Saturday, December 27, 2008

May I Wax A Little Philosophical?

I want to thank you all for your kind wishes expressed here over the last week. It does mean a lot to us to know that so many people are thinking of us and praying for us.

Now, while all your thoughts and comments are welcome, I must admit I've been feeling a little weird while reading them.

What do I mean? Well, many of the comments we've received--not only on this blog, but through emails and in person--have expressed something along the lines of, "I'm sorry to hear the news. I know your heart must be breaking. Our family prayed for you, and we were weeping when we were doing it. We want you to know that we admire the strength you're showing, as we have no idea how we'd get through it if it happened to us...."

Again, these expressions of sympathy, and your prayers, are highly welcome. But the reason I feel so weird hearing these comments, is that Tonya and I aren't feeling particularly distraught.

And this is odd! I never would have expected that Tonya and I would have reacted the way we have, but we've had a very even-keel kind of week. We did a whole lot of Christmas stuff (Oh, Merry Belated Christmas, by the way), and otherwise took everything one day at a time (the way we said we were going to do), and we are actually doing well. Had you told us a week ago that we'd still be functioning after hearing this news--let alone that we'd be thriving--I would have thought you to be nuts. But here we are a week after first having heard the bad news, and the world has not ended, and we're still standing. We're even laughing from time to time.

It all feels so normal. What's going on?

Well, Tonya and I have been thinking about this quite a bit. Is it because the news hasn't really hit us yet? Is it because we just don't know what's in store for us?

Well, I don't actually think that's it. It may well be that we don't understand the pain that's waiting for us all too soon; after all, this has never happened to us before, and we don't know what to expect. However, I suspect that even if we did understand fully what's about to happen, we'd still be doing pretty well about now. Then what's going on?

I think a couple of things are going on. Here are a few, in no particular order.

For one, when you have a big thing on your mind, often times it tends to crowd out the little things. I like the way Tonya put it last Monday (shortly after we had gotten the preliminary diagnosis of Trisomy 13). She had been doing some Christmas shopping that morning, and said she was calmer, more serene, than pretty much every other Christmas shopper whose path she crossed. They were concerned about getting just the right present for everyone on the list, and getting done all the thousand little things that had to get done (and there's so little time left!) and getting that last parking spot!

And Tonya, who had spent the weekend contemplating something much more serious, didn't care one bit about that last parking spot. Lady, if you need it that badly, you're welcome to it with my blessing...

Somehow, when the health of your baby is at stake, everything else tends to fade into the background. Your mind gets refocused on the important things. And so much of what causes our day-to-day stress, in the grand sweep of the cosmos, are unimportant things. You let those unimportant things go, even when it's because of some kind of personal tragedy, and the stress tends to go with it.


...


So I think that's part of it. But another part of it is that those who haven't had these things happen to them really don't understand just how much strength they already have; you don't know until you're in a crisis what internal resources are available to you, or how you'd react.

A couple of years ago, my younger brother and his wife had a baby girl born with a severe chromosomal abnormality that took her life after nine days. I remember that during those nine days, I felt absolutely terrible for my brother and his family. I kept thinking about everything from the medical bills they were running up, to the parental dreams that must have been dashed when the extent of the deformities became known.

But now that this is happening to Tonya and me, my thought process is totally different: it's much closer to, "What do we have to do today?" It's practical stuff; it's "Here's the plan: we do X and Y now, and we're good. We'll worry about Z when we get there. You got the plan? Good! Let's go do it." Frankly, I felt worse when my little brother was the one with the crisis, than I do now that I'm the one with the crisis.

None of this is said to imply that we don't care about our littlest one. None of this is to say that we don't have grieving in our near future. But it goes back to what Jesus said about not borrowing trouble from tomorrow, because today has enough trouble as it is. Somehow, knowing that there's trouble down the road doesn't detract from the good that one can experience now, and it may in fact enhance it.


...


Another thought came to mind on this subject, regarding how we mere mortals experience "good" and "bad".

I've known a fair number of missionaries in my life, and nearly all of them that have spent time in Africa will tell you that the people of sub-Saharan Africa are some of the happiest people they have ever met--much more so than Americans. They come back from their travels absolutely astounded by how so many of these people, who have nothing--no goods, no medical care, no food, rags for clothes--still greet everyone they know with a hearty smile, still sing (out loud! In public!) whenever they feel like it, which is frequently.

Now, let such an African have what he considers to be a "good day." If you somehow were to capture all his experiences during the day, and then make a typical American go through exactly the same things, I suspect the American would declare it to be a very bad day. The African notes the fact that he ended the day with a full belly; the American notes the fact that there was no indoor plumbing, and that he had to drink fetid surface water that half the village had been bathing in.

What we consider to be "good" and "bad" (really, it should be "pleasant" and "unpleasant") depends a great deal on what our expectations are, and what we are accustomed to. One person can consider it a "bad" day when the soufflé falls in the oven; another considers it a "good" day when no armies come tromping through the grain field, and no relatives wind up summarily shot.

I suspect that people just naturally have an internal scale for measuring when a day is good or bad. The thing is, though, these scales can be re-calibrated by external events. If a person has way too many good days in a row, we cease to consider them good, and start to think of them as so-so; in order to get that good-day experience, we'd have to have a day that we would formerly have called spectacular. And this works the other way, too: if we have too many bad days in a row, we begin not to see them as particularly bad; they can become tolerable, even pleasant, as we become accustomed to them.

So where am I going with all this? Well, Tonya and I have been aware now for over a week that we're expecting a baby girl who probably won't live--and if she does live, she may never be conscious. So we had a couple of bad days there. Now what? Well, to borrow a term from finance, the news has now been discounted; to use my former metaphor, the scale has been recalibrated. The knowledge that would have produced a Bad Day a week ago now produces (by itself) merely a Normal Day, which can become a Good Day depeding on what other events occur.

That make sense?

One thing we haven't been doing is sitting around being miserable the whole time. Again, I like a point Tonya made recently: it's hard for a healthy person to stay depressed morning to evening, day after day. Unless someone is clinically depressed (and I mean that in the literal sense) or is intentionally focusing on and reinforcing the bad feelings (and I think a lot of this happens in pop psych therapy, by the way, but I won't go into that just here), we typically don't stay down for more than a day or three before something causes us to perk up and notice that the sky hasn't completely fallen. More likely is that we get recalibrated, then we start to shift from "Woe is Me!" to "What do I have to get done today?" and we move on.


...


Now, after saying all that, I want to let it be known that all this is speculation on my part, based on Tonya's and my current experiences. It may well be that we're just weird and that most other people handle things differently. We aren't that far into the whole world of Trisomy 13 and developmental abnormalities yet; we may well have some surprises in store for us. And there may be people reading this blog who are thinking, "this guy has no idea what he's talking about." They may be right! I certainly have no intention of offending anyone who is going through a genuinely tough time right now--I'm just throwing my own observations and speculations (given our current circumstances) up on a canvas for all to see. Take it for what it's worth.

For all those who've prayed for us to find strength, we again give you our hearty thanks. It may well be that we've handled everthing thus far as well as we have because God heard and granted your prayers.

It's just that I'm suspecting that God answered these prayers, in part, (cheesy metaphor alert!) by invoking some software that comes pre-installed in all of us, but which lies dormant most of the time. If you'd asked me two weeks ago how Tonya and I would have handled this crisis, I would have predicted we wouldn't have a clue, and I would have considered it a scary question. Now the answer is much more like, "Eh... the same way we handle anything else. Whatever."

And the thing is, I'm not saying this to brag; rather, I'm saying this because for everyone who's looking at our situation and saying, "I have no idea where you guys find the strength to get through the day," I strongly suspect that you have the same reserve of strength lurking somewhere in there, put there by the Creator. It's just waiting for the right crisis.

(Though I hope you'll forgive the term "the right crisis." And I pray that no one reading this ever has to go through our kind of crisis.)

7 comments:

Willa said...

I think you're right about recalibrating, and thanks for describing it so well. When our baby son was in the hospital severely ill (he was born in liver failure from a rare congenital disease and then got pneumonia on top of that, had a stroke, etc), we were quite surprised that little things like a walk between hospital visits to get a Border's latte together, or the baby having a good day, or watching an old movie with our older children, could be so vividly joyful. It wasn't that we didn't suffer in between, but that joy was redefined, I suppose, just as you say.

(from a regular reader who probably hasn't commented before, but has been praying and wishing your family well along with the rest of your blog readers.)

Coy said...

Tim,

I think that the phenomena you are experiencing is linked to multiple factors, and I agree with you wholeheartedly.

One thing comes to mind, however. You mention that families are in prayer for you, and weeping. You could call this transference, if you like. IMO (and it isn't worth much), When others grieve for you and with you, the burden of grief lessens for you. I experienced this first hand with the loss of my father. I remember clearly, the day afterward, a close friend of mine stating , "I don't see how you are even walking and talking." Of course, at the time, I didn't make the connection. I was younger and much more foolish. But I think that it is very clear that God did not design us to "experience" alone...that he built us to have community. And it's this community of grief that is allowing you and Tonya to bear less of it, along with the immense blessings and compassion that God is pouring out on all of us.

In short, I am willing to bear part of your grief, and I pray for the peace that you felt last night while writing this to carry forward into the days that lie ahead.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Tim:

I don't want to mention any names, but when you speak of your litter brother and his wife losing their baby after 9 days, is this the little brother I know from college?

Timothy Power said...

Jarrod, you got the wrong brother there. The one you knew from college isn't very big, but he is in fact my older brother.

Willa and Coy, thanks for your affirmations. It's always nice when I've written something while thinking to myself, "Am I off my rocker? Am I the only one who thinks that way?" and then I have people come in and say things like "I think you're right" and "I agree with you wholeheartedly."

At the very least, it means that I didn't offend everybody. :-)

And your prayers and well wishes are greatly welcomed and appreciated.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Tim:

What! He's your older brother? Well, I do know he's about the funniest guy I ever met. Kind of a one-man Monty Python troop.

I have done a little reading on the psychology of killing and death, mostly from the military point of view. (E.g., On Killing and On Combat by Grossman, Sharpening the Warrior's Edge by Bruce Siddle.)

One this reading all had in common is that there is a lot of stuff that goes on in the midbrain that we are not aware of when someone we love passes away. As a result, we can respond to their death in numerous ways that we do not expect. It can be a very complex matter.

Here is where it is more germain to you:

One thing these authors all point out is that one must not feel too badly about oneself if you end up feeling guilty about not being sad enough about the death.

This happened to me when my mother died from cancer back in '91. I wasn't grief-stricken nor sad at all and did not cry one time. For 2-3 years afterwards, I felt terribly guilty for not being sad. My mother died, for Pete's sake.

It was not until I read On Combat that I realized what was going on, and a lot of it was as out of my control as my endocrine system.

Thereafter, I was able to come to terms with it and quit feeling guilty about not being sad enough.

Hence, if this happens to you, don't kick yourselves if you and your wife start to feel guilty about not being grief-stricken enough.

I hope I am making some sense here. Anyway, I think I will stop here as I made the point I wanted to.

Roger Z said...

It's interesting you wrote about this, Tim. One of my favorite books is "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why." I'd highly recommend picking it up. Mostly it deals with being in tough wilderness situations and what gets people into, and out of, trouble.

Basically, one of the key findings is that the people who make it adjust very quickly to their new surroundings and take it in stride. Yes, there can be a "why me" and "life sucks" period, but they get over it pretty quickly. The people who don't get over it usually die.

It's kind of the first step. The author also mentions that when you move into this zone you start to find and enjoy the beauty in life again, and once you start seeing the beautiful things and noticing them it's usually a sign you'll be alright.

Anyway, your post reminded me of the book and was kind of an affirmation that maybe the author was onto something after all!

Anna said...

I'm just catching up after a hiatus for the purpose of cutting down my online time.
We went through similar confusion of peace in the storm this past year. Our daughter has Juv. Rheumatoid Arthritis. She didn't walk for over two months. We made multiple trips to the Children's Hospital, heavy drugs, etc.
But none of it felt as bad as others felt for us. Our trust was in God, and it carried us through.

I will, of course, still pray for you and yours. That's what we do.