How is it that we are still watching people get shot and killed in this country because of the color of their skin or their nationality? Watching the slaughter of the Ukrainians has traumatized us in its lack of respect for human life, but we are also traumatized by the violence occurring in our own country and the deadly intolerance of differences. Whatever happened to the “melting pot” description of America where out of many different origins, people tried the experiment of not only tolerating the differences but celebrating them and becoming “the city of light on a hill”?
We must start the change from intolerance to compassion somewhere. I believe it is with our own words and example with our children. When the young man who perpetrated the murders in Buffalo was being arrested, I was thinking that at some point he was a toddler, at some point he reached out his arms to be held. At what point did it all go so wrong?
Both hatred and love are “caught.” It is our greatest responsibility within each of our own spheres of influence to embrace civility over disrespect, compassion over blaming, and problem solving over retaliation. Our responsibility is to curate what we are allowing our children and grandchildren and also ourselves to be exposed to in media platforms. There is the story that a grandfather told his son that love sits on one shoulder and hate on the other. The child asked which of the two would win out. The grandfather’s reply was, “Whichever one you feed.” That is where we must begin.
I was just thinking again about Ukraine and all of those who have lost their lives for something that was even more important—something larger than the self—the love of country and human freedom. What an amazing thing it is to witness such a strong sense of purpose in the face of the greatest cruelty and evil.
A sense of purpose is one of the most important predictors of human happiness. Finding one’s purpose can be the work of a lifetime. It is not just about what one can accomplish, but it is about finding the unique gift we each have in our power to give and to give it.
One of the reasons retirement is such a challenge for many is that the purpose of a career or lifework must be laid aside to reveal a deeper purpose that is not dependent on a workplace. It is in retirement that many people find their deeper purpose in reaching out to do what they really have always wanted to do. For some the gift becomes volunteering for a cause. For some, the gift is time given to family and friends. For others it is simply giving the gift of demonstrating courage and joy.
The words of Shakespeare’s Juliet came into my mind today as I was thinking about Ukraine and the many who have died there in their homeland. “And when he shall die (Romeo), take him and cut him out in little stars. And he will make the face of heaven so fine that the world will fall in love with the night and pay no worship to the garish sun.” Every life can be this—a tiny star that prevails—no matter what kind of garish sun is in the sky. The Ukranians are showing this to us.
First cancer brings you to your knees. Just the word is like winter. Then, when you come to your senses, you can awaken to the most beautiful spring: though some days are cold and chilly and some are warm and full of light, every single one becomes precious. Each evening I think how that day has been worth a day of my life.
This kind of thinking changes everything. You start noticing things, even the littlest kindness or the pleasure of a good night’s sleep. Cards from friends remind you that you, too, should start sending cards and letting people know how precious they are to you. Coffee tastes better than you ever noticed before, and grandchildren’s hugs are stored in memory, each and every one.
You begin to think of loose ends and an urgency to get important things done instead of putting them off. Some days you feel nearly invincible with energy and confidence; some days seem to have a cloud hanging over them, with worries about how many days there will be, and after teaching your children how to live, you begin to imagine that you must also teach them how to be brave and accept mortality.
Some days you feel like a warrior, ready to fight to the end against an invisible and wily enemy; other days you feel like befriending cancer, learning its ways, only to find out that it is not good at compromising.
The days of scans that periodically mark time are a test. Crawling up into the MRI machine you know that an all seeing eye is about to give your directions for the next step in the journey. This past week I crawled into the machine after my first year, and it saw nothing. “no evidence of malignancy going on.” This is the best spring ever, not just because I can breathe again for awhile, but because new eyes have come to me during this winter and a love for life that passes my previous understanding. To all of you who are somewhere on this journey, keep looking for the gift. It is bought with a great price, which makes it priceless.
Recently, “Prolonged grief disorder” was added to the DSM 5—the diagnosing psychotherapist’s “bible.” The timeline of six months is often regarded as a turning point in grief; if symptoms strongly persist, a diagnosis of depression may be considered. The prolonged grief diagnosis stretches the normalcy of persistent symptoms to a year. Nevertheless, the diagnosis is somewhat controversial. The question is when does grief become a “disorder” and how long are grief symptoms considered to be a part of the normal healing process rather than becoming a “disorder” or mental illness.
In practice and in experience I have come to see grief as an adjustment to a change that shakes one to the core. In profound losses, a kind of anesthetic shock can seem like a numbness protecting the mind while reality begins to seep into full consciousness. This brief period allows us to make decisions that must be made in the moment and to do the next necessary thing. Some are misjudged as “not feeling” because there may be no tears at this point. It is like having a major body injury and at first not even feeling it.
As the reality of loss begins to reveal itself in a myriad of ways, the mind begins the process of understanding and questioning and finding meaning. An energy that looks like anger distracts as we try to make some sense of what has happened while it makes no sense to us. The next season seems more identifiable as tears and sorrow melt into our consciousness, like a giant iceberg in the chest. This is the season that looks like clinical depression. There may be difficulty in making decisions, little energy or motivation, difficulty sleeping, isolation, and irritability. Like a bodily injury healing, the mind and body and spirit begin the first stages of knitting our lives back together. This takes as long as it takes.
These days as we witness the Ukrainian tragedy, we share in the experience of their grief and observe them moving through unimaginable loss. All of the stages are playing out for the world to see. We send support as we are able, and know at the same time, that it will take a very long time for them to put their lives back together in some way again. It is not measurable in months. There is no timeline for grief other than waiting for the coming of hope and those who encourage us that in time winter lets go and gives way year after year into spring.
The importance of a time out during a close basketball game, the spring break, a vacation, even just the weekend—all of these are as important as the spaces between the notes in a musical score. Without taking time outs—life can feel like a jumbled mess without focus and clarity. The time we take to step back is as important as the stepping forward.
The need to call a time out in our daily lives is signaled by burnout and boredom and fatigue. Sometimes our bodies remind us that a time out needs to happen, and those who may have felt too busy to take a vacation suddenly find themselves being faced with a mandatory time out for a physical condition that will call its own time out.
Nature tries to help us with periods of darkness and light to stop ceaseless activity—to sleep. The question around daylight savings time is coming into focus as we realize how the complications of turning our clocks forward and back affect our awake and sleep patterns. Making time for more working hours may defeat its own purpose in actually decreasing productivity during our waking hours.
The wisdom of sleep (naps included) is put so beautifully by Shakespeare as “sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” Our worries and fears and emotional fragility often seem to lessen or even dissolve after a good rest. Being able to let ourselves take our time outs and give in to rest is good medicine for mental and emotional wellness. Where are your “raveled sleeves” that signal a need for a break? How will you address the frenetic pace of life and call a time out? Begin to dream of it!