Monthly Archives: January 2013

How Bad News Flows

Just a ringing telephone.
Just my mother’s voice on the other side.
Just another conversation about the week with a bit of this and bits of that.
Just good to speak to her, the same spread of topics. “How is everyone?
It was fine just like that.

But bad news infiltrates the normal flow of things. Unexpectedly. Unwanted. “Did I hear that Laurie has been diagnosed with lung cancer?” Out of the blue, into the cold.

Laurie was a classmate many years ago, a good friend and never a smoker. Despite little contact over the eight years while we lived abroad, he remains a dear friend. And I hate phrases like “good friend” being allowed in the same sentence as “bad news”. Even more when the bad news shadow push towards someone who lives in service of others and support their lives towards new meanings. Like my friend Laurie.But sometimes it merges into the same linguistic stream, creating a new reality that follows the telephone’s ring. In a few seconds the past is shattered with a new present.

It reminds of what Douglas Adams wrote in Mostly Harmless:

One of the problems has to do with the speed of light and the difficulties involved in trying to exceed it. You can’t. Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws”

Bad news with its own special laws bends the rules and does not read the policy document. Like an outlaw, a deceitful prophet, or the fraudulent official. Bad news carries its own load of heartache and pop songs. Maybe a positive take on it, is that it can override the previous bad news edition. It makes the mouse we caught in our bedroom on Monday night, the power failure Wednesday and the 15 cm drop in swimming pool water on Friday appear like an eventful week, but its only humorous samples to be served at a next social event. Nothing more. But a friend’s diagnosis touches deeper. It wakes the existential me that wants good will, for good to triumph over evil, even world peace. It stirs those emotional places that I visit after dark, the memories where tears and fears frequent, and the heartaches that left scars.

British Library Gate ShadowBut the bad news shadow man can serve other functions. It waves a flag with a red question mark. Where am I? What is my focus? Who is important in my life? What am I suppose to do where I am now? It wakes us from our slumber and pokes us in the side. It raises the shadows that we have forgotten to confront. It is not the niceties of life that gets us through these times. It asks of us, like Job, what remains when I am stripped of everything?

Bad news in essence presents the question of meaning.

Bad news is not about what we have or what possession we might have lost. It does not deal with the fantasy of acquisition or our standing in the world. It takes us inwards, towards facing the mirror with our history and present portrayed in full detail and full colour. It takes us towards our relationship with all the parts of ourselves that developed throughout our journey through different times and places. It takes us towards what we love and loath about whom we are.

And it takes us outwards towards those whom we love. Those for whom we hope that they will take their cancer, their loss, their heartache, their heart attack, their unfaithful partner and that it will confront them with the totality of whom they are. Wake up the shadows that they have to confront, bring them closer to the meanings they have to find for their life. Be that psychological, spiritual, artistic, humanitarian, existential or within whatever framework you define your journeys. It requires the relinquishment of what is unnecessary, what holds us back and what allow the shadows to anchor us in a false reality. It might be status, it might be the drive for success, or it might be materialistic. Or it might be to give up the hope that the world is manageable and predictable. We run into bad news and it breaks our hearts. It takes the solid earth from under our feet and grabs the soft pillow from under our sleeping heads.

Being lucky might not mean the bad news will go away or fit into our fantasy that everything will be all right. Being lucky might mean that we meet ourselves outside the constraints placed upon us by our parents, our teachers, our culture or our fantasies about how life should be. Being lucky means becoming authentic, facing our shadows and watering our inner beauty. It might take us to showing love to ourselves and those we love. Then, to quote James Hollis*, we learn “that life is much riskier, more powerful, more mysterious than we had ever thought possible” and that the “world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young”.

*From “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

14 Comments

Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Leave a comment

Filed under This thing called life

42/2012

I blame my teachers. Especially my maths teachers. Yes, the guilty should be named and charged. They have left me with a love for numbers for which I am eternally grateful. In a way, they saved me. Well not physically; that would have been weird. But their dedication and motivation opened a door to something I was good at. And at times I needed to be good at something.

We moved about quite a bit as a family when I was growing up. After 7 years in a small town called Harrismith in the Eastern Free State (South Africa), we moved about between towns for the next 6 years. I therefore attended 4 different primary schools. Needless to say, I often felt like an outsider as I had to make new friends, get use to a new school and teachers. In addition, I was not good at sport then – something that a young boy can usually fall back on. Then Mr Wright entered the scene when I was age 11. For the next 2 years he was my maths teacher at Willem Postma Primary School (Bloemfontein). With a patient and calm approach he made the world of numbers accessible. I can’t recall how good my marks were, but I found confidence in it. Mr Wright was an older teacher and he made time to teach us about life and history. I was mesmerised when he told us about Napoleon and wrote in chalk on the black board, “Able was I ere I saw Elba”.

And then we moved again. At least by age 13 I was of bigger build and as part of the next transformation I gave up a heavy burden I was carrying since age 2 and a 1/2. I stopped wearing glasses. Before, everywhere we moved, I was taunted. Often I was the only spectacled child in class. I  Harrismith 1970'sfelt like a kid in glass. As if everyone looked through me. Fragile. At that point I have broken so many pairs (all by accident, I promise!) our medical aid stopped paying for them. So, I stopped, I just quit. I t was a win-win situation. And it worked for me. No more outer burden that automatically uploaded silly nicknames. No more the outsider for looking different. No more looking from the outside through lenses to what everyone else saw.

I don’t know if this helped, but suddenly I was selected for the first rugby team. I was also picked as flank and no more hard labour position as prop. Freedom at last! Did I change so much over one summer holiday? Did I suddenly lost weight with the glasses and increased my running speed? Who knows, but I was in a better space and this continued when I went to Kroonstad High (or secondary) School. Here over the next 5 years I had teachers that I will always remember (for various reasons). Mrs van der Merwe who somehow moulded our Afrikaans cerebrals into an appreciation for the English language. Mr Rossouw who kept our Afrikaans roots solid with poetry and essays, while Mrs Rossouw created a melody from our voices in choir practice. My dad’s science laboratory often filled with smells and sparks (were they all intentional?) and Mrs “Krappie” de Villiers’ attempts to bring Biology alive to me. And Mr Fourie’s hotdog sales during break were as popular as his Technical Drawing classes. He also coached our rugby team at the start of high school and we were a pretty decent outfit despite the hotdogs!

And then Mrs Gerber, later Mrs Sim, who shaped our mathematical skills. Looking back at all my schooling, she must win the price for giving the most homework. And that is apart from her extra classes prior to major exams. In retrospect I am grateful to her. Not only did it provide me with something that I could be good at and motivated a dedication to what is important. I believe that it shaped my mind in a way of thinking that is interested in patterns, in what is sensible and meaningful. At the time it influenced the suggestion that I should go into engineering, but I could never exclude the humanities and working with people. It must be great to design a bridge, but building relationships between people is much more satisfying. Working with people who suffered head injuries, might have difficulty with memory and translating the numbers from neuropsychology into meaningful constructs for their daily lives tick my own meaning box.

I do acknowledge the limitations of numbers and don’t regard myself as a numerologist of some sorts. I did not believe the Mayan prophecy that the world would end on the 21st of December 2012, although my world dramatically changed in 2012. Still, there is something interesting about specific numbers in one’s history and possible numerical intervals. But should I read more into it? Someone said that the average age for a diagnosis of a glioma for a male is 42 (or between late 30’s and mid 40’s). I had my first seizure a month prior to my 42nd birthday. Half this number and it takes my back to my age of 21 when my brother died. My grandfather, whom I am named after, passed away at age 85 (21 times 4 plus 1). Should I read something into these numbers and the possible repetition of 21? Should I be weary of age 63 when the next 21 year cycle comes to an end?

I don’t think so.

For now, I am with Douglas Adams. Maybe the amazingly accurate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. Nothing more. Just that. Where I am at.

22 Comments

Filed under My Brain Tumour and I, Psychology Reflections, This thing called life