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The author of the New York Times bestseller Minding the Body, Mending the Mind reveals the power of spiritual optimism: a philosophy that sees life crises as opportunities for personal growth and spiritual ...
The author of the New York Times bestseller Minding the Body, Mending the Mind reveals the power of spiritual optimism: a philosophy that sees life crises as opportunities for personal growth and spiritual transformation.
The only thing that we can know is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human wisdom.
I had almost finished the first draft of this chapter late in June 1990 when a tragedy led our family to ask the age-old question: "Why? If there is any love in this universe, why do bad things happen?"
My husband, Myrin, and I were sound asleep when we awakened with a start at 5:30 in the morning, the way a mother does when her baby begins to cry. Although our "baby," Andrei, was a young man of seventeen, we awakened instantly at his cries of distress. We ran down the hall and burst into his room along with our older son, Justin. Andrei was holding his chest as if his heart had been torn out. He was screaming, "Why? Why? No! No!" as a torrent of tears ran from his sleepy blue eyes down tanned cheeks that had suddenly gone chalk white. Andrei's anguish was so great that it seemed an accusation of life, a challenge to God.
Andrei had just received the phone call I've always feared the most. The one that would tell me that a loved one had died suddenly. His best friend, Mat, had died earlier that night when his car careened out of control on a dangerous, dark curve made slippery by the summer rains. Although an expert team of paramedics helicoptered him to our regional trauma center, Mat died before he even reached the hospital. Andrei's anguished "why?" was repeated by most of the teenagers who gathered at our home to grieve during the first few days after the tragedy. Why Mat? Why the one who never had a critical word for anyone, the one who was so grateful for life, so accepting of the uniqueness and potential of everyone he met? "Why the very best of us?" they asked.
At odds with Andrei and the others, one young woman admonished, "Don't even ask that question. It doesn't have an answer that we could possibly understand." This teenager in white sneakers and red socks had put her finger directly on the pulse of the sacred mystery. We cannot know. But for human beings the need to know goes hand in hand with restructuring our world after tragedy.
Tragedy brings forth the need to create meaning-to tell new stories-that can reweave the frayed ends of life into a coherent whole. Our ability to tell these stories is positively linked with recovery, according to the research of UCLA-based psychologist Shelley Taylor. Studying people whose lives had been disrupted by misfortunes that ranged from rape to life-threatening illness, Dr. Taylor found that those who readjusted well incorporated three coping strategies into their recovery: a search for meaning in the experience, an attempt to gain mastery over the event in particular and life in general, and a recouping of self-esteem after they had suffered some loss or setback.
Dr. Taylor was awed by the remarkable resilience of human nature and the deep reservoir of strength that tragedy taps. She observed that, rather than folding in times of crisis, most people have the innate capacity to recover from monumental problems, readjusting to life not only as well as, but even better than, before the tragedy occurred. And the meaning we ascribe to these dark nights of the soul is central to how we emerge from them.
What does it mean to lose a loved one, to get cancer, to be raped at knifepoint, to be molested as a child? If our answers create negative, fearful stories, then recovery from trauma is impeded. Research indicates that people who believe that they are helpless victims are more likely to remain anxious, depressed and angry than people who retain a feeling of control. A helpless, blaming attitude has in turn been linked to decreased immune function, increased heart disease and susceptibility to a whole panoply of stress-related disorders.
Equally paralyzing is self-blame, the pessimistic triad of feelings that University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman sums up as "It's all my fault, I mess up everything I do, and it's the story of my life." Pessimism compromises immune function, makes it difficult to learn from our experiences and leaves us depressed and powerless. If the stories we weave from our tragedies are more optimistic ("I don't know why this happened, but I can deal with it," or "Someday I'll see the value in this situation," or "I'm already learning from this experience" ), then both physical and mental health are optimized.
During the seven years that I directed a mind/body clinical program at Boston's Beth Israel and New England Deaconess hospitals, I had the chance to hear hundreds of "Why me?" stories. Most people came to the clinic at a point in their lives where illness had presented a new and often daunting challenge. Frequently their unquestioned ideas and assumptions about life were shattered by the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, the reality of living with multiple sclerosis or a head injury, or by the seeming endlessness of fear or depression. The treatment we offered was a group program that met for two hours a week over a ten-week period.
Patients were taught to use mental techniques including meditation and focused imagination that can produce healthful shifts in bodily physiology. They were also trained in the program of stretching, relaxation, self-awareness, breaking the anxiety cycle, reframing the meaning of their experience, exercise and nutrition that I presented in Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.
One group of patients in particular is etched in my memory. It was the first session of the ten-week program, and people were explaining why they had come. One woman had migraine headaches so severe that she was afraid of losing her job because of repeated absences from work. Another woman had a neurological disorder that could not be specifically diagnosed. Every time the symptoms of mild disorientation began, she panicked. Was it a brain tumor that had evaded detection? Would the symptoms get worse and make it impossible for her to function? There was a man with chronic back pain and a woman who was an incest survivor with a host of stress-related complaints linked to that childhood trauma. Two others had diarrhea and belly pain from irritable bowel syndrome, and several others suffered from panic attacks accompanied by bodily problems such as high blood pressure or irregular heart beats.
The last person to talk was "Leslie." An attractive, well-groomed brunette in her early forties, Leslie was a single mother who worked in a bank while raising two young daughters. She looked around the circle as she summarized in a soft yet strong voice her reasons for coming. "My husband died about three years ago. He was only thirty-nine, but he had a stroke. He was in Spaulding [a Boston-area rehabilitation hospital] for several months and then he came home. He was partially paralyzed on his right side and couldn't work. But, you know, he had a great attitude. He was happy to be alive." Leslie stopped to blink back the tears and clear her throat before she continued. "Just after dinner one night he had a second stroke and died. Peacefully. And in my arms."
Leslie paused for a moment to collect herself, "I hadn't worked since our two girls, Cindy and Ellen, were born, but after Bob died I got a job in a bank. It was a tough adjustment all around, but we were doing okay. Then about a year later I found a lump in my right breast. It was malignant, and there were three positive lymph nodes-not so many that I feel hopeless, but I also know I'm not out of the woods yet. I've had surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and now I want to make sure that I'm doing everything I can to recover. I want to live to see my daughters grow up." There was a stunned silence in the group as people absorbed Leslie's story. "Janet," the woman whose migraines were so disruptive, spoke first. Tears glistened in her eyes as she nodded at Leslie. "My headaches are painful and they make life unpredictable, but when I listened to you I realized how much I have to be grateful for. I'm amazed by your courage."
I was amazed by Leslie's courage, too. When I had first interviewed her so that we could decide together whether a mind/body program was appropriate for her needs, I asked her the same question that I routinely ask patients with potentially serious illness. "Even though most of the time there's no way to know why we get sick, most people have some kind of theory anyway. What about you?"
Leslie smiled, "Do you mean do I ask, "Why me" I nodded, and she continued. "At first I did, but then I figured why not me? How can we really know the reasons why anything happens? Why does some alcoholic child-molester live until eighty-five while babies die? My mother used to tell me that bad things happened to people because they were being punished for their sins, but all you have to do is look around you to see how dumb that theory is! The truth is that I don't know why Bob died and then I got cancer, Joan. All I know for sure, deep in my heart, is that somehow, in some way that I may never understand in this life, it is ultimately for the good." I could hear the sincerity in Leslie's voice that told me she was speaking from her innermost truth, not from some fearful rationalization. I told her so.
"I'm certainly not a fatalistic Pollyanna. I'm scared," she continued. "Some days I shake myself when I wake up, thinking that I'm caught in some awful nightmare." Leslie paused and sighed. "When I realize I'm awake, I have to adjust to this damn cancer, to my loneliness, all over again. I wonder if I'll live a normal lifespan or die young. And if I live I wonder what kind of life I'll have, whether I'll ever fall in love again, whether any man would marry me. And I wonder how it will be for the children if I'm sick, if I die. Then I start to think, 'Well, this is what's happening. This is the role I've been given to play. I'm going to do it as consciously and gracefully as I can.'" "Jay," a patient I met at about the same time as Leslie, had a radically different attitude. An extremely successful artist from New York, Jay was a gay man in his mid-thirties whose work had garnered national acclaim. Diagnosed with AIDS about six months before we met, Jay had lost some weight but was still working and feeling reasonably good. He had a strong support system of friends, but his emotional state was perilous as a result of his beliefs about why he had AIDS.
When Jay asked himself the question "Why me?" his answer was based on old, unexamined religious beliefs left over from childhood. Although not religious as an adult, Jay had been raised a Southern Baptist. In his desperation over his own illness and his grief for other friends who were ill or dead from AIDS, Jay regressed to a state of childlike helplessness. His old religious beliefs surfaced with fresh power. He deduced that the Bible was right to condemn homosexuals after all, and, if it was right on that score, then it might follow that he would go to hell for his sexual practices.
Jay was tormented day and night by his guilt. His behavior was like a parody of a fundamentalist tent preacher hurling blame, fear, fire and brimstone at himself. I suggested that Jay seek the help of a minister trained in pastoral counseling to help him separate some of his intrinsic fear and pessimism-the result of being raised in an abusive home-from his fear of God. As I discussed in Guilt Is the Teacher, Love Is the Lesson, a person's view of God as loving and merciful as opposed to punitive and judgmental correlates highly with self-esteem. Our self-esteem, in turn, correlates with how we were treated by our parents. If our parents were loving and we grew up feeling worthy and good about ourselves, we feel that God is also good. If our parents were harsh and authoritarian and we grow up feeling bad about ourselves, then we are likely to feel that God is punitive, as our parents were.
Since Jay lived in New York, we saw each other only intermittently on his visits to friends who lived in Boston. One day, after a hiatus of a few months, he came to our session with an armload full of books on self-healing. Jay's helpless, pessimistic attitude had lifted, and he looked strong and vibrant. He told me that he now believed that his self-hatred had created the conditions that made him susceptible to AIDS, and that he should be able to reverse those conditions by loving himself. He had positive affirmations hung all over his house and was deeply engaged in a program of imagery for self-healing.
Frankly, I was worried about him. His sudden shift in attitude seemed like a Band-Aid hastily applied to an open wound. In his misery and psychic pain, Jay had too easily accepted the simplistic notion of being 100 percent responsible for creating his own reality. It gave him a temporary sense of safety. The idea that what we create we can uncreate is one of those partial truths that can be very injurious. At the extreme of this philosophy, all illness is perceived as a failure, and a temporary illusion of power is created by the attitude that we can cure what we have caused.
I encouraged Jay to think about the wide range of alternate answers to the question "Why me?" that lay between the two extremes he had subscribed to thus far. His old beliefs gave God all the power. His new beliefs gave Jay all the power. He left the session upset with my failure to endorse his new point of view. Because my major interest is the intersection of psychology, medicine and spirituality-and because I endorse the constructive use of meditation, affirmation and participation in our own healing-Jay assumed that I would agree with his "New Age" philosophy, a label I abhor because it has been used with so little precision that it is effectively meaningless.
While we certainly participate in creating the events of our lives, the idea that we are 100 percent responsible for creating our own reality is a psychologically and spiritually impoverished notion. In my experience, when patients with this belief are unable to cure themselves, they often feel like failures or undergo a painful crisis of faith. While such crises can be important invitations to deeper healing when there is time to pursue the ramifications, they can be a serious blow for people coping with life-threatening illnesses that may afford neither the time nor the energy to pick up the pieces of a shattered faith.
Every once in a while Jay phoned from New York with a progress report. The symptoms of his AIDS gradually worsened, and, despite the help of a therapist, Jay's psychological state also deteriorated. He felt helpless and unworthy because he had not been able to cure himself physically or to find peace emotionally. When Jay became so weak that he realized death was imminent, his faith in being able to create his own reality crumbled, and he fell back to his original belief that AIDS was a punishment.
Like Leslie and Jay, most of us have faced, or will face, life crises.
Excerpted from Fire in the Soul by Joan Borysenko Copyright © 1993 by Joan Borysenko . Excerpted by permission.
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