Tragedy, Trauma, and Resilience

We all will face tragedy and trauma in our lives, some of us more than others. The most severe forms are often the least expected. Though we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it.

I have an Uncle In-Law named Sidiki. He grew up in Guinea, Africa.  As a young teenager he contracted a mysterious illness (probably polio), one day when he was walking to school he fell and never stood up again. He spent months in a hospital in a coma, and with time regained the use of his arms. But was deeply depressed by his circumstances. Africa can be a very unforgiving place for those with Sidiki’s fate.

After months of depression and contemplating suicide, Sidiki reminded himself that he had something to offer the world. He chose to build himself back up, learning not only to walk with his hands but dance, bike, waterski, and more. He was not musical before the incident but something ignited in him, he is now a very accomplished musician recognized in both Guinea and the US as a treasure.

You have to wonder where he would be if this has not happened to him, without the trauma and challenges he faced, would he have still been able to forge himself into this hero that he is today? It’s difficult to answer. Sidiki’s resilience turned a terrible sickness into the an incredible journey in musicianship and courage. Though he is a true hero, we can all make the same choices when faced with our own challenges.

He has a documentary out now called “dancing without feet” check the trailer out here!

Check out this Article in the New Yorker on Sidiki

I have another friend how suffers from a bacterial overgrowth in his intestines, caused by taking antibiotics without probiotics. Which causes him to have a very bad reaction to many foods (grains, processed foods, sugar… a majority of the average American’s diet). I lived with him for several years and watched every step from contracting this illness, researching it, and fighting to overcome it. Most of us take food and our eating habits for granted. It’s been very difficult for him to manage this problem, it requires a constant vigilance, a strict diet, and occasionally many days of fasting. There’s no days off, no opting out, no magic pill, no clear answer on how to overcome this.

This hell has transformed him into a different person. It has ignited a passion to cure himself through a profound understanding of his digestive system and how it interacts with food. He has developed a very scientific method for his diet and has an depth of knowledge that could easily be used for a Ph.D dissertation. This augmented his passion for the environment and has lead him to a promising graduate program in ecology in Switzerland. I don’t know how he will use this experience and knowledge, but the intense challenges he faced has made him a really incredible person. His journey to overcome this digestive problem inspired a blog, documenting his experiences and challenged. This has revealed a huge community of people with the same problems, and his work has helped and inspired others.

It’s never ever easy to face tragedies, pain, fear, trauma and other challenges that life brings, but life will assuredly bring many your way. But you can take hope from these stories and know that you are not alone in your battles, lean into the discomfort of your own fight, and use it to become someone better.

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A New Kind of Death

Reflections on Death

There is a taboo in western culture about death. What happens after is a big unknown, and it could happen at any time. When it comes time to “knock on heavens door” people often come to terms with death by reflect on their lives and how they made it worthwhile. For most it can be something along the lines of “I raised some good kids”,  “I helped people”, “I created something”. Almost all of them involve others, as if they see themselves living on in the echoes of their deeds.

This video shows many peoples aspirations on what they want to do before they die, you’ll notice most involve relationships in one form or another with others.

All of this points to the idea that we live on through our contribution to the “human experience”.  That all of humanity is deeply connected and we are part of something larger than ourselves. It’s kind of a nice thought, and comforting as we confront the idea that death is guaranteed.

A new kind of death

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” –Banksy

I would like to critique banksy’s idea of dieing twice. I think it’s a little self centered that the second death comes from when someone says your name for the last time. It is impossible to fully fathom how are actions play a part in the grand scheme. You could inadvertently plant a literal seed that grows a tree that in a hundred years after your name fades from memory provides a fruit for someone. The possibilities are endless.

Let’s have a thought experiment: You are the last human, for dramatic effect it’s winter in the ruins of new york city, and you have a month or two to explore the city, the libraries, the music stores, the great buildings, mountains of wealth, thousands and thousands of years of culture, of knowledge, of science, of thought, of humanity, have led to you… Fate is kind or cruel enough to allow you a peaceful time to reflect on all of this before you yourself go to die, and that’s it… there’s nobody left for the great novels to inspire, there’s nobody left harness the carefully crafted formulas of science. The books become heaps of paper and ink, paintings become canvas with globs of colors, and great buildings and machines will only be heaps of metal and stone.

The second death would come when there are no more humans to contribute to the experience.

it’s gonna get a little heavy here, bear with me.

This seems a little obscure at first like something out of a bad zombie or disaster movie. But history provides a powerful context for this. Imagine now how a native American would have felt after being moved to a reservation, and their lands taken, their great stories not remembered by anyone around them. Or imagine being in a concentration camp, everyone with your culture and religion has as far as you know been rounded up into one of these camps and is being killed off. These are truly great tragedies in history. But I submit that the extinction of all of humanity would be a deeper tragedy still.

For better or worse, most religions around the world have insulated us from this idea, whether we think we’ll go to heaven, be reincarnated, or appear in some other plane of existence. We rarely see the mortality of humanity as a whole, I think it is something worth considering.

Ok, I’m bummed already… So now what?

Perhaps this the end of humanity like the end of our individual lives is inevitable, but this new death provides unique clarity and frame for our existence and how we can fit into the big picture. You have to decide if the game of keeping yourself around, and keeping humanity around for a long time is worth seeing through. Though I don’t believe that we are anything special in terms of the universe, I don’t think the universe “cares” if we are here or not. But I do like us bring here, and I am honored to be a product of thousands of years of humanity now past, and I hope I am building a better humanity for the future. It’s worth trying to make a contribution that will have a positive effect and make “the human experience” something that can be and deserves to be around for a very long time in the future. You can do that by discovering yourself, following your passion, being honest and genuine with yourself and others, make your life count, if not just for you, then everyone that has come before you and everyone that will come after. Loving yourself and loving others is the best you can do.

This is a good video of remembering what experiences shaped the world you live in today.

MADE BED from Kevin Oestenstad on Vimeo.

Know your Darkside

Photo Credit: Dominos Designs

You don’t know the power of the dark side!

Everyone has a darkside to them, we all have weaknesses and vices that impact us. Some affect us more than others, and some are more visible than others. Your darkside is the part of you that you have learned to filter and hide from others and even yourself, but when you see these traits in others it can cause you to lash out against them depending on the severity of how you have repressed that trait in yourself.

Carl Jung was one of the pioneers in describing and exploring this idea. He called it it the “shadow”.

Imagine being back in second grade:

The class is all quietly working, the teacher going over homework assignments, and the class hamster is snoozing. Then a familiar pressure starts to build in you… you have to fart. You try your best to hold it in but it only seems to worsen the problem. Then it finally sneaks out, and you desperately hope that nobody hears it or worse smells it. Imagine the shame of someone breaking the fragile silence with “who farted?!”. Your palms start to sweat as you imagine the humiliation that only an elementary school classroom can bring fear grips you. But this time you’re lucky, nobody says anything.

A few days later, in the same setting, you are quietly chipping away at a math quiz. You are at a relative peace because your intestines seem to be behaving properly today. Then it happens… a subtle smell crosses under your nose… that stink… somebody farted. In a blaze of conviction you exclaim “ewww who farted!?” and attempt seek out the fiend that interrupted your academics.

How can we extrapolate this other elements of life?

Lazy and messy roommates? overly dramatic friends? That goddamn liar of a best friend that you have not spoke with in years? The coworker that is so full of him/herself? That significant other that just might be cheating?  Is there something about you that makes these people irritate you? Where is your darkside? Let’s get darker what about those people with a different religion, different race, what is it that causes your stomach to turn?

When you feel the discomfort of anger or some other sort of conviction towards another person, when you see something flawed, incorrect, or downright evil about them. Take pause, explore this feeling. Ask yourself why you feel this way, it is likely that there is something about yourself that is bothering you, that you are trying to hide that you are starting to see in another person that is causing these emotions. If you didn’t have this problem with yourself, this discomfort, this repressed shadow, then whatever this other person was doing would not bother you so much. Letting these emotions control you damages relationships, makes you miserable, and keeps you from becoming who you want to be.

Let’s go back to second grade again:

This time you are quite the self actualized little kid, sitting at your desk taking your math quiz again, and that pungent smell arises again. You realize everybody farts, it’s just a natural thing. You imagine how you felt the other day when you were the one who had “dealt it” and smile at the all the stress you put yourself through because of such a trivial thing. Instead of conviction you feel empathy, instead of an outburst you simply smile and continue with your work.

Into the Darkside:

I challenge you to explore what it is about other people that bothers you, to find if there is possibly something about you that is the root of this. This is a difficult and slow process. You have been hard at work burying these parts of you far away in the corners of your mind, the harder you have tried to suppress them and the longer you have spent doing it the harder it will become and the more difficult it will be. Accept the discomfort and know that you are working to better yourself.

Once you have identified some of these dark elements to yourself, accept them, love them. they contribute to you in the same way that manure contributes to the scent of a rose. This wont make the fiend inside of you go away, you will alyways have a darkside. But recognizing it and embracing it will enable you to control it, instead of it controlling you, and maybe, just maybe, other people won’t bother you as much.

Seeing through the game.

If you have some extra time on your hands. I would highly recommend listening to this lecture by Alan Watts, he discusses Jung’s philosophies on the “shadow” and discusses it’s incredibly destructive potential (See: the holocaust)  and how liberating it can be to be free of it. This changed my life.

Success?

In these modern times we are raised to seek out success. From early on in school we are treated as we if we are preparing for one day when we will be “successful adults”. Our education plants this little voice in our heads that keeps whispering “That day is coming, and if you aren’t ready for it you will be blindsided by it and you will have missed your chance at happiness forever”.  Once we get out of school that little voice swaps out good grades, colleges, and whatnot for a few more milestones: we need the good job, we need a spouse, a house, and a kid or two (insert your idea here, there’s infinitely more). Throw a nice TV or car somewhere in that mix and we should be all set to just be happy for the rest of our lives right?

I have always enjoyed Alan Watts‘ metaphor of treating life not like a race or a ladder but like a song.

Life does not seem to fit very nicely into that plan, and happiness does not flow from milestones. These goals and milestones we set for ourselves can be helpful guidelines for keeping us on track, but they often leave us in fear and discontent with the moment we live in now.

So accept the discomfort of not having a finish line somewhere that when you cross you will finally have the happiness you have always craved. Live now, live today, and enjoy every day, some days will be better than others, and that’s ok. I mean, really try and think about it for a moment… how boring would being completely happy all the time be anyway? it would lose its flavor, you need the challenges that life brings with one hand so you can enjoy the happiness and satisfaction it brings with the other. The treasure of life is in the journey, and all you can do is enjoy the moment that you have right now.

I’ll close with this great animated short about two guys who are on a quest to find a magic treasure that will transform them into great heroes, with all the perks that comes with it.

The Reward from The Animation Workshop on Vimeo.

Identifying Discomfort: Fear

Discomfort appears in many different forms and if we are not aware of it or if we ignore or avoid it it can have a powerful (and often negative) impact on our lives and relationships.

Do you know where you are?

Fear is a very powerful type of discomfort, and is quite pervasive in our society today. Imagine being a human thousands of years ago, hours away from your village on a hunt, and you hear something rustling in the bushes in front of you. You first thought drift toward a tiger, getting ready to pounce and tear your face off. You heart starts pumping faster, blood in your brain and other organs moves to the heart, lungs, muscles, getting ready for “fight or flight“. This places the body in a high state of tension, adrenaline is pumping through your veins and nonessential processes like digestion, higher level thinking and healing, all are placed on hold.

Unfortunately,our bodies have not learned to distinguish the fear of a tiger from the fears we face like sitting down to take that test, approaching the cute girl on the street, or presenting your new idea at staff meeting at work. You body still responds to fear in these situations as if they were all tigers, and the more fear your harbor the more deteriorating it can be. You mind and body are not functioning properly, you lose control of your thought to emotions, and are capable of doing things that you would never do with a clear mind. Suddenly all of the time you spent studying is worthless because your brain is bleeding out (almost literally), the girl on the street passes by and you pretend not to notice her, and instead of presenting your idea at work you sit on the sidelines.

So, in most situations these days we can see that fear is unnecessary and antiquated at best. Learning to recognize fear, and accepting the fear empowers you to act despite it. Being aware of your fear disconnects you from the fear, simply stating “I am feeling fear” can help you regain perspective and control of the situation. If you catch yourself feeling fear, so a brief survey of your surroundings to see if there are any tigers around, if not, then fear is probably not necessary. But without taking the first step of accepting the discomfort of fear, it will control you instead of the other way around.

The Scared is Scared

It seems like children are born with all of the secrets of the universe already in their minds and that wisdom gets knocked out of our heads by the time we become “adults”.  This video below does a great job at addressing fear, and fear of change.