One of my brothers was killed recently. We don’t know precisely what happened, only that he was walking along a rural road and was hit by an 18 wheeler. As a result we made a road trip to Kentucky. Visited with other siblings, my stepmother, many nieces and nephews, cousins and family friends. I learned more about my brother. There was a lot of emotional pain.
Back in 1975, at Hanauma Bay, Hawaii, I was playing frisbee. At one point the frisbee went sailing over the edge of the grass and across the sand. Being young and full of myself I attempted a flying catch. However, the sandy beach dropped off a foot or so and I wasn’t aware. When I landed, my knees buckled under me and searing, excruciating, incapacitating pain radiated from my right knee. The pain was overwhelming agony and has colored my entire life since.
Victor Frankl survived three years in Nazi concentration camps, having lost his wife, mother and brother. He became convinced that humans are primarily driven by our need to find meaning in our lives. See Victor Frankl. He suffered tremendous pain of body, mind and spirit. And yet, he rose above it. He moved past it.
Over the course of history, great and terrible sufferings have been inflicted on man. Many of these are natural events. Some of the suffering could be avoided, perhaps with better decisions on where we live. However, and unfortunately, much of human pain is brought about by others: egomaniacal leaders, tyrants, power wielding despots, religious fanatics. This list is too long. And then there is the pain and suffering we bring about from our own stupidity. How many of us have seen videos and photos of people doing stupidly dangerous things. For what; glory, an adrenaline rush?
But none of the above is the topic for this blog. These are just the background, the sources.
Humans, ostensibly, have been making history for several thousand years. If you’re a strict scientific type you could go farther back, but it doesn’t matter for this purpose. During all this time the vast majority of us have lived in close proximity with one another. In fact it is the proximity that allows civilizations to develop. We get together and combine our abilities to achieve more than we can individually. However, every person, every generation, must learn for themselves how to live the human life. It is part of being self-aware. As far as we know humans don’t have inherited knowledge, we each come with a blank slate. This blank slate is covered with the writing of our families as we grow up, it is erased and covered by our friends in our early years, and it is re-written by our own hand as we grow in maturity. We take from our lives the lessons, understandings and mental resonances that allow us to live with ourselves.
And so, as I spoke at my brother’s funeral service, I looked out on the mourners and could appreciate the pain of loss, the empathy for those closest, the suffering of those with regret. However, I could not actually feel their pain, I cannot actually feel their suffering. No matter how close I am to another person I cannot actually feel the other’s pain; in the same way I cannot read another person’s thoughts. We ultimately stand alone. We can empathize, if we’ve had a similar experience from which to draw understanding. My tears and emotions stem from my own personal experience with both the responses of the mourners and my own feelings over the loss of a brother.
I have a sister who lost her husband several years ago. It was unexpected and shocking, but more so for her than anyone else. Still she is coping with that loss.
My mother passed away years ago, leaving my stepfather alone. Within a year he remarried. I’m sure he still coped with the first loss, but found a way past the grieving.
Each of us, regardless of circumstance, upbringing, education, or economic condition, accumulate facts, understandings, and emotional capabilities along the way. Most of us strive to find a mental balance while being bombarded by demands, pains, disappointments, shocks, and stresses. We seek meaning in our lives regardless of the kind of life we live. And in the end every one of us must learn individually every lesson. This is the fundamental reason there is no one size fits all grieving. There is no one size fits all coping mechanism or one set of guidelines. For every human there is only the thing that works for them. For every human our personal mental and emotional state, our own perspective and understanding of the world can only be developed within our own mind.
One outcome of this perspective can be demonstrated by the number of search results you get when you search in Google on “Self Help Books;” 385,000,000. If we were all the same you’d need only one per topic. To aid in achieving this mental balance and understanding we need to read, study, talk to people, contemplate and reflect on a wide variety of influences. In this way we can pull from here, take from that, and accumulate the knowledge that resonates within us.
Beyond facts and knowledge is understanding and acceptance. On those occasions when life has not gone the way I’d like, or think I’d like, I have suffered from a high level of mental dissonance. Mental dissonance is an internal feeling of out of balance, out of sorts. It manifests itself in depression, aberrant behavior, odd cravings, or heightened emotions. There are a few things needed at this time; needed for the individual.
Time. The saying, “time heals”, is true. It takes time for our brains to adjust to the landscape, whatever it may be. In my case I’m adjusting to my brother being gone, to being out of work, and to being at home much of the time. Another phrase that comes to mind is, “sleep on it”. This is another way to take some time to let your mental processes adjust.
Patience. We cannot achieve a rebalance after a shock without being patient with ourselves. Because it takes time for our mental process, our emotions, to balance we need to be patient and let the time flow. Everyone is different so how much time and patience is needed is different for everyone.
Purpose. As Frankl realized in 1945 we each need to have a sense of purpose, a reason to live. These can be simple and focused or complex and grand. But, a sense of purpose builds the framework for our minds to find balance.
So the next time you’re tempted to say, “I feel your pain”, go ahead. Even though it really isn’t true, it’s still comforting to hear.