Saturday, October 14, 2006

Transformational or tragic: you choose

I do not have a favorite Season. Whatever time of year I am in right now is my favorite time of year. This goes even for the infamously 'damp and dreary' Pacific Northwest winters. Right now, Autumn is scampering through the Willamette Valley. Her touch, though chill, brings blush to the trees and bushes. Scarlets, rich golds and oranges, the thousand shades of green fading to brown. And for all I love the colour of the foliage, there is something else that grabs my attention. Grasses. Ornamental grasses. They are producing their tassels now, their heads swaying and dancing with bits of fluff and silk, their sharp leaves rustling in the breeze. Their movement is hypnotic for me. I spent part of my Friday lunch break laying on the grass near a clump of zebra grass, eating an ice cream bar, enjoying the feel of the sun on my skin, the scent of fungal mats growing, and the soughing sound of the wind in the grass. And as always, in moments of solitude and silence, when the monkey brain is happily resting, thoughts and sensations blended in a swell from the unconscious, and my mind rocked gently with a question to contemplate: Two people can experience the same event. For one it is an instrument of tragedy and destruction, for the other, it is a tool of growth and transformation. What is the key to experiencing something as transformational instead of tragic?

I recognize that this is a satellite concern of the question of suffering that has preoccupied me during the past year. There is no doubt that my sister's horrific illness and my own agony over her suffering and my helplessness in the face of it have transformed me, just as the deaths of four loved ones in five years did. The weight of these experiences of loss of and pain--they can be crushing. My therapist assures me that they do crush some people, that some people never recover from tragedy. But it seems to me that one person's tragedy is another person's catalyst, and the difference between the two is subjective, experiential. Something within a person, some quality or characteristic, then, must be the key to determining if an experience will be transformational or tragic. What is it?

I have a friend whose life parallels mine more closely than anyone I know, and yet, our approaches to life are so very different. We've had similar experiences of adversity early in life. We are both the eldest children: she the eldest of two girls, me the eldest of three, and then later, of five, girls. We both raised our siblings. By the time we were teens, we'd both experienced abuse, neglect, loss, rape. We are both highly intelligent: we went to Ivy League colleges, read voraciously, enjoy intellectual pursuits. But there are differences. She had her mother, I did not. I had my father, she did not. While my father was physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive, he is not the one who sexually abused me. Her step-father did. She is stunningly gorgeous. I am not. She is extremely extroverted. I am not. She is attention-seeking, I am attention-aversive. Neither of us has married, neither of us has children, but she wants both, and I do not. With the exception of one, all of my partners have been good to me, but her relationships are invariably abusive. At present we are both single/unpartnered. I am happily, deliberately so, and she is not. I am growing, changing, evolving. She is not. Or atleast, not in a positive way. She is stuck. She is 'stuck', and everything she experiences that is unpleasant is something that 'happens' to her. She does not take ownership of her thoughts or actions, she does not examine cause and effect--she is the victim of circumstances of her own creation and she won't accept that. Something in her is inflexible, resistent. She cannot accept that she has the power to influence and create her life. Why does she --and so many others-- insist on being a victim?

I am a doer, a fixer, a very capable, get 'er done person. I am confident in my ability to do anything I want to do, and do it well. And yet, in the past year, I've had to face the awful truth that sometimes I just have to accept what comes, to rely on my ability to handle what comes my way, and let it come, let it flow over and through me, teach me, change me--and rather than let the pain of it cling to me, becoming something tragic--I let it go. Why is it some of us can do this, and others cannot?

Marcus Aurelius once said: "And as for me, let what will, come. I can receive no damage from it, unless I think it a calamity; and it is in my power to think it none, if I so decide." Powerful words, words that emphasize what I have learned since the dawn of the new millenium: that my thoughts and attitudes are causal, creative forces in my life. Calamity or Catalyst--it is in my power to choose which it will be. We all have the power to choose which it will be. At every crux, since earliest childhood, I have chosen the path of transformation. I have taken life's body-blows and continued humping along, limping sometimes, crawling other times, and yet invariably, after a short period of recovery, I am skipping, whirling, dancing along my path. Happy. Peaceful. Contented. Despite the pain of living. Why?

Am I shallow? Is that it? Is it that nothing I experience touches me so deeply that I feel intense, debilitating pain? No. The answers are 'no'. I know pain intimately. I know agony and sorrow and loss. I have endured what others consider unendurable, and yet I live. I live, and what is more, I thrive. How? Why? What is the key to transformation instead of tragedy?

After thinking on all this, after pushing it down into my unconscious and letting it percolate back up through my conscious mind, I think... I've come to think it is a quality of mind or character or self (whatever you want to call it) that can be identified by the following overlapping, inclusive labels: adaptability, bouyancy, flexibility, mutability, pliancy, resilience.

Since thoughts and attitudes are causal, creative forces in our lives, people who meet life with a flexible mindset are more likely to respond to what is really going on, in ways that are appropriate to the situation, and thus they more likely to craft something positive from their experiences. Resilient people are more likely to adapt to change, to bounce back after adversity--like a leaf of grass or a bamboo pole does once the pressure is released. Flexible, bouyant people 'know' that they will not only survive a 'negative' experience, but will thrive. Adaptable, pliant people 'know' that who we are is not static and thus breakable, but rather, that we are 'becoming' and thus resilient. And so, I suppose that, at base, its not what happens to us that matters--no matter how intensely painful or uncomfortable. What really matters is the attitude that we meet our experiences with, how those attitudes affect our responses, and the meanings that we give those experiences. How we feel, think and act is what determines if our lives are heavenly or hellish, tragic or transforming.

And so I suppose the answer to the question "What is the key to experiencing something as transformational instead of tragic?" is: a resilient, bouyant spirit. What makes someone resilient, bouyant, adaptable? How does one become those things? -- Those are new questions that I would love the answers to.

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