ongoing way may require the same sort of personal creativity that solves other "insight problems."

In my next post, I'll share some of Perkins' suggestions for solution strategies and see how they apply to living with loss day to day.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Painful Expectations

Friends, we are mostly moved in to our new apartment and things are settling down a little bit (but not very much yet).  So I've had some time to get back into the blogging saddle--and I never stop reading, no matter what.

I just finished Barry Schwartz's 2004 book entitled The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.  It's another book that's worth the time if you are in leadership, if you sell, if you are guiding people.  Well, it's good for pretty much everyone, I think.

One of the things Schwartz discusses is the role of expectations in subjective satisfaction with the choices we make and the experiences we have.  We suffer from expectation inflation, Schwartz suggests.  The result of such inflation is ongoing disappointment regardless of how much things might improve on some objective scale.  Schwartz writes, "As long as expectations keep pace with realizations, people may live better, but they won't feel better about how they live" (page 184).

I wonder if there is a connection between increasing life expectancy and increasing stress during bereavement in our culture.  If we imagine that people really ought to live virtually forever, then any death will be classified as "too young" and "out of order."

I want to be clear at this moment.  Every death of a loved one is tragically painful, whether that loved one is one year old or a hundred years old.  I don't wish for a minute to minimize the actual experiences of loss and pain that we have when someone dies.  I do wonder, however, if we set ourselves up culturally for far more painful experiences than we might have if we had different expectations.

Many of us have seen the pain of parents when a child dies.  That pain is especially acute when the child is young.  I have seen, however, similarly intense pain from parents of any age.  When my dad died at age fifty-nine, I remember the words my grandfather repeated over and over.  "It should have been me; why wasn't it me?"  

We don't expect--in the Western world, at least--that our children will die before we do.  When that happens, as it sometimes does, the pain is far greater for us in the West than it is for people in other parts of the world--those parts of the world where thirty thousand children die every day from preventable causes.

The difference is, in part at least, our expectations.  Anne and I had discussed several times the fact that both our fathers died by age sixty.  We knew that an early death was likely for one of us--probably for me (at least in statistical terms).  When the situation was reversed, I was stunned into devastation.  I had expected something quite different.

Expectations drive both our disappointments from the past and our anxieties about the future.  Schwartz writes, 
"in this age of unparalleled longevity and control over disease, there is also unparalleled anxiety about health.  Americans expect to live even longer yet, and to do so without any diminution of capacity.  So, though modern health practices extend our lives, they don't seem to provide an appropriate degree of satisfaction" (page 186).
It would be worth considering how this understanding fits in with the current debate on health care availability (but that's for another person's blog).  That being said, our culture convinces us that we can continue to live longer and longer and better and better.  That may in fact happen, but that sort of progress will not make us feel better if our expectations keep pace with and exceed reality.

So what is one to do?  In hindsight, I would have been well-served to simply examine my expectations  about life, longevity and death.  In other times, people spent energy and thought preparing for their own deaths.  We spend that energy ignoring the possibility of dying.  That cultural practice does not serve us well.

In addition, I have observed parents who have lost children.  I am thunderstruck with admiration when I hear those parents talk about their gratitude.  I have listened as parents described how their little children seemed to have more impact on people in a few months or a few years than some people have in eight decades.  I have been reminded that longevity does not automatically translate into significance.  And brevity does not automatically translate into insignificance.

Schwartz has a variety of additional suggestions for how we can manage and moderate expectations in ways that will actually make us happier and more functional.  I recommend the book for your reading. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Back Soon

I'll be posting again in a few days...we're still in the throes of moving and settling in in conjunction with half a dozen other challenges.  But things work out.