Melancholic-themed reads dominated my first trimester. Which is not at all a problem because I do enjoy drowning myself in others’ sorrows, vicariously experiencing grief, extreme sadness, despair, hopelessness and other seemingly negative emotions through reading. This is one of the exercises I do to sharpen my consciousness and to cultivate my sense of empathy. I know how life could quietly give me a rough edge. If I keep on charging ahead towards my goals, I might callously lose touch with humanity, considering how few social interactions I have had these days.
Besides, what does a fortunate and privilege millennial like me who never had to work too hard and never had to be afraid to fail in the absolute sense have to lose in improving my EQ?
Sarcasm asides, I opened this year with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. In the memoir, Joan masterly put into words her experience of suddenly losing her husband to a heart attack. She lost her daughter, too, the following year, for which she wrote another memoir, Blue Nights. I have yet to read that one. She probably wrote so she could cope with the pain.
Sheryl Sandburg, the notorious and impressive Facebook COO, also experienced an unexpected loss of her husband due to an undetected heart condition while they were on vacation. She has recently resurfaced and shared her journey onwards with life through a conversation on a Krista Tippett’s On Being episode along with her trusted confidant psychologist Adam Grant.
In the podcast, Mrs. Sandburg talked about how Adam introduced her to the concept of post-traumatic growth, which I ruminated on and concluded that to be the character-building mechanism for all of our favorite heroes. Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed in front of his own eyes when he was a young boy. Tony Stark’s parents were murdered by rival corporations (#poorbucky) and he had an artificial heart implanted into him while being held hostage in a cave. Spiderman’s parents were also murder, leaving him orphaned as a baby, and his uncle Bill who raised him was shot dead by a burglar. I can go on. Heroes are the aftermath of trauma.
Mrs. Sandburg shared that after trauma, “those problems that seemed so big before are tiny and small and completely surmountable.” That’s why heroes are able to stay composed in the face of apocalyptic disasters. As normal human beings, we don’t need that skill, but wouldn’t we all like to be emotionally and mentally stronger? Do we really have to experience the loss of a loved one or a significant other in order to acquire that growth? I surely hope we wouldn’t have to.
I would give anything to go back and live with Dave with the sense of gratitude I have for every day that I have now. Anything. What would I have done if I had known we only had 11 years? What would I have done on that last day when we went on a hike, and he walked with the guys, and I walked with the girls? If I could go back and share with him the gratitude I feel now, that would be incredible, but I can’t. But what I can do is try to live my life going forward with that gratitude and other people who haven’t experienced trauma can get that gratitude now.
Not all of us are Mrs. Sandberg, I reckon. It must be difficult to get accustomed to suddenly not having someone who had been with you everyday for 11 years. But to those of us who haven’t been forced to experience that loss, practicing pre-traumatic growth, and in other words, gratitude, more regularly is probably recommended.
I thought about Joan’s moments of “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.” There is always something I need to tell my partner, and since we do spend a lot of time together, we share our thoughts constantly, we comment, we converse, we discuss. We are always connected. This poignant reflection rippled through me on occasions. Like amidst a fight, or when I felt righteous and indignant with the urge to make a point, I thought about Joan, and I calmed down. I didn’t have to be right. What role does being right have in the grand scheme of things.
However, this is an acquired calmness. We either wait until we are old, after surviving trauma, going through hardships ourselves, or we intentionally practice it now. At 80 and learning of the multiple metastases in his liver, Oliver Sacks wrote:
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends.
But I didn’t want to wait until I can feel a century in my bones to start focusing on what is important. After adversities, or while facing death, our perspective clears up like an invisible filter has been applied to the soul and the mind. There aren’t so many distractions because there is no time to waste. I prefer to put this filter on always and zoom in on the essentials, with patience and wisdom, with a sense of urgency. “We never have enough time”. This explains the inadvertent gravity of this kind of writing on to me, the kind of writing like there is no tomorrow.
What are you reading lately?