Posts Tagged ‘Life’

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September 12, 2013

Swimming_0195

This is worth reading:

Diana Nyad and the wisdom of age

Guest Columnist (Vincent P. Ward)
Published: Sep 12, 2013, in The State
http://www.thestate.com/2013/09/12/2974330/ward-diana-nyad-and-the-wisdom.html
The thing that impressed most people about Diana Nyad wasn’t her triumphant emergence from Gulf waters after 53 hours to become the first person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida’s Key West without a shark cage. It’s that she was 64 years old.
The sheer strength, tolerance of pain and discomfort and endurance it took are astonishing. But as Nyad indicated afterward, there’s more to be found by looking deeper. The three things to take from her journey, she said, are “never give up; you’re never too old; and it looks like a solitary achievement but it’s a team effort.”
This was more than breaking a sports record. It was a demonstration of what can be accomplished with the products of aging itself. In a PBS interview the next day, she said that as she ages, “the clock seems to be ticking faster” and “time seems to be running out.” She wanted this to be “a lesson to my life that says, ‘Be fully engaged; be so fully awake and alert and alive.’”
So wisdom was a major factor. She later spoke of the line between acknowledging the possibility of being defeated by things that are bigger than we are, and quitting before we actually reach our limits. It takes wisdom to see, and to live into, that paradox.
Courage is another factor. Nyad braved the water temperature, waves, currents and weather. She braved sharks, swimming without the contraption that keeps them away and marginally eases the water’s resistance around the swimmer. She braved the jellyfish, which had taken her out of action before. She braved the depths, in which unknown critters swim, some of which could rise up to make you dinner.
In other words, she entered the ocean more on its terms and less on hers. This requires another frequent feature of aging: humility, the recognition that in the great scheme of things, you’re not nearly as important as your ego thinks you are. Related is a willingness to surrender to the task, to go with the flow of the sea, rather than determining to conquer it.
Patience is a factor, too. It took four decades of it to hold onto her “extreme dream.” Biding her time while her body aged must have been hard, and probably seemed unwise to many.
Exhaustion, muscle and joint pain, sunburn, swallowed sea water that had to be vomited up, self-doubt, fear, two days without sleep and more. Why would anybody deliberately embrace such suffering? I suspect for the same reason Christ did: for the sake of meaning greater and far more important than safety and comfort.
This swim was in Nyad’s mind for 40 years. She got in the water to start on four occasions, but never finished. But being unable to finish was not the same as giving up. Aging, if you’re paying attention, entails internal change, an emergence, a response to insistent pressure from the inside to become more authentic. So I suspect the meaning of the swim changed over the years and decades, becoming a journey, a process, that occupied a much larger, more central and more profound place in her than just breaking a record. I think it came to represent a destiny of the spirit.
But the time for fulfilling it was not to come until she was spiritually equipped, with the wisdom, courage, humility, interior strength, love that drew supporters to her, and acceptance of the role of suffering in life, which only years can bring. Her journey began decades ago, but I think she had to be 64 to integrate all that and finish this stage of it. “Stage” because the journey is life, and it’s not over till it’s over.
Those of us who are “of an age” had better be paying attention. It wasn’t the goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida that Diana Nyad never gave up on — it was herself. We should be inspired by her to the same journey. Our approaching death is no excuse for giving up on life.
Dr. Ward is a Columbia psychotherapist; reach him at drv-sc@earthlink.net.
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The opposite of Happy-Well, in movies and in life

May 25, 2008

I just watched the movie that won Best Picture of 2007: No Country for Old Men.” I also watched another big movie this week: “There Will be Blood.” What do these very dark and pessimistic movies have to do with this blog, which is focused on how to be happy and well? Well, as I wrote previously (Life and death in the movies), good and bad, life and death, are two sides of the same coin. In Aging Well, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant did not find that people who aged well had especially charmed lives free of stress and tragedy; rather, they were able to look at the glass of life as half-full rather than half-empty. They experienced deprivation and loss, but managed somehow to look at the positives. At the same time, denial of reality does not help one attain happiness and that is not what he is recommending. Nor am I.

Dark movies about evil people can jar us out of complacency and challenge us to dig deep to find something positive to hope for. In the case of both of these grim movies, one can come away appreciative that it was a movie, and not our own life. Depictions of evil, if done artistically and with a certain amount of irony, can themselves show goodness, in a paradoxical way.

I had not planned this, but it seems I will use movies to generate thoughts and feelings about life and viewing the glass as half-full. I love movies, and probably have seen 20 or 30 per year for the last 5 decades. (I have also read hundreds of books, but I find movies easier to use in discussion — partly because more people have seen them than may have read a particular book.) Some movies grab us intensely in a brief time, and that can be a powerful experience.

Disturbing movies can shake us and challenge us in a way that mostly happy movies do not (I loved “Juno” and “Enchanted,” for example, but did not feel particularly challenged by them). Other movies present a balanced view of good and evil, and affirm the better sides of our nature, while still challenging us with tragedy and loss (for example, the movies I discussed in my previous post).

Which other movies capture the hopefulness of positive attitudes in the face of adversity, loss, or despair?  Several come to mind immediately: “The Band’s Visit,” “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Walk on Water,”  and “Once.” I risk making enemies when I praise specific movies, because we all have such unique taste.

Of course, movies cannot really capture the stark contrasts of dark and light that most of us experience in real life. As a psychiatrist for many decades, as well as a person living a complex life, I have experienced tragedy and loss up close and very personal. But movies can be shared and discussed and can illustrate the kinds of profound dilemmas we experience in real life.

And some movies can help us “reframe” an event or response in a more positive way, or a way with more potential for hope, as described in Weight Management for Your Life:

When we consciously look at a glass as half full rather than half empty, we are doing what many therapists teach their patients to do: using willpower to reframe, or change a negative way of looking at a problem into one with positive features. This does not mean we should automatically tell a person who just lost a loved one, “Be happy, s/he is in a better place!” Usually, reframing is most useful when applied to our own situation. It should be done intelligently and sensitively, and the rule of thumb here is to reframe in a positive way unless there is a good reason not to. That is, do not use reframing as a way of putting on rose-colored glasses in order to deny or distort reality. A successful reframe is both potentially true (factual, realistic) and positive. “Half full” and “half empty” are both true, but only one is positive.

Life and death in the movies

May 23, 2008

I watched 3 movies in the past few weeks which deal with the essence of living and dying. The first was “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” based on the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby who was completely paralyzed from a stroke but survived long enough to write a book by blinking one eye. The movie certainly confronts the viewer with questions about the meaning of life. To me, it emphasized the importance of communication and creativity. It also showed how important compassion can be. The second movie was “The Savages,” a work of fiction about a family (mainly a brother and sister) dealing with the declilne and death of their father, who was not a very positive force in their lives. To me, this movie also explored the meaning of life and the relevance of compassion.

Finally, I watched “Into the Wild,” based on the true story of a young man who leaves his parents and sister to strike out on his own, without money or attachments. I felt I was confronting the very essence of what it means to be alive and was, once again, impressed with the compassion shown by various individuals. I recommend all 3 of these movies.

I believe that, in order to fully live life and find some measure of happiness and emotional well being, one must in some way confront the inevitability and finality of death, including one’s own mortality. Hopefully, by so doing, one learns the importance of caring for oneself and others and also learns to give and receive compassion.