Tag Archives: death and dying

Shifting focus to overcome challenges

With the Thriving Through Tough Times tip,  “Give to your community so you can fully recover,” I have been trying to justify it a bit backwards. With the other techniques, I noticed their appearance in many different traditions and thought, “Ah ha, a theme!” For example, surrounding yourself with a caring community is a widespread practice when tough times appear. However, with “give back to recover,” I noticed this by watching clients, effective leaders and how I was able to bounce back after difficult circumstances. As I wrote in my last post, to make my case I have been looking for standard multi-cultural practices to back up what I believe to be true…and had come up short!

 But, I’m now wondering if I had been approaching the research wrong.  Perhaps I am not finding “giving back” as a required cultural practice because helping others has to be a very personal choice. Showing back up in your community after a major loss is an individual test of courage and optimism. Jerry White of Survivors Corps and I were talking a few years ago about how perplexing it is that some people against all odds are able to recover and survive terrible circumstances while others who have all sorts of resources get knocked down and never get back up. Neither of us could point to one factor, other than a firm personal decision that the person wants to get up and involve herself in her community. It seems like a foundational spot where we all have free will.  I can’t make you get back on your feet again; you have to choose to do so.

 Tibetan Buddhism has an interesting take on how we can choose to return and how this relates to giving.  Buddhism believes that our soul comes into being and then is reincarnated potentially multiple times. During each lifetime, we are born, we learn stuff and then we physically die. Yet, after death and before rebirth, we always have a choice. If we need to learn more, we can choose when and to which family we want to be born into the next time. Also, we have reached a level of wisdom, we can elect to instead head off into nirvana or we can choose to return to earth to help others reach enlightenment.

If we don’t understand how the reincarnation process works, according to Buddhism, we aren’t aware that we have choices. Depending on our development, we may instead fearfully jump into the first body available and can land myself in a worse situation than before. However, if I understand the death/rebirth process, I can select a better existence. If I have taken the Bodhisattva vow to help others, I can then decide to be reborn in a place where I will be of most help.

 When things fall apart –we lose a great job, marriage, loved one or our health for example — we experience what Buddhists call “little deaths.” While processing the loss there is a time where I am grieving and not in the world. Tibetan Buddhist call the place between death and rebirth the bardo state (bar –“in between” and “do” – island or mark). Like in the bardo state, during tough times we often land on an “ in between island” after loss and before recovery.

 “In Between Island” living isn’t easy. Bardo states are described as potentially terrifying since there we face what most scare us. Our inner demons appear as visions or nightmares. Similarly, on our between islands we come face to face with our greatest fears. Phrases like,  “I’ll never find another job and will be out on the street,” “My husband will leave me” or “I will never heal and will die,” creep into our heads.  We feel pain while mourning and our worries create additional suffering.

 As with the Buddhist death/rebirth process, if I don’t understand that every difficult circumstance is also an opportunity to reincarnate into a better me, I might jump at the first solution I can find to try to avoid the pain.   I might choose a life where I drink heavily to run away from my suffering. Or I quickly marry so I am not alone yet land myself with an abusive spouse. 

 However, if I am aware that with difficult circumstance, I can back up for a bit and consciously choose my next step, I’m ahead of the game. In transition lays possibility and opportunity to become more authentic and expand. All major religious traditions advise in these junctures if we base our decision on how we can help others as well as ourselves, we will learn to be unafraid of death/rebirth and better play the game of life. Sounds flowery and sweet, but it actually practical when you see it applied.

 Buckminster Fuller, after losing his business and daughter to illness, found himself on the brink of suicide. In that moment, he made a choice to stay and to serve humankind. As a result, in his biography he wrote of deep joy throughout the rest of his life as he developed inventions like the geodesic dome, agricultural strategies and  the dymaxion car. In looking for solutions to serve the greater good, he was undaunted by failure and tragedy.

 I was lucky enough to interview Nadwa Sarandah and Robi Damelin when writing Worst Enemy, Best Teacher. Each had faced horrid opponents. As an Israeli Robi’s son was killed by a Palestinian sniper while in required military service and Nadwa’s Palestinian sister was stabbed to death on the West Bank while walking down a street. Both had been knocked down, but through the Parent’s Circle, an organization committed to create peace in their region by refusing to seek revenge for the loss of loved ones, they returned to life. Through their focus on helping their community, they both had found purpose and a degree of peace. Robi explained, “I can speak in front of 60,000 people without fear.”

 If we can shift our focus from our personal pain to how we can be of use, we paradoxically we will relieve our suffering.  Pick a tradition and I find this concept hidden. Hmmm, perhaps this is the daily practice for which I have been searching. 

Give back to Come Back

For it is in giving we receive – Saint Francis of Assisi

St Francis of Assisi

St Francis of Assisi

 I know something to be true. My friend Jerry White, has built his organization, Survivor Corps, around this same fact — if you want to fully return to your life after tough times, it is critical that you give back what you have learned to a greater community.  To make it home from the journey through loss, we must find a way to help others. It moves us outside ourselves and as a lovely Moroccan colleague described, it reminds us that we are not alone in our pain.

Strangely, I have yet to find this truth explicitly stated in the world’s death and mourning rituals.  It may there and I’m missing it, or it is such a basic practice that it goes without saying. Are those who have grieved expected to be the first to support those in mourning for example? I invite you to send examples from other cultures of those after surviving loss or initiation, who are then required to support others through a similar journey.  

This truth resounds throughout leaders of the twentieth century. Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl used his experience as a prisoner in three concentration camps to help others when they were suffering throughout the rest of his life. As he described in his seminal book, He believed that it is critical that we help others to recover; that “Man’s search for meaning is a primary motivation in his life.”  

Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, once wrote, “While I lay in the hospital the thought came that there were thousands of hopeless alcoholics who might be glad to have what had been so freely given me. Perhaps I could help some of them. They in turn might work with others.

“My friend [who had helped him] had emphasized the absolute necessity of demonstrating these principles in all my affairs. Particularly was it imperative to work with others as he had worked with me. Faith without works was dead, he said. And how appallingly true for the alcoholic! For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead. If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank, he would surely die.” And thus, we have the final step of the AA doctrine – “12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” 

Jerry, when writing I Will Not Be Broken: Five Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis, added as his fifth step, “Give Back.” After losing his leg to a landmine during a hike in Israel, Jerry worked to find a way back to stability. He described a comfortable life that includes four healthy children and a beautiful wife. But, he adds, it wasn’t until a young girl in Cambodia with one leg and crutches said, “You are one of us,” did he fully return. By accepting that he was part of the global community of those injured by landmines, Jerry looked for ways to give back what he had learned to that group. Co-founding Landmine Survivors Network, now Survivor Corps, Jerry has worked tirelessly to ban landmines worldwide and help victims to become survivors. A core principle of Survivor Corps is that once you are able to stand again, you must give back to others. Participants become volunteers and guide the way for the newly injured.  What appears selfless is actually a foundational gift for recovery. 

Once we have gone through the difficult circumstances, we are admitted to special clubs. Some belong to “children of divorce,” others “survivor of cancer,” “once bankrupt” or “recovering addicts.” Inducted, this becomes one of our communities whether it was welcomed or not. When we accept our membership, we then have the opportunity to return back to the land of the living. On our journey alone through tough times, we pick up wisdom and insight in its dark corners. By giving what we find, we must communicate and connect with the living; thus surviving and proving we were able to overcome and rise above. 

As another beautiful friend explained, “I lost two babies consecutively, the first was a still birth in the 38 week of pregnancy and the second died on the second day after giving birth. It was so hard for me to go back to life. Two of my friends gave birth at the same time, and I still see their kids growing in front of them. For a time I hated seeing babies around. I wanted to live in a place where there was no baby. I had to pretend I was okay and people believed it. Then, my aunt, who is 3 years younger than me, gave birth to her third child. The baby had a number of abnormalities and died after three weeks. I was the only person whose support was meaningful to my aunt. 

“She many times told me that she drew strength from me and that she had no reason to feel down when she had me in mind. That was a great source of healing to me as well. I felt this [tragedy] did not happen only to ME. I know it is cruel to think like this, but this is how I really got over it. I had been through a lot of strange feelings that I felt ashamed to share, but when I heard my aunt saying the same thing I stopped blaming myself and knew they were so natural. Her loss was a mirror I could see my negative feelings in. Through her experience I tolerated my annoyance at seeing babies. She had the same feelings, and she communicated them to me because she knew I would understand better than anybody else. Without she knowing it she was as great to me as she thought I was to her.”

What have you learned that might help others in similar circumstances? How have you given back to return “home”? I welcome your thoughts. 

It Takes a Year

Six months ago turbulent financial markets gained national attention. From a journal entry I wrote last September…

 “Every friend I have seen in town over the past days brings up the falling Dow and failing banks as a conversation topic. This was not supposed to happen. They are struck by how very smart Harvard MBAs constructed this mess and the government let it all occur. What can they trust? As I type, I wonder what the effects of this mass loss of faith in our government and the financial system will yield in the days and weeks ahead. What would this paragraph say six months from now?

Carrie explains, ‘I lived outside of San Francisco during the large earthquake of 1994. I remember friends struggling for months afterward since the ground had moved underneath their feet. Somehow it didn’t bother me since I believed it could and had prepared for an earthquake such as the one we experienced. But, now with the economy falling apart around us, I feel like the ground is unstable and I understand for the first time their panic.’

Fantasies of hording money between the mattresses filtered in as I drifted off to sleep last night. Before bed after the Dow lost nearly 1,000 points over two days, my husband Bruce sat on the couch, face lit by his black Mac Book and scanned online newspapers. He read off to me the Wall Street Journal headline ‘Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight.’  A CPA and tax lawyer, his radar is tuned to the financial markets, and I rely on the blips and beeps that appear on his screen to send off my own alarms. Although a man of understatement most of the time, I could tell even he was concerned.  While visualizing hording soup in my basement, I can hear my alarm system is screaming, ‘warning, warning…’”

Six months later, I still have periodic soup stocking fantasies depending on the week…and WSJ headlines. I wish I did not.  I’d rather consistently possess optimism and poise with a dash of clarity, but that seems beyond my reach.

Six months has a special connotation for me as a mother.  I usually got disheartened about a ½ a year into each child’s arrival. After our first son,  I remember thinking, “I should have lost all this baby fat by now,” “We should be settled into this new family configuration,” and “Why is this still so ridiculously hard?” Six months is a long time to endure chaos and confusion; by then I have used up most of my just-muscle-it-through reserves.

To survive, my logic became if our culture’s standard mourning, or better said, “adjustment” period historically was a year, then shouldn’t I give myself the same? We knocked off an old life when each new baby arrived. The metaphoric gravestones could have read:

  • Young Couple – RIP June 1989.
  • Family of Three —  B: June 1989, D: March, 1991.
  • Moving from one-on-one play (two adults to two kids) to zone defense — June 1994 (I was raised in hockey country)

For my children – if any of you have read this far –  what we got in exchange was worth more than any loss we experienced.  There was never a need to wear black, although, I do like how I look in that color. Understand that by recognizing that we were in an adjustment period culturally prescribed as a year, I relaxed and let go the need to have it all together.  As an older, wiser mother once told me, “You are not supposed to be graceful during this phase.”

Signs of six-month financial chaos exhaustion are appearing in my circles. It seems we are asking similar questions including, “Shouldn’t have this mess figured out by now?” and  “Why is this still so ridiculously hard?” Yet, we could have a memorial service for a past leader in our community, Mr. Stable Banking Industry – From 1935 To 2008.  As we adjust to our new family configuration without our dear “big brother,” I realize I need to allocate a full year. Someone wonderful may appear to fill our past protector’s position, but in the meantime, I’ve still got a six-month excuse to be less than graceful as we traverse this uncharted territory. Know that I accord you the same.


You Gotta Laugh

I know of no other manner of dealing with great tasks than as play; this…is an essential pre-requisite. — Friedrich Nietzsche

 On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial stock index was the lowest in fifteen years. The banking industry continues to falter and AIG needs another $30 billion. Dare I mention that a US-backed war continues six years and counting in Iraq? Well, you gotta laugh.

No, really, you have to laugh.  From the practices of Zen Buddhism, Hopi and Zuni ritual clowning, and on to the modern philosophical writings, around the world we are taught to regard laughter and comedy as critical disciplines. When the going gets tough, find a way to crack yourself up.

In the American Southwest, the clown historically played a pivotal role in addressing tragedy. At Pueblo funerals, scantily dressed clowns in rags from the Kachina Zuni tradition would pretend to seduce the widow, make fun of the corpse and to copulate with one another with constructed and exaggerated genitalia.  This practice disgusted early anthropologists, yet when interviewed, Zuni clowns explained the highly structured and sacred nature of their work.  By bringing farce to such seriousness, they restored balance and health to their community. Through their antics, life is merged with death, the mundane with the sacred and levity with misery. The clowns held what appeared to be irreconcilable opposites and in the chaos they created, they awarded the group deeper order and peace. As Kierkegaard once said, “It is certainly unjust to the comical to regard it as the enemy of the religious.”

We need to laugh, especially when we are miserable. Laughter allows us to see our situation with greater objectivity. It cracks open fixed beliefs as comedy is based on displaying the ludicrous in what we might believe to be beyond reproach. Example, yesterday David Letterman’s Top Ten Things Overhead in New York During Today’s Snowstorm included, “#4, Al Gore can suck it!” and “”#2 No, officer, I offered her $50 to blow on my hands.” If we laugh, we must then confront the inner conflict of also regarding global warming or prostitution as deathly serious topics. By allowing ourselves to see the humor, we have to detach a bit and notice where we may be too fixated in our beliefs. Silliness breeds flexibility and creativity.

Zen Buddhists believe that enlightenment is accompanied with laughter Conrad Hyers explains in The Laughing Buddha: Zen and the Comic Spirit. Their koans, or paradoxical statements, like “hold tightly with an open hand,” are meant to frustrate, confuse, to get us to back up. I’m suspicious that the whacky phrases given to initiates to meditate upon might all be jokes in disguise. Take this koan from the 12th century Zen koan Book of Equaminity,  

Venerable Gon’yo asked Joshu, “How is it when a person does not have a single thing?”

Joshu said, “Throw it away.”

Gon’yo said, “I say I don’t have a single thing. What could I ever throw away?” 

Joshu said, “If so, carry it around with you.”

Feels like there’s a punch line in here somewhere…

I had to research ritual clowning before my husband’s daily routine got any respect. As an estate planning and business lawyer, my spouse spends his day talking about death and taxes. Yet, somehow he is a really happy, and funny, guy. As one friend shared, “Only your husband could get me laughing about dying and picking guardians for our kids.” I think I’m figuring out one of his secrets of sanity. Each morning from my bed, I hear coffee maker gurgles and giggles in the kitchen as Bruce eats breakfast while reviewing the previous late night TV monologues from his laptop. He suggests the New York Times website, http://laughlines.blogs.nytimes.com if you are interested. I find something innately right about this treasure trove living on the same website that covers the news that’s been making us cry this week.

Another morning humor ritual is emigrating from India. I have included a short video clip below on Dr. Madan Kataria who in the past ten years has formed over 3000 laughter clubs across his country. Kataria and his fellow members practice “laughter yoga” each day to improve their health and well-being. 

 So, we’ve got to laugh. I leave you with a favorite mental image from a wise and funny friend David who was a clown in the Ringling Brothers circus to pay his way through college. After emergency open-heart surgery in his early forties, he found himself too quickly pulled out of bed to walk the halls by a bossy nurse. Chest aching, shaky and miserable, I will paraphrase how he explained his predicament, “There I was, exposing my backside in a flimsy hospital gown, pushing an IV stand and looking like hell. Fancy education and consulting practice were distant memories as I felt and probably looked like a 90 year old instead of 42. Life sucked at that moment. Yet, to get myself down that hall I began to hum the theme song to Bonanza, you know the one where they come riding into town…really, what else could I do?”   

Learning to Love the Mess

Wander where there is no path. Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all. — Chuang Tzu

A dear friend recently shared a series of losses that he had suffered. As he explained how a terminally ill friend had become the “final straw” in breaking his foundational beliefs about death and his own mortality, I found myself strangely excited. In case you might find me a bit twisted, I hope you’ll understand that my enthusiasm rose from a deep belief in the power of confusion. 

I wouldn’t wish such tragedy on anyone, yet we don’t seem to become wiser when all is easy and understood. Really, why should we? If I have the world figured out, I don’t have much incentive to dig deeper. It’s as though crisis creates cracks that allows wisdom’s light to seep in. I trust that as my friend earnestly wrestles with how to deal with great loss and the inevitability of death, he is going to gather insight. Selfishly, I hope he’ll share his garnered prizes with us.

It feels like our core beliefs create a sort of scaffolding or something solid to stand on over the sea of uncertainty. “I am a mother,” “I am from Minnesota,” or “I live in a democracy,” might be some of the planks that support my identity or the lookout post I have built. But, with enough time, the wood gets worn. Tough times also have a habit of ripping up carefully lain floorboards, like the globally favorite, “The financial markets are secure.”     

When my core beliefs are battered and I can’t tie reality up with a nice bow, I can feel set adrift in that sea. Questions like, “Who am I? What do I believe? What should I do next?” become hard to answer. Life, or my interpretation of it, gets messy or confusing.

I’ve come to have an innate trust in this messiness. My perspective expands when life pushes me to move into a state of not knowing. The more I become comfortable hanging out in the confusion, the more clarity I bring back. Meanwhile, we all have a fundamental desire to get back to solid ground again; I like to know who I am, or pretend to anyway, and to believe that I know how this all works!

Hanging out in messiness as mediator has helped. Usually you will have two sides at the negotiation table that have completely different versions of what occurred in a dispute. A first impulse is to want to determine who is right and who is crazy. Yet, the mediator’s job isn’t to find the real truth, but instead to hold a confusing reality that is created by assuming that the opposing stories are equal. Allowing there to be irreconcilable differences opens the possibility of a third interpretation of the situation that the parties can create together.

Without firm footing on how the world works, or who I am, I notice that I slow down and better consider each step forward. It creates a rawness or necessary vulnerability, as I wonder what else I have been missing. It wakes up my compassion as I realize that we are all madly trying to piece together how to play well with very limited information. Also, if we take a cue from all the major religions, learning to love the mess is “right work” and one of our main life tasks.  So, I get hopeful when those I love dip into confusion, and look forward to the treasures my dear friend might uncover in that chaotic space.