The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived — nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died– through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not had had ever, really, been present at his life.
― James Baldwin, Another Country
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am never far from reading James Baldwin. His insights frequently make me wonder whether the life we knew he lived, had been his only
This particular quote is so important to me. I have my share of life’s hammer and it’s so seductive to read a book, see a video, read a blog, with the promise that your emotional burden will be lifted, that you will be happier. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read a lot of books on loss and depression, etc. And many were insightful. But there is a significant segment of these sources that are quite possibly counterproductive.
I, like many others, just wanted the pain to stop, to get back to the person I once was and leave behind the sadness, the loss, the inadequacy, the self doubt. Most of all, I wanted these things as quickly and painlessly as possible.
There is an entire industry that feeds of this and similar desires. Whether it is gaining self esteem, losing weight, getting a career on track etc, there is no shortage of books, blogs, videos, courses, that promise a way forward that promises maximum velocity of change with a minimum of amount of discomfort. It is a kind of snake oil of our generation.
A bit of self disclosure here – I watched a lot of videos, read lots of books and blogs, and I’m here to tell you that I am an abject failure in terms of achieving my goals mentioned above as per the suggested means. I took notes, did the exercises, the meditations, the journalling. Was it me?
I cannot discount the possibility that I am just a bit thick and not really getting the messages I was meant to get. One best-selling book on ‘resilience’ left me scratching my head from page one to the last. So it is entirely possible my brain just isn’t wired to extract the intended value of these (sometimes) well-intended guides.
So am I still that dark, crystalline chunk of grief I was when I lost my wife? When I lost my little dog? When I lost my home? When I lost my business? No, is the short answer.
But am I whole and back to where I was before all this kicked off? Absolutely not. And here’s the nub of it – I never will be.
Yes, my experience flies in the face of all those books, and videos, and blogs. I am not ‘whole.’ I am not back to the ‘good-old’ Mark everyone knew. And it gets worse – I have a strong feeling I never will be. So if you knew me before any of the aforementioned calamities occurred, the Mark who writes this now is not the same one you knew before.
The differences are many and varied. Aside from the obvious differences – older, poorer, less employable, less spontaneous, more anxious, more humble – there are lots of subtle and not so subtle ones that even I am still discovering.
We will dive deeper into these later. Right now all I want to say here is that the term ‘life-changing’ is a good one to describe such hammer blows. Just don’t expect there to be a way to change back. The change is permanent. I often describe it as life forcing me on a new adventure and there is no route back to the old one.
What HAS helped me in these times, is to do my best to deeply understand what I am feeling and to give those feelings a label. Many of those feelings carry a lot of negativity – shock, loss, confusion, sorrow, anger, fear, loneliness. But for me I needed to know these feelings inside and out. Some become guides to good, while others are always adversaries trying to steer me into darkness. But without understanding, how could I know the roles these would play in my change?
And by giving them labels, when I come across a new example of a feeling, I can go, ‘oh yeah, that’s blah blah blah… I know that one.’ And I take a bunch of the power away from the feeling and keep it for myself. The core feelings remain as they are now part of me. But I take power from them for myself. I use those feelings to form who I am becoming through this change. If I must change, I want to be an active part of that change, not just a blindfolded passenger in the back seat of the bus.
I am no trained psychologist. I have had courses in mentorship and public speaking and writing and editing of all sorts, but
I would be the first to admit that I am not qualified in any way to give advice. But I do feel that, owing to recent life experiences, I feel a need to share what I have been through and maybe there is something or a tiny part of something, that you might want to extrapolate and turn into something useful for yourself. Of even if you read this and find it a load of old cobblers, maybe it inspires, through derision, an idea that does work for you.
There were two bits of advice I found useful. Journalling was helpful in organizing my thoughts and aided my memory which went haywire after the loss of Lari. I was also advised not to make big decisions or changes right after Lari died. I think that was wise advice as my mental faculties were definitely impaired and I might have made some truly terrible decisions. Later, with the loss of Kipuka, there was no way I could continue to follow that advice — it was either make a big decision or live in a tent. Three years of avoiding decisions had left me very unsure of my ability to make good choices. And none of the choices post Kipuka have been small or without significant risk.
But I have made my choices now – for the time being. I am in Italy, settling in the only home I have, taking stock of my situation, thinking about the future and my place in it. I am not rushing and I am thinking before gravitating towards anything. I know what the allies and enemies in my head are and the feelings that surround them. It’s a struggle, but it is my struggle and I am feeling it completely.
And this brings us back to the James Baldwin quote. The reason this quote connects so well for me is that there are few pure truths in my experiences of the past few years and this is one — there is no avoiding the feelings, good or bad, on the road to my new future. If I want to have anything like a positive experience for the remainder of my life, I need to feel the feels and that means the highest highs and the lowest lows. Trying to avoid either just drags out what might otherwise be a shorter, and more enlightening lobby where I wait for my next train.