We Embrace Humor as Healthy

It’s quickly approaching a date, for me, that will live in infamy. I’m certain that we all have a date like that, a date that pricks the hair and quickens the mind. For me, that date is June 7th, and it is the date that I had open-heart surgery at the age of 24. I was old enough to seriously ponder my own mortality, yet young enough to seriously consider a terrifying question: Have I lived my life to the fullest? It isn’t until you are forced to consider death that you start to understand the immediacy of life — and that is a shame.

When terrible things happen, the initial reaction most of us have is not necessarily one of laughter, but laughter is closer to the reaction we should be having than the one we inevitably do have. The reaction we typically do have is one of fear — or of regret, or dejection, or despondency. Life frequently becomes more about what we ought to be doing than about what we truly want to be doing. And what I mean by that is this: there will always be those who will tell you what you need to do with your life. There will always be naysayers who want a certain thing for others because, deep down, they don’t have a clue what they want for themselves. In reality, to look inward and make an honest assessment of our own hopes, dreams, and shortcomings is terrifying; it requires a certain amount of vulnerability to have any real value.

The reaction I had when I was told that I had to have heart surgery within the next couple of months was initially one of shock, then of fear, then of sadness. Humor had always been a crucially important part of my life, but three years ago, I had none — I was devoid of humor. And this taught me something important.

It taught me that I was wagering too much on what might have been and not enough on what currently is. I was living less in the moment and more in what could — and rightfully should— be. In other words, I kept looking forward to the day when a certain goal would be obtained, or a certain object would be acquired, or a certain amount of approbation would be heaped upon me in order to achieve the optimal amount of happiness. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way.

What I learned from getting struck down with an unlucky stroke, with the news that I would need to replace my aortic valve with a mechanical one, is the news that I don’t control anything. That news, shockingly enough, as viewed with the great fortune of posterity, is incredibly funny. Because it is very easy to get wrapped up in one’s identity, whether it be wild success that strokes the ego or gross misfortune that plants the seeds that eventually blossom into attention from others. I didn’t reach out to many people when I was going through my heart surgery ordeal, mainly because I found it to be a personal matter, and I thought the response that I would get from others would be disingenuous. In hindsight, I should have had the courage to let more people in; I shouldn’t have reacted so strongly to those who made a scary part in my life more about them than it was about me. But I did.

I think what I realized is that there are plenty of good people out there, and there are plenty of worthwhile pursuits — all depending on the person and what he or she finds interesting, of course — but it should not take life-altering events to find them. These kinds of people, and this kind of inner strength, is within you and around you all along. When life caves in, good partners, family members, and friends will fit the unexpected contours of your life. Like a beautiful flower carving out precious real estate in the place of a destructive fire, people and issues of importance will find ways to make themselves known.

Which brings me back to this pesky idea of humor. In the NAMI family support groups that I help facilitate, we have a principle of support that we try to emulate:

We embrace humor as healthy.

But what does that really mean? It means having patience with yourself even when things go all wrong. It means life really can’t be taken all too seriously because none of us have much control over the matter in the first place. It means lettings go and just enjoying the ride.

My parents sent me a card a couple of days ago. Essentially, it was a card to let me know that they were thinking of me and that they were especially thinking of me during this difficult time. I looked at the card, and what do you think I thought? Oh, how sweet? What a kind gesture to think of me during this very emotional time? No. Quite the contrary. I thought, what are they talking about?

I had forgotten my own damn heart surgery.

It took me several seconds to realize that, oh yes, the anniversary of that day that, for me, will forever live in infamy was soon approaching. At first I was embarrassed — who forgets that one day that the odds of their passing from this earth greatly increased?

I called up my mom when I had the chance, and I thanked her profusely for the card. Then, I told her about my moment of stupidity, about how I had momentarily forgot about that one time in the not-too-distant past when I had almost died. Oops. And then she laughed at me. And I joined in that laughter. And I realized that for the first time, on the third-year anniversary of my heart surgery to replace my aortic valve, I wasn’t gripped by fear of my own mortality. Don’t get me wrong; that was a pretty awful time for me. I had conversations I never thought I would have at that point in my life. There are times when I will have flashbacks of when I saw my parents for the first time at the Mayo Clinic and broke down in tears. There are memories of sitting on a bench outside of the hotel where my terrific partner, Kristie, and my parents were staying for that week, telling my dad where I wanted my ashes spread — if it came to that.

But I think laughing about that time that “I almost died” was an important turning point, because it unveiled an important distinction. Yes, I could have died then, but I could also die right now. Or tomorrow. Or fifty years from now. The truth is, I don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t even know if I am going to remember the moments that are supposed to define me, the moments that I thought would be engraved in my mind forever. I even forget the name of my heart surgeon from time to time, the man who saved my life. You could chalk that up to poor memory, and you might be right. Or you could chalk that up to writing on the same worn chalkboard with a new piece of chalk. I’m living the same life, but I realize that each moment is all too ephemeral.

So, you might ask me, “Do you remember that time that you almost died?”

To which I would answer, “No, not really.” And we would both have one good, long laugh.

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