Eighteen years ago, on a serene, postcard-perfect day in September, terrorists piloted their planes into the twin towers in downtown Manhattan. Within hours, the seemingly invulnerable steel and concrete structures collapsed as if made of papier-mâché. For those who witnessed the destruction, the reality was surreal, unbelievable, even unimaginable, and yet the smoke, the flames, the screams of people jumping from windows were absolutely real. Other national traumas—President Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent shooting of his alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, viewed by millions on television; the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven crew members onboard, have evoked similar traumatic responses the still vibrate within us, individually and collectively today.
What we do not expect to happen nevertheless does happen, and when it does, we are faced with having to absorb an unforeseen reality for which we are not prepared. Expectations can be smashed in two ways: either something happens that is unanticipated, or something we had counted on fails to materialize. In both situations, we find ourselves bereft and vulnerable in a new way.
How to respond to the unhoped for? Can even tragic situations be a catalyst for growth? We may feel like victims of a cruel fate, but knowing we have a choice in how we respond gives us an opportunity to experience our personal courage.
The scholar and author Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton, has recently written a harrowing account of how she grappled with the unimaginable. Her son, born with a heart defect, died at the age of six from a heart-related lung disease. Within a year, her husband Heinz Pagels, a renowned physicist, was killed in a freak hiking accident at the age of 49. While her son’s death was not unexpected, it was nonetheless a shock. Her husband’s death coming on the heels of her son’s was almost too much to bear. Her book, Why Religion?, takes us on a journey through shattering pain, and yet, it is a consoling guidebook for anyone coping with emotional fragility brought on by life’s randomness.
The author finds wisdom in a variety of religious and spiritual sources—the Bible, the Koran, the sutras, the later Gospel of Thomas, Emily Dickinson,Wallace Stevens. The words of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in particular, supply Pagels with an antidote to despair. When our lives turn out different from what we expect, “we have to do,” she writes and then quotes Frankl “‘what life expects of us.’”
And Frankl has more to offer us:
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life—daily and hourly—Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems, and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
We all carry around conscious or unconscious assumptions about how the world works. On the most basic level, we assume—we know!— the earth is round not flat, that it is the third planet from the sun, traveling in an elliptical orbit around the sun, rotating on its axis to compose a day. We call this science or fact, but as late as the sixteenth century, scientists were still disputing Polish astronomer and mathematician Mikolaj Kopernik’s (Copernicus’s) discovery that the sun rather than Earth is at the center of our galaxy. Copernicus’s ideas contradicted religious convictions about the nature of God and man current in his time, and though he escaped a tragic ending for his heresy, astronomers who later took up his theories were ridiculed, condemned, or worse, burned at the stake.
This is just one example of how difficult it is for us to relinquish firmly held beliefs and adjust to a new reality on a societal level. James Doty, neurosurgeon, author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, and a leading researcher on brain plasticity at Stanford suggests we are wired for cognitive biases that make us respond positively to evidence and statements that support our predetermined, already present attitudes. Collectively, we collude on our view of reality—what is up, what is down; what is solid, what is liquid; what is inert, what is alive— and are hard pressed to give up our “accepted wisdoms” and “the way things are.” And that makes sense. In a universe teeming with vibrations, pulsations, colors and scents, some on spectra beyond our capacity to perceive, it makes perfect sense that we need to construct a version of reality in which we are not overwhelmed by sensory input.
We couldn’t survive without a stable and secure apprehension of our environment. We count on the world having a certain degree of predictability—the Earth turns on its axis; the seasons follow in order; night and day alternate. Our mental and physical developments depend on knowing we are safe. Most children, for instance, assume they will grow up and become adults. Most assume their parents will be around to take care of them until they are ready to fly the coop. When these realities are splintered, fear bursts its container and taints the rest of experience. If this could happen, anything could happen. The mantra for the anxious-at-heart.
The jolt from expectation to experience, from assumption to lived reality, can happen at any age and violently dismantle our stability. How then, do we accept life’s unpredictability without being taken down by worry and anxiety? Alas, there are no five easy steps to follow. It is a delusion to think we can have control over the circumstances of our life. Loss, accidents, difficult health come to all of us. We are vulnerable creatures.
I remember well the sage advice Qigong Master Chunyi Lin gave his students. “Be flexible,” he would tell us. Do not be rigid and inflexible. Do not hold on to fixed beliefs or expectations. “Be like the reed in the wind.”
The image is graphic, and vital. Whatever weather conditions prevail, the supple reed is able to adapt, to accommodate while the seemingly sturdier branches can prove brittle and be broken by the wind.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”