Monday, June 21, 2010

Circumstance and Character

From long experience saying things along the lines of what I’m going to say here today, first please let me assure you that I’m serious and ask you to consider not laughing. Ok, it’s fine if you laugh, so long as you don’t let me know that you’re laughing, at least until it’s all over. Some of us are slower than others, so it takes us longer to work things through and assimilate various concepts. These thoughts were stimulated by yet another conversation with someone displaying raging curiosity about my brain tumor without being rude or causing me trauma.

As background, during the Long Slog of last month, I attended a small, day-long event about ethics at which Robert Burton, the author of On Being Certain, spoke. He did more than speak, actually, he was present for the entire time as the group worked through some ideas and problems. He presented his work and some of his current ideas, including his ruminations on the implications of the collective intelligence of slime mold, ants, locusts, etc., for human beings. If you haven’t looked at the slime mold-replicating-Tokyo-rail-system study, you should. There’s apparently a similar one replicating the highway system in England, but I haven’t looked that one up. You can tell I’m stalling for time before getting to the part you’re going to laugh at. Anyway, in the midst of that event, citing studies on the effects of odors (fresh baked goods) on willingness to donate, he said, meaning to be provocative, that maybe character is all circumstance.

Ok, so here’s the truth that has come home to me: getting a brain tumor wasn’t my fault. In that case, unlike most others in my life, I didn’t have to spend time, given my childhood conditioning, figuring out what I’d done wrong, or thought of doing wrong, some way I’d fallen short, or some pattern of my behavior that induced the bad result. There’s nothing about it that requires or evokes any particular feelings other than “stuff happens.” It just was, and we needed to respond to it, and we did. Here’s the connection to the stuff about slime mold and locusts and Burton: If circumstance is character, individually and collectively, we measured up, and more. I’m proud of how we responded individually and as a family, and what it says about the character, especially, of our children. (I already knew all that about Michael’s character; he’s an unbelievably wonderful human being.)

Thus, it hasn’t been complicated for me to talk or write about this experience, since I wasn’t responsible for causing it in the first place, and have been only responsible for responding to as best as I could. Some of the post-craniotomy effects are downright odd, the oddest being not really knowing myself fully at middle age: I’m not who I used to be. Most of this adventure, though has followed the course laid out by many others who have traveled on similar journeys. Virtually all of what happened was affirming, heartwarming, wonderful and cheering. (There was that unique, fairly irritating experience when a collaborator asked for an extension on a deadline without telling me, citing my brain tumor as the reason for the extension, even though my share of the project was all done, but whatever. That experience was such an anomaly, it really stood out.) It does mean, though, that I’m still chewing hard to figure out how to respond to what comes next in my life, all of which is flowing largely as a result of my own (sensible) choices. No good answers there yet, just the putting one foot in front of the other.

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