Le Suicide by Edouard Manet.

Le Suicide by Edouard Manet.

Geraldine is a chatterbox with a mind far quicker than her eighty-eight-year body. As I sit listening to her I discover I hardly need to nod or interject the obligatory ‘yes’. After she is done telling her rich life story, she throws me a curveball. “When I fell sick and they brought me to the hospital’s emergency, honestly, I just didn’t care what was to happen next.” She kept her gaze steady before her, not bothering to see if I was startled her frank remark. “It’s not that I wanted to die, but truthfully, I have lead such a full life that I didn’t care if it was time for me to go.” Had she bothered to look at my expression, she would not have seen even a hint of surprise. I hear such sentiments from the elderly on a routine basis.

Yet a few months back one ninety-year-old man ignited a debate in Toronto by electing to choose the time and manner of his own exit from the world. John Allan Lee was an intelligent and self-aware man. He was a professor at a prestigious university and the author of several non-fiction books. He chose to leave the world now, before infirmity and dementia had set in. He did not want the indignity of waiting for death in an institution: having strangers change his diaper, being told when to eat and when to sleep. A practicing Buddhist, he knew that his awareness would not diminish, it would witness the agonizingly slow decimation of  both his mind and his body.

His methodically planned suicide caused many of us to think very deeply about what choices we might make when our time comes. There was a time in my life when my immediate response would have been to dismiss any such notion as unethical. I used to believe strongly that if a person takes his own life he is then doomed to return in his next life to the same set of circumstances and/or difficulties that compelled him to end his own life. I am no longer that dogmatic.

As I listened to John Allan Lee tell the world of his reasoning, I was nearly convinced that his decision was a wise and reasonable one. Then he said, “”I’m finished. I don’t have a bucket list. I don’t have an unfinished agenda.” Since he was no longer able to physically pursue the activities that had once brought him joy, he saw no purpose in lingering.

It seemed to me there was a huge flaw in that logic. Speaking as someone who has undergone a transformative physical journey because of my own terminal illness, I too once felt as Mr. Lee did. That life was over, it had been swell and what is the point of taking my pills and keeping alive. But that physical journey was also accompanied by a psychically transformative journey. I was no longer useful to society doing what I used to do, but I still had much to contribute. I discovered new joys, new strengths, new skills I had never imagined.

Co-incidentally that same week a young father expressed to me more or less the same sentiments as Mr. Lee. This younger man was left physically debilitated by cancer and his desperation was obviously from emptiness, and not from fullness. “I won’t be able to do things I used to,” he complained. “I won’t be able to help my sons in the way a father is supposed to.”

“But what about helping them with a calm, reassuring presence?” I asked.

I am fortunate enough to have a large and loving family network. Recently I spent a week with my two-year-old grand-nephew who brought me such joy by his presence and his being. He taught me that I could share in his natural joy without having to do anything in particular. I had simply to be there with him. He does not have full language yet, but he sure understands  the link between love and attention.

It reminded greatly of my own toddler years when there were many such loving adults who visited our home. I still remember them with fondness, though I cannot recall their faces or what they said or what they played with me. I simply recall the security and love of their presence.

Isn’t that plenty?

Ultimately I think the right to die is a personal choice but I do have concerns that sometimes people do not consider the serendipitous happiness that might lay before them. I have concerns that people underestimate the contributions they make to the lives of others without any conscious effort. I question whether the Right to Die is really the same as Dying With Dignity?

 


Pic054

Chapel of Love CLOSED.

Another Valentine’s, another rejection. Sometimes I think the only reason this secular holiday is popular is that everyone has been rejected spectacularly at some time.

My shift at the cancer hospital happened to fall on Valentine’s Day this year. My partner and I were tasked with delivering personalized love notes, along with a heart-shaped candy, to each of the three-hundred or so patients. Even the severely sick were visibly moved by this small gesture from the volunteers. Each managed to put aside his considerable agony to beam a smile. And then there was Yvonne.

She was seated on a chair, fully clothed and so well groomed that an innocent might have mistaken her for a visitor, not a patient. She saw the candy and card in my hands and even before I could speak, she curtly said, “No. Thank you.”  She was the only patient in the entire hospital to have rejected a token of affection made by people who sought nothing in return.

Was it against her religion? Was she simply unkind? I could not figure it out. The more I struggled to understand, the clearer it became to me that I was asking the wrong questions. Why did her simple rejection bother me so? What was this need in me that compelled me to devote all this effort, all this time in unravelling the reasons for her rejection?

The very same week I had a phone call from my niece who is in the midst of a job search. Being a fresh graduate she is inexperienced, and is getting rather dejected from her avalanche of rejections. Being the old coot that I now am, I indulged her in a trip down nostalgia lane because, you know, everything in the old day was so much tougher. We didn’t have internet back in those days, I said. We looked for work by literally pounding the pavement, handing over hundreds of resumes to disinterested receptionists.

At times the receptions would give a sneering perusal then place them in tray, no doubt to be emptied into the trash. This is not the same as critique, which allows for negotiation. A person can learn, can improve from criticism, whereas rejection has a finality about it. Perhaps that is why it feels like a mini-death. As the rejections mounted, I recall it took more and more willpower to rise up each morning and start the job search anew. Being young I had so few tools with which to deconstruct the rejections. It was very easy for others to tell me to not take them personally. But on that typed CV was a summary of all my achievements, all my worth, all that I believed was best about me. Of course the rejections were personal.

Little had I realized then that these rejections were only the appetizers for adulthood. There would be rejections in love. Rejections from friends. Rejections from publishers, banks, the tax office. Rejections based summarily upon race, age, gender, sexuality. It seems to me life is choked full of rejections, both big and small, and each rejection scars our being like an  indelible tattoo, with more accumulating over time. The most striking aspect about my work with homeless men was how burdened by rejection these men were. Rejected too often by others, in time they displayed a kind of self-rejection. It showed in how the men carried themselves, the way they sat and the way they looked at me.

Of course rejection is unavoidable, it is woven into the very fabric of existence. Without rejection, evolutionary natural selection would not be possible ( you and I would still be amebae). Without rejection we would retain the toxins from the food we eat. The freedom of choice we so value would be impossible. In fact, without rejection the world might be a bland, mediocre place, thoroughly devoid of accomplishment or excellence. And wouldn’t acceptance lose its jumping-for-joy sweetness? In fact, I realized, Yvonne’s solo rejection of my Valentine had highlighted for me that every other patient had deeply appreciated the same gesture. Then I thought about her cancer, which by definition is unchecked cell growth. In other words, when the body fails to reject new growth, it is fatal for the organism.

I think sometimes rejections feel personal because we forget that everyone is rejected at some time. Harry Potter was reject by twenty seven publishers;The Dallas Buyers Club was rejected by movie studios eighty-seven times across twenty years, and Van Gogh only ever sold three paintings in his lifetimes (bought by his brother out of pity). Even though none of us can avoid being rejected, I do think we have the power to stop the rejections from shaping us.  All too often we have a habit of shrugging off rejections as though they don’t matter, but if we ignore them they stick around permanently. I prefer to neither accept nor avoid rejections but to look at them, to question them, to find their context. In my experience by doing that the rejections disappear from our posture, from the furrows on our faces and the creases of our clothes.

 I later found out why Yvonne had rejected my Valentine’s. She had just discovered that her body had rejected the bone marrow transplant which might have saved her life. Now that really is personal.

hungerWhile the rest of us were tucking into our Christmas feast, Barbara was beginning her fast. No, she is no vain fashionista, simply a woman in hospital with a severe stomach issue. Whenever she swallows there is intolerable pain  from her gastric region and so the doctors have denied her food and water till it clears. Four weeks later she is still not allowed food or water. Barbara shuts the door of her room when the hospital’s lunch trays arrive for neighboring patients because even a whiff of the food drives her insane with jealousy. It may be rehydrated mashed potatoes and microwaved fish but when you are deprived of food for as many days as she has, it still smells like the best gourmet ever.

She grabs several cooking magazines from my trolley and says mischievously, “Food porn.” She dreams about food and she says whenever she closes her eyes the only images in her mind’s eye are, well,… you know.

I saw Barbara again this week. “Still not eating?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but I don’t think about it anymore. It is her experience, as well as mine, that after a length of time without food, you cease to get hungry. It is as though the stomach has given up and put away all its usual tricks to get you to eat. I wonder, is hunger just another kind of addiction?

It seems to follow the same pattern as any other addiction. There is a dependency. You get cranky and irritable when deprived. Denied too long, you experience withdrawal symptoms. But persist and you reach a state of freedom. You no longer crave, you no longer feel the urge to kill to get your fix.

The idea is not new. Religions have been promoting fasting as good for the soul for centuries. We used to hear myths about yogis who lived for decades without food and water. They survived purely on the energy derived from the Cosmos (much in the same way as fashion models survive without eating purely on the energy derived from attention). Perhaps fasting’s value lies in demonstrating that we don’t need to eat as regularly as we believe?

Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-eight days without food. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes by Irish prisoners (also against the British) ten of the protesters survived without eating for between forty-six and seventy-three days. And then there’s me, getting cranky if I happen to miss a meal.

I am one of those people who has no store of body fat. Denied a meal, my blood sugars dip to a point where a migraine is imminent. I notice that when I do not eat, the stress response kicks in almost immediately. I am unable to concentrate, on edge with elevated adrenalin and neurotoxins floating within my body. So I never fast for recreation, though for medical treatments I have had to endure both short and long periods of fasting.

What is interesting about fasting is how we crave certain foods more than others. The hidden desires entangled within biological hunger reveal themselves. We see that our hunger has morphed from a simple survival mechanism to this monstrous hydra-like creature with multitude tentacles of needs and wants. The marketing industry has exploited these needs throughly in getting people addicted to salty and fatty foods. There is a reason fresh fruits and vegetables are always located near the entrance of the supermarket. Once a shopper has satisfied his need to buy nourishing foods, he is much more inclined to indulge his addictions for ice cream pies and deep-fried pizza.

Then there is this whole cultural preference around food. When I was at an ashram in India, there was a boy from Mexico studying with me. During his first week I caught him in the cafeteria rolling the Indian rotis into burritos around the curried vegetables. I had to laugh. Burritos are what his mother taught him to recognize as food, not this strange Indian meal. I personally love International cuisines, but as a vegetarian whenever I travel I am as suspicious of local cuisines as any befuddled tourist.

Few things are as unique about a person as his specific taste in food: the type of spicing he prefers, the vegetables he prefers, the obsession for meats (either indulging or abstaining). Psychologically also, some eat for comfort, some eat as a social activity, others find it impossible to eat without reading or watching the TV at the same time.

Eat we must but I believe the benefit of fasting lies in its ability to free us from insistence upon specific foods as well as specific conditions. It can make us more adaptable, more flexible to changing situations around us. It can help us to grab control over our meanest emotions.

And oh yes, it can help us empathize with people such as Barbara.

Famous Last Words?

December 2, 2013


A merry widow

A merry widow

“I told you I don’t want to talk about this any more,” Irving shouts into his cellphone, the strain of which unleashes a coughing fit. I hand him a glass of ice water from his lunch tray which, as usual, is uneaten but thoroughly picked over. The old and the sick seldom have good appetites. “And the same to you too!” he shuts off the phone and throws it upon the bed. “Damn gold digger!” A green knot of veins threatens to burst through the paper skin of his neck.

A television is speaking in the background; it is set to one of those 24/7 news channels that continuously run a scroll of the stock market numbers. His red-rimmed lizard eyes dart back and forth catching the scroll. Wiithout looking away he reaches for his vial of pills, but knocks them over. As I pick them up off the floor he again coughs heavily, then apologizes by saying he has been a four-packs-a-day smoker since he was a teenager. Irving is in the end stages of terminal emphysema.

“Doesn’t matter,” he swings his naked legs from the side of the bed like a petulant child. “I’m eighty-six. Its not as if I’d have  more years without it.” They are as pale and fragile as dessert grass. After a moments pause, he has another little moan about his wife, with whom he had been quarreling over the phone. “I’m not even dead yet and already she is decorating her next home in her head.” She is much younger than him. I imagine her as a classic trophy wife, all jeweled and coiffed as she escorted him to his soirees with politicians and CEOs. Hard to imagine that this frail Gecko of a man once held sway over the destinies of people like me.

Mid-sentence he is distracted by the television. “Damn, Blackberry is down again.” It turns out a chunk of his fortune is invested in those stocks. By the the time the nurse brings the replacements for his pills, he has clear forgotten about them. “What are these for? I already took my pills.” I remind him that he had not. I rewind the events to when he ended his phone conversation. “Oh that gold digging floozy.” He sets off on another tirade about her, and then back to complaining about the bouncing Blackberry stocks.

By the end my visit the tone of his voice has softened. “Will you come and see me again?” I promise him that I will, and true to my word, I begin my next shift by heading to his floor. I am surprised to see that another man is occupying his room, sleeping in his bed. I locate a nurse and ask if Irving was discharged. “No,” the nurse gives me one of those apologetic, pursed smiles. “He passed away.” As volunteers we expect to lose patients, but we still feel a certain sadness about it. As I walk away I couldn’t help wonder, what were his last words? “That damn gold digger!” or perhaps his last thoughts were about the future of Blackberry? I can’t decide which is sadder: that he is gone, or that he spent his last days and hours stressing the banal?

Death is very rarely (if ever) the way it is in the movies: all angel choir and violin crescendo. More routinely there is a cacophony of  arguments, stress, and worries for a future in which you have no part. I think many of us have a fantasy that our last words will be something profound.

“It is very beautiful over there,” said Thomas Edison on the moment of his death. “I see a black light,” reported Victor Hugo. We imagine in our dying breath the mystery of life will be self-evident. Perhaps one may commune with his or her personal god. But as I walk away from Irving’s last place of unrest, I wonder if that is even a realistic expectation?

I mean, many people do not have the same luxury as Irving had had: death will come to many unexpectedly. As it did for a healthy young woman named Soraya Nanji. She was crossing the street on one of the busiest intersections in Toronto. “Well, have a great trip,” she wished her friend on the cellphone. A truck hit her. She was dead.

Over her grave, mourners wished her, “Rest in peace.” And perhaps Irving’s merry widow might raise of glass wishing him the same. But shouldn’t we have wished them that while they were still alive?


kkkDillon blushes as he gets up on stage to receive his citation for bravery from the Fire Chief. Being fourteen, almost anything can make him blush, but being called ‘a hero’ is particularly embarrassing. He hears that a lot lately, ever since he went back into his burning house to rescue his baby brother and nine-year-old sister. “I just did what anyone would have done,” he shrugs. But is that true? Would we risk our life for anyone, or only certain people? Or no one at all?

According to geneticists such as J.B.S. Haldane there was nothing altruistic about Dillon’s action. Handane called it kin selection, an extension of the selfish gene idea, he maintained that we are ready to lay down our life for those who share our DNA only because it is a strategic way to ensure its continuance. So Dillon was not being heroic at all: Pretty canny there, Dillon! George Price even came up with an equation to calculate the probability of someone risking his life for another based upon the percentage of shared DNA.

When I listen to such theories I can’t help but remember a dog named Jazz. She was a Border Collie, much like Lassie, and no less heroic. She risked her life to save me. She put up her body as a barrier to  shield me from danger. I was only a visitor to her home, I never fed her or took care of her. She certainly had no genetic advantage in leaping to my rescue. Jazz is not the only animal in recorded history to have risked its life for a human. Nor is this phenomena unique to animals.

In 1996 a black teenager named Kiesha Thomas was among the protestors of a neo-Nazi march happening in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The police in riot gear were there to protect the Nazi’s from the protestors who were confined to the other side of the barricades (the US does not have anti-hate laws as other places do). One of the protestors spotted a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm milling  among protestors. “Kill the Nazi,” shouted someone and the protestors channelled their anger towards this lone man on their side of the barricades. Kiesha did not know the man but she knew his life was in danger. For all she knew he was perhaps someone who might have harmed her given the chance. Yet she threw herself to shield him from the angry mob. Why? “Because I know what is like to hurt,” she said. She was so familiar with being singled-out and hated that she could not tolerate anyone else subjected to the same.  In other words she empathized with him to the millionth degree.

Dillon, Jazz and Kiesha did what we all routinely do when faced with urgent action, they acted out of emotion rather than reason. We do not weigh the pros and cons before we act in an emergency. The intellect and the logic are absent during an adrenaline rush. We do not have time to calculate the Price Equation (even if we understood it). The decision to risk yourself would be an instinctual response, like raising your arm to shield your face. And surely the emotion that drives that instinct is love?

Oh, I don’t mean the cliche of love found on Valentine’s Day cards, or the sentimentality of a Jennifer Aniston movie. I mean an empathy so strong that the sense of the other disappears. In that moment of emergency the division between the other and I disappears. This is not a theoretical or mystical experience, but an emotion each of us is capable of feeling. Dillon experienced it, as did Kiesha, as did Jazz. Each risked his life because of a kind of self-love. Except that his definition of self had broadened to include everyone. A kind of empathy to the millionth degree. It is this emotion that I think deserves inquiry.

So for whom would you risk your life? For me this question is more than cocktail party banter. Through investigation of it, can this emoiton lead me to someplace greater than myself?


Contrite or Self-serving?

Contrite or Self-serving?

“It was like a thousand pounds were lifted off my shoulders,” said the corpulent mayor of Toronto after his confession that he was a crack addict. The city was stunned. It was as though the said thousand pounds were now upon the citizens. He had confessed and was asking for our forgiveness. If we refuse him that forgiveness then we were the ones morally in the wrong. I wonder, is that how confession really works, by shifting the guilt?

We keep secrets because we are ashamed. We know what we are doing is wrong and that others would disapprove if they knew. ‘Fessing up, it seems to me, only relieves the burden of keeping something hidden. In my time I have witnessed many ‘pride’ parades: I grew up in England in the Seventies when the “Keep Britain White” movement was at its peak. These parades through the centre of town were designed to encourage other people not to feel ashamed for feeling hateful. These racists were publicly confessing their beliefs not as an apology, not as contrition, but for as affirmation, for seeking approval. By coming out as a racist the fear of being caught out was gone, so the mind feels lighter. “I have nothing more to hide,” said Rob Ford. But beyond that, is there any other benefit?

“Depends,” says Ralph, a recovering alcoholic. “Confessing is not the same as professing. You can admit to doing something wrong, lots of criminals do,  but if it is not accompanied by active remorse then it is useless.” He should know. Ralph has spent each monday night for the past four years attending AA meetings where he stands up in front of strangers as he admits he has an alcohol problem. His confessions is step five of the famous twelve-step program. In fact he says making amends and taking preventive actions is the most important of the twelve steps. It is also much more difficult than just admitting guilt. Specially when you are backed into a  corner.

I think Rob Ford confessed only because the evidence of his wrongdoing was no longer deniable. Isn’t such a confession self-serving? The relief he enjoyed is that of hope. Hope that he will survive without consequences the discovery of his guilt. It is the same reason why spouses sometimes confess their infidelity. The wife thinks, “Better he hears it from me than a stranger.”

At this point I suppose I should make a confession of my own: I am a squealer, a rat, a snitch.  Throughout school and my work life I had no hesitation about reporting to authority the wrongdoing of others. That may be why my most successful career was that of an auditor. But being a squealer means I find myself confessing to people when I could have easily got away with it. Last year I applied to a hospice to work as a volunteer with the dying. The interviewer must have liked me, she spent two hours chatting with me. Then I made a shocking confession: I have a blog called awarenessisfree. That in this blog I write about events from which I have learned and grown. Apparently that violated the hospice’s rules. Despite my assurances, she was unsure that the patients’ confidentiality would be respected. When I received her rejection in the mail, I did chide myself: why did I confess? There is no way she would have known I have a blog. I appreciate I take steps to be respectful of patients’ privacy, but I also appreciate that I am squealer. I live by my conscience. The truth is important to me. Even if it means I shoot myself in the foot.

Oh, I am sure there are better examples of this type of confession. Every so often you hear about someone who calmly walks into a police station and confesses to an unsolved crime. The consequences are far greater than the loss of some volunteer job, but they feel compelled to confess by their conscience. Such confessions comes from a knowledge that you will grow in leaps and bounds because of this confession. The punishment is mere payment for that growth.

Of course confessions need not always be public. Diaries are a private confession, as are prayers.  Art is a kind confession. So is talk therapy. However all of these types of confession have the same underlying mechanism. They work upon the ego, this sense of me. We are each burdened by the certainty of this ego, which is a very strange creature indeed. It demands that it not be judged. It demands it be liked by everyone all of the time. It cannot ever be told it is wrong. Confessions come as a relief because momentarily the stranglehold of the ego is released. By allowing another into its secret, by permitting judgement the ego is stripped of its power. In that moment it has self-doubt. It is open to the possibility that it is wrong. If however it shies away from corrective actions then the stranglehold returns stronger than ever. For stubbornness is also the nature of the ego. As Rob Ford has demonstrated by his refusal to step down.


Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Dawn sits behind our building’s front desk surrounded by cobwebs, bats, and a dismembered hand. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she makes the most of her limited space (even the visitor’s log is covered with ghoulish images). She, like most of North America, is participating in a pagan ritual from Northern Europe marking the onset of winter. We now have more hours of dark than light. Foliage is dead and dried. Who can say how harsh the snow storms will be this winter? So the ancients decided to mock their fears instead of being overwhelmed by them.

Smart pagans.

As I do my rounds at the Palliative Care Unit I am startled by the sound of group laughter emanating from a room with an open door. Normally the Palliative Care Unit is a sombre place. Patients are often doubled-up in pain, relatives keep vigil at the bedside, not knowing what to say or do. The sense of fear, though unspoken, is palpable: is death the end of me? Will I suffer? If there is something beyond, will I forget my loved ones and will they forget me?

And then there is Evelyn, who is the centre of a mini celebration in her room. As I enter with my magazine trolley I dutifully sanitized my hands. “No need,” she laughs. “There is no germ big enough to hurt me now.” Her young visitors laugh at her joke, they are in that mood. Evelyn is in her fifties and she is terminal, but she has not allowed that fact to rob her of her joy. She is so overflowing with it that staff continually stream in and out on the flimsiest excuses.

I have to wonder, what is so unique about Evelyn that she is so underwhelmed by her imminent death? Is she perhaps extremely courageous? I decide no. Courage is a kind of resistance to fear. It involves a strength of will to suppress the fear. As such courage is stoic, serious and focussed. Whereas Evelyn is light and spontaneous. She is without effort of any kind. So what is her secret?

From the decorations in her room I gather she is deeply devout. There is a crucifix on the wall opposite to her, a rosary sits relaxed on her bedside stand. But I don’t think it is faith which is the source of her fearlessness. Faith can give you relief from the symptoms of fear. Much the same way that Evelyn’s medications give her relief from her pain but they cannot cure her cancer. In the same way, faith does not cure fear.

How could it? Faith is required when you do not know for certain. And fear is always about the unknown, the uncertain. Faith and fear are two different reactions to the same unknown.  The only possible antidote to fear is utter and complete  knowledge. No biggie if you are dealing with run-of-the-mill fear, say fear of that zombie family who just moved in down the hall. They speak a strange language, they smell weird, and they sure have disgusting tastes in food.  Here the solution is easy: walk up to them and start a conversation, get to know them and their foreign culture and presto! the fear of the unknown vanishes. But what about fear of the unknowable? Death for example?

In my experience the same technique works splendidly. Fear exists in the mind because it does not bother to ask the right questions. The mind by design is self-centered and so it is very casual about the deaths of strangers far away: that bomb blast in Pakistan, that typhoon  in Bali, occupy no more than a second of attention. The mind refuses to dwell on the deaths of the animals the body consumes. It does not hesitate to kill a fly who happens to stray into ‘my space’.

If however the mind is allowed to experience death and dying by proxy, by being around those in the process, the mind gets accustomed to the idea. It begins to see death as normal and natural. It then feels comfortable enough to consider death without condemnation or condonation. In doing so the mind sheds much of its fears. Even though it is still unable to conceive death, it figures out that not all people suffer in death. Some even thrive (such as Evelyn). The mind figures out it does indeed have some control over the whole process, and so it accepts the inevitability of death. Neither does it seek to shun, to deny, to escape the dying of others. It becomes a little less selfish.

Can it be that this self-centeredness of the mind is the true root of all fear? If so, might giving attention to selflessness dissipate much of the fear in daily living?

Happy Halloween!


ineptMy printer has a mind of its own, I swear. Literally. I swear and swear at it. I even threaten it. Still it refuses to behave. So I slap it a few times. Then I burst out laughing. If cursing out a misbehaving child would never work, just what made me think that it might work for a machine? If violence has never solved problems in human relationships, why would it on inanimate objects? Yet I am not alone in having a dysfunctional relationship with mechanical objects that are designed to make my life more relaxed. DVD players, cable boxes, dishwashers, even faucets and sockets can completely reduce otherwise intelligent and sane adults into hysterics.

One member of my family (who shall remain nameless), while attempting to hang a picture on a wall, famously banged a nail through the gas line. We were without the use of our gas stove for a week. He could negotiate with anyone when it came to business, but anything the least bit mechanical was a no deal.

It is not his fault. Nor mine. Sure, I could easily blame genetics for my disability and shell out hard cash to the professionals to fix things for me, but I am too cheap for that (which really is genetic). Nor do I subscribe to this idea that it is because some people are right-brained (artsy) and others are left-brained ( mathematical). This couldn’t be it because we can find brain surgeons who turn into Inspector Clouseau when assembling a simple Ikea bookshelf.

Besides, something emotional is preventing me from giving up on that printer. It feels as though I am putting down an aging pet who can no longer control its bladder. I feel sorry for the thing. It occurred to me, why not treat it as yet another dysfunctional relationship I need to renegotiate? Surely, can’t the printer be fixed with a little attention and a whole lot of care?

I recognize that the source of my frustration is that I expect non-sentient things to be predictable. To my way of thinking, because machines have no emotions, no feelings, therefore they have no right to be temperamental. But physics would disagree.

Machines are made from metal. And metal has stress, it suffers from tension, it expands and shrinks with the temperature. It behaves differently in the presence of foreigners, no matter how minute, such as dust. In other words machines have every right to be sensitive.

This is something I had failed to respect about them. While I have dedicated much of my life to being responsive to the sensitivity of animals, plants and of course people, I had discounted the sensitivity of machinery. Who knew? I have been a life-long machine bigot.

It has taken me a long while to appreciate that the answer to my frustration with machines lies in my very expectation about them. I expect them to be predictable. They are. They need to be treated in the same particular way for each and every use. They have no capacity to adapt to my moods, or my urgency. They cannot be pressured into working faster because I need it printed yesterday. The paper has to be feed precisely with the same pressure, at the exact same angle each and every time. I think those who negotiate successfully with machines have learned a kind of zen of machinery. In their presence such people maintain an equipoise. Hence machines obey their commands.

I don’t think I was far off the mark in anthropomorphizing machines. I just never took the metaphor far enough. Just as people respond best when you listen well to them, so do machines. And to listen well you need to be silent within yourself during your interaction. Ditto with machines.

Let me go and rescue my printer from the recycle bin. We deserve to give our relationship another chance.

Can Memory Be Trusted?

October 7, 2013


Rubin Carter, a victim of faulty memory

With Rubin Carter, a victim of faulty memory

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” laments Jacob. A nurse directs his attention to a letter-sized sheet of paper she always keeps in front of him. It contains his full name, the name of the hospital he resides in, the floor and his room number. But these clues do not help Jacob’s disorientation. He has Alzheimer’s. He cannot remember his family. He cannot recall where he was born, or his occupation, or the places he has lived. It seems obvious to state that who we are is about our past. Everything we know about our character, what we believe, the people we love, our skills, the things we like and don’t like, all rely upon our memory. But wait, new research is saying that what we remember may not be what we actually experienced.

Scientists say it is very easy to trick the mind into remembering events that never happened. Elizabeth Loftus carried out an experiment in 1994 in which she was able to convince 25% of her subjects that as children they had once been lost in a shopping mall. She showed them photoshopped images of themselves lost in a mall as proof. The mechanism of memory is highly flawed. Our imaginations, our dreams, even movies can trick our brain into believing we actually experienced an event in the distant past that never happened.

This is why eye witness testimony is notoriusly unreliable. The Innocence Project, thanks to DNA, has freed dozens of men, including Rubin Carter, who were wrongfully-convicted of horrific crimes solely based upon eye witness testimony. It is not that the witnesses were deliberately committing perjury, they genuinely believed they saw Mr. X do whatever he was accused of.

Not only is memory highly suggestible, it remembers differently at different times. Couples when they bicker usually disagree over widely divergent memories of the same events. It is a lot like that Steve Lawerence song from the film Gigi, Oh Yes I remember It Well. “I did the shopping last week,” says one spouse. “No I did,” argues the other. It is not that one or both parties are liars. They truly remember the past differently and the conflict arises because both of them trust the accuracy of his respective memory.

To get conclusive proof of the unreliability of memory, you don’t need experiments. Your dreams are made purely from memory. Anachronism are routine (You are at a family gathering where everyone is as they are today except for your thirty-five-year-old nephew who is three). People and items are mislocated (you dream of your childhood home but the couch is the one you have now). Such errors are routine because in sleep the memory does not have clues from our senses or the collaboration of other people. In waking life we fill the gaps of memory by deduction, we infer, we assume, we trust. Dreams are raw memory and memory is not recollection but re-imagination.

This is the reason why when we fall out with someone close to us, we re-imagine our mutual past to align with the shift in our new opinion of that person. We re-interrupt our mutual relationship so convincingly that we conveniently forget contrary events. We might even swear    ‘remembering’ them saying and doing things they never actually did. (Isn’t it amazing that every young person who dies tragically was a living saint?)

Which brings me back to Jacob. It may be stating the obvious to say that who we are is about our past, but if our data is unreliable then should we trust our conclusions? Even for those without Alzheimer’s, Jacob’s question is still relevant. Who am I? I believe I know but that belief changes depending on who I am with. Sure, the physical descriptions do not change (race, gender, height) but internally who I am is a flux. The facts of my name and location do not vary from moment to moment and so I do not experience Jacob’s disorientation. But if I am being honest, when I look back over the years to find an answer to who I am, I am as befuddled as Jacob.

At first this notion is scary. Terror is always about the unknown and the unexpected. But once you get comfortable with the uncertainty, it can bring about a flexibility in your relationships. When you acknowledge that your memory might be flawed, you allow the possibility that  others may be right in what they remember. When you lose faith in your memory the world is  a more nuanced and layered place. I love how infants, who have no past and therefore no concretized definition of who they are, move about with a perpetual sense of discovery and wonder. Might an acknowledgement of the unreliability of our memory allow us to experience some of that astonishment about life?


"You have no idea how dreary my life is."

“Oh! You have no idea how dreary my life is.”

Every once in a while I come across a patient who forces me to re-examine my life and the way I move about within it. Mary is 89, small and fragile. Yet she wields a strength far in excess of anything Mr. Schwarzeneggar can muster. You see, she lives in a complete state of gratitude. In response to my simple inquiry about how she was doing, she became emotional that I, a stranger, cared enough to ask after her. She told me everyone at the hospital was taking such good care of her and,”Do you know, they bring me something to eat every single day.” She could no longer hold back the tears. The very idea that strangers loved her enough to feed her three-meals-a-day was simply overwhelming.

I was captivated. I am used to patients who complain about the meals, the water is not cold enough, the tea is not hot enough. They, like me, have expectations about how they should be treated. We are burdened by entitlement, we are afflicted by our rights. Mary is not. She effortlessly abides in gratitude. And her beauty is overpowering.

At first glance she may appear innocent, even naive. You would be wrong. She is a survivor of a World War, and a refugee from a Communist revolution. She has seen much too much ugliness to be naive. Then what makes this woman so unique? I strive to understand because I think it would be wonderful to experience her ecstatic state of gratitude.

As I attentively listened to her story I realized Mary had dedicated so much of her life to caring for others that now, after eight  decades, her ego had been knocked off centre stage. Almost every single sentence she uttered was focused on other people, their needs, their concerns, this despite her own significant difficulties. Don’t get me wrong, her deference to others was not a kind of oppression. I have met people who have been so humiliated, so beaten down that their own needs and desires were suppressed. Such people exude pathos. Mary exudes joy and contentment. This is because she took care of others whom she loved. She put their needs ahead of her own out of choice, not duty.

Over the years I must have spoken to countless people who were angry, frustrated, or depressed because they had suddenly lost the capacity to be independent, useful members of society, but Mary is the only person I have met to express gratitude in that same circumstance. It makes sense. All of us need to feel useful. We need this to survive as much as we need oxygen. The difference with Mary is that even while she lies helpless on a hospital bed, her gratitude rubs off on anyone lucky enough to come into contact with her. We in turn spread that gratitude to others in our lives. Thus wheelchair-bound she contributes to the well being of society at large. No wonder she has none of the self-pity and bitterness common to people newly diagnosed with a debilitating sickness.

Very soon we in Canada will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Once a year we are collectively to be grateful for the bounties of this land, (as opposed to the defeating poverty and endless strife of less fortunate nations). There is something selfish about this type of gratitude; an uncomfortable thank heavens it is them and not us subtext. That may be why we do not grant gratitude is just due. We in the West are told as children: “Finish your supper clean, there are children starving in India.” Such guilt-induced gratitude is passive and impotent. Whereas pure gratitude, like Mary’s, is empowering because it is born out of an appreciation for others. (By the way, the children of the middle class in India are never guilted into finishing their meals. All leftovers are promptly distributed to the said starving children, who are conveniently at the doorstep.)

It no longer surprises me whenever a homeless man complains about the free meal being served to him by volunteers. I understand it now. Ingratitude is human, ordinary, no effort required. Gratitude on the other hand, takes conscious effort. It requires you look at the glass as half-full, but it is an optimism tempered by constructive action. 

Thanks to Mary I get it now: Gratitude is appreciation of the other’s point of view. She has shown me it is worth the effort to do what she has done unconsciously most of her life. I fail gloriously at times, but that is okay. I am grateful for my failures also because they set me up to succeed the next time.

It is against hospital rules for volunteers to touch patients. I did not care. I asked Mary if I could give her a small hug. She has moved me and for that at least  I am eternally grateful.

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