Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Path to Deliverance or Destruction

Transcendence is the only alternative to extinction. 
Vaclav Havel, July 4, 1994

During the course of a personal tragedy- one that is immeasurably traumatic, such as the death of a child- individuals have several choices, according to iconic thinkers such as Viktor Frankl and Sogyal Rinpoche. We can - when we are ready - search for and make meaning in our losses. And, as human beings having a human experience, there will be many, many losses. 

This sense of purposefulness is often aided through service to others.  Throughout history, many holy books, including the Bible, speak of serving others as a way toward union with the Creator. Many cultures embrace service as the cornerstone of a peaceful society. Spiritual and social leaders throughout time have recognized service as a fundamental pillar in reaching others (consider the most well-known "servers of people", Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa). The need to restructure our selves is necessary at the micro level; and there is also, particularly now given the sociopolitical, global climate, a call toward service to others at the macro level (through ideas such as altruistic economics).

The alternate response is - well - to neither search for nor to find meaning. I see this in some bereaved individuals who, even years after their traumatic loss, meet a newly bereaved person and still feel the compulsion toward narcissism. They are unable to focus on the other rather than themselves. In other words, they are unable to transcend their own loss so it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for them to sit quietly and truly hear another's story of loss without imposing their own pain.  The entire process of grief becomes protracted and self-indulgent, and neither truth nor meaning nor growth nor purposefulness are easily discovered under these circumstances. 

Frankl asserts personal responsibility as a requisite to meaning, making each of us ultimately culpable for the psychological, emotional, and social outcomes following traumatic loss.  We have a choice. Our choices allow us to transcend. 

Or not.  

If we choose not, then we surely, in more ways than the apparent, face extinction.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Spotless Minds

Clementine: Joely? What if you stay this time? 

Joel: I walked out the door. There's no memory left. 

Clementine: Come back and make up a goodbye at least, 
let's pretend we had one... Goodbye, Joel. 

Joel: ...I love you... 

Clementine: ...Meet me in Montauk... 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was released in 2004, and I knew immediately I had to see this movie, if not because of the idiosyncratic storyline, then for the one-and-only quirky Carrey's performance.  I've never been much of a futurism genre connoisseur, but I loved this thought-experiment-of-a-movie. It was unlike any other I'd seen; an unusual type of humanistic sci-fi that provoked existential questions about love and loss, joy and suffering, life and death.  Yet, as neuroengineers and researchers uncover more about the mysteries of the brain, and more specifically memory storage, retrieval, and functioning, the possibility of selective erasure becomes more than some far-fetched fantasy. In fact, it may be that this option will become one of the great ethical concerns of 21st Century modern medicine. Some scientists certainly believe so.

Naturally, as I pondered those possibilities, I had to ask myself:  Would I erase the memory of my beloved child if it meant I would not have to feel the pain of losing her? (I hear an ol' Garth Brooks song lurking around the corner...).  It only took me seconds, perhaps nano, to emphatically answer no. I would not.  Even amidst the pain and angst and despair, the gifts of her presence in my life- the love- make it all worthwhile.  

But what about qualitatively (subjectively) less painful experiences, such as relationship losses? Would I erase those memories if I could?  What lessons would be lessened?  What experiences would I have missed due to fear of and anxiety over my own emotions?  Certainly, during acute moments of sadness or grief, I may have wished for the path of ease - a short cut, circumvention around the pain - if the option had arisen. Or would I, given what I know now- and understand- about the importance of suffering as a means to wisdom and fulfillment and meaning? And had I not known the pain, what would have become of the compassion and empathy for others which I have developed through my own suffering? 

Elie Wiesel said that 'whosoever survives the test, whatever it may be, must tell his story....that is his duty.'  Within that duty, implicitly, is the necessity to help others who also fall into the darkness of the human experience.  If no memory remained of our sufferings, how would we tell our story? Would our story really be our story at all?

What would you do? If you could engage in selective erasure, would you?



The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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