Navigating the Line Between Okay and Allowed to Not Be Okay

So it’s been a while.

I allowed myself to get swallowed into graduate school and neglected a lot of other things (I can’t remember the last time I ran more than twice in a week and after two failed attempts at baking in my new apartment kitchen, I have given up). Probably wasn’t my best plan.

Here we are. Today marks the 14 year anniversary of my brother’s death. Fourteen years since I watched my brother walk past me for the last time. Fourteen years since the day that changed everything. In that 14 years I have graduated 3 times, met the love of my life, got into grad school, ran multiple half marathons, made friends, lost friends, moved lots. A lot has happened and at many of the pivotal moments I have asked myself – what would Troy think? How would he behave? Would I be annoyed at him the way I get annoyed at my other brother? Would I have extra nephews and nieces to buy presents for this Christmas? In short – there are a lot of what if’s, a lot of questions lingering in my mind.

Sitting back today I realized how different these questions have become for me. How much I have come to accept the world as it is. Some days are tough. Some days feel like a knife is still twisting in my chest. Some days I struggle to catch my breath amongst the crushing sense of loss. Key word there was some days. Some days. Some days I cry, some days I am happy and I almost forget for a second that I am the girl whose brother died. I think the days I realize both – that I am happy and that I am the girl whose brother committed suicide – are the hardest because part of me still feels guilty for feeling such pure and simple joy.

I’ve thought about this for a while, last Saturday when we went to Troy, Michigan, I realized, I no longer clung to his memory. I was okay and I had so much more in my life than his presence (or lack thereof). That stung a bit. Like I was betraying his memory in some horrible way. The thing is that the more I thought of it, the more I realized – this is just the new stage of grief – the point you return to living. It is complicated walking the line between being okay, feeling like you’re not allowed to be okay, and feeling like you’re also not allowed to not be okay. No one warned me about this stage of grief.

At this point I feel like I should offer some sagely wisdom, about what I really don’t know.  Maybe I should have some wisdom about navigating this complicated point, but I don’t. All I have is this – accept it. Be okay, or be not okay. Be happy or be sad.

Just be.

There’s this great concept/therapy in psychology called mindfulness I feel is particularly salient in this conversation. Mindfulness is in essence, being. It is being fully aware of your body and your thoughts and accepting  them without changing anything. Beyond grief, I think we often tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling things, that we should be okay, we should manage our stresses better, we should plan better, we should be smarter, faster, cooler, prettier. Truth is any constructions about what we should be are inherently arbitrary; travel to a different to a country or visit another family and you will find different rules.

Mindfulness is beautifully simple – sit with your eyes closed, your feet flat, and your back straight and focus on your breathing; the flow of oxygen into your lungs and blood stream and carbon dioxide out. Accept your thoughts as they come to you, do not judge them or ruminate on them. Recognize them and return to your breath.

Pretty simple eh?

That’s all I have for today – be. If you are grieving, regardless of the stage, accept your feelings as your own. Grief and loss don’t just disappear. There is not some magic day when everything feels okay, and there will probably always be days you are not okay, there may even be days you’re not entirely sure either way if you’re totally okay or not okay at all. All of these days are categorically okay.

Even if you are not grieving, practice being with the moment and accepting you as you are. Accept your feelings, in all their messiness. Lastly, accept others as much as you accept yourself (and the other way around).

Just be. Unless you can be Batman. I would always recommend being Batman.

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“…Then death becomes interesting.”

A lot of philosophers and psychologists (especially Freud) talk about this idea that we feel near constant anxiety about death and our mortality. It’s the basis of the defense mechanisms. Which is interesting.
See as morbid as it may sound, I have thought about death before. And I am not afraid (mostly). Except I’m afraid of an apocalyptic death, which suggests to my over-analytic self that what I fear is the loss of those I love, even if I’m not around to miss them. Not to mention that I am such a control freak I hate the idea of having such a chaotic death. I am also afraid of a painful death. Basically, I don’t fear death so long as it is a calm and peaceful death. Which I suppose could be interpreted as an anxiety about death, calmed by the idea of a peaceful transition to death. To the cessation of my existence. Which is how I have always viewed death. I never really cleaved to any particular religious afterlife story with any degree of certainty and conviction. But two things have recently struck me that are incredibly fascinating.

  1. In follow-up to my post about our lives online – our behaviour almost suggests that we are not so much afraid of death, but rather we are afraid of a meaningless and insignificant existence. Which could then be explained as us wanting to be Gods. By definition, God(s) are considered immortal, all-powerful, and all-knowing, thus we appear to want this eternal and omnipotent existence even if it’s metaphorical. Thus we live online and enjoy stalking ex’s and friends alike via as many social platforms as we can. We connect infinitely to the world around us so we always know, and we leave our trail online so we never die. I choose to think of it more as an ego based thing – we want to be Gods not because of their immortality but because of their importance, their status as objects to be praised and adored. Just a thought, but I find it counter-productive that we fear death but focus on building a digital footprint.
  2. The point was recently proposed to me, which I posted about, that our existence the essence of who we are is based on our consciousness. Not the content, but the actual consciousness. The experiencing. This point was furthered following a recent discussion with Claude, who at one point declared,
    "If consciousness is our existence, our being, then death gets interesting."

    “If consciousness is our existence, our being, then death gets interesting.”

    And this was such a powerful statement for me. What he meant was if consciousness is our existence, what makes us who we are, then how do we know that anything changes after the death of the body? Not in a sort of soul going to a final resting place or waiting to be reincarnated, or left tormented to wander the earth as ghosts, or whatever else religions may suggest about what happens when we die. But in a “what difference does it truly make for our existence?” sort of way. What if our body exists only because it is the way we demonstrate to the world that we exist? What if we can shed it like a sweater and continue on, not in a separate and distinct afterlife but like a continuation of life? If we do so when we have left our print on the world and choose to move to “higher ground” or a more free-flowing existence?

If our brain constructs reality, and our “you-ness” is in our consciousness and not our physical actions and reactions with the physical world persay, but more an internal, intangible, and free-flowing state of being – then perhaps our bodies have already died. We have no way of knowing that we are alive in any physical sense, and we have no way of knowing if there is such a thing as “death” at least not in the way we typically conceive it.

It’s a little terrifying and freeing no?

Life 2.0: Online and Infinite Edition

I think I officially have a problem guys.

For my regular readers, you may remember how my attachment to my technology almost made me skip a run. This problem is spreading to other areas of my life.

So Tuesday night, it’s nearly midnight, I have managed to force myself to put down my phone after getting into bed,  and read a few pages of Pride and Prejudice before turning out the lights and snuggling into my sheets. I closed my eyes and prepared to drift peacefully off to sleep, content in my belief that I had finally broken the habit of compulsively checking all mail and social media before bed.

Nope.

See I was doing so well, and then an idea for a post struck. My hands got twitchy and after about a minute of trying to convince myself to just write it down in the morning, that yes I WOULD remember when I woke up, I caved. So yes, I wrote this from my bed when I should have been halfway to REM sleep.

I also get anxious when I don’t have my cell phone within a 30-second radius of my person. A few weeks ago, I got to the bus stop and realized I had forgotten my cellphone at home. This struck enough terror in my heart that I almost decided to miss the bus and be late for class to go back for it. Since the bus was pulling around the corner I went with the be on time option, determined to make do with playing Minesweeper on my iPod. Two minutes in to my 50 minute bus ride the unthinkable happened – I reached in my pocket and pulled out my dead iPod. To make matters worse I didn’t even have my tablet. Yes folks I was stuck on a bus for 48 minutes completely unplugged. Left alone to notice the world around me without any technological filters.

the horrorThe horror.

What’s funny is that despite the fact that I use social media, as I think most people do, to feel less alone and more connected, sometimes all the social media just makes me feel more alone. Because that’s what happens when you see the most exciting moments and witty thoughts of those around you highlighted in one compact source. It’s a thing. Researchers are calling it the Fear of Missing Out (there’s a book here on the topic). Basically, we all think we’re sucking at life because we judge the snapshots posted to social media as indicative of people’s everyday lives. So you see people posting photos from the bar having fun while you’re home doing readings or something equally boring and you assume that they are out partying and having fun all the time. Like their work just does itself or you’re too inefficient to have time for such frivolity. Except that’s not the case. Like ever. Even if it is, doesn’t mean your life sucks.

But at this point at least three problems have become evident:

Problem One: I have lost all ability to just sit and only sit.

Problem Two: I am more attached to my phone than I am to some of my friends. This is what we call in psychology a pathological attachment.

Problem Three: Social media, you know that thing that’s supposed to bring us together has created an artificial closeness that looks a lot like separation.

But Wait there's more!

Come on, who wouldn't want to give that face a good ol' snuggle?!  Source. (If you go to uOttawa this will also take you to the page where you can find out more on when/where)

Come on, who wouldn’t want to give that face a good ol’ snuggle?!
Source. (If you go to uOttawa this will also take you to the page where you can find out more on when/where)

I realized laying in bed, that I don’t really live my life to live it, to enjoy, and simply be in every moment. I live my life so I can immortalize it on the internet. I thought about going to pet therapy on campus yesterday, managed to do the people thing and thought to invite a friend, and then thought about how to best ask for a photo there and what the perfect caption would be. Don’t judge. I honestly can’t be the only one that does this.

I’m all for sharing yourself with the world, connecting with a bigger world than the one you can connect to on a day-to-day basis.  What I am saying though is that life shouldn’t be lived for the digital world, with the idea of proving to Internetland that our lives are exciting as the primary goal. It should complement rather than supplant your experience with the other, connect you to others in a real way, which sometimes means disconnecting a bit.

taken from someecards.com

taken from someecards.com

But what I find interesting, is the digital trail we leave behind, clues for people who didn’t even know us about who we were as a human being*. And it’s sort of a new thing for our generation, certainly even more for people born AFB (After Facebook, this WILL BE the way we divide time in the future, AD and BC are going out the window, mark my words!), but we are living and leaving our entire lives online. With new moms frequently posting baby pictures and statuses about their babies’ activities online, baby books are slowly being digitalized, every moment immortalized for all the world to see. But it’s interesting how this almost appears to be a step in evolution.

Evolving or devolving

I was talking with a good friend of mine Tuesday night and he was telling me about how scientists are saying that it appears that homo sapiens are not evolving. That unlike all our hominid ancestors, we are not advancing or changing, which some may argue is because we have already reached perfection. I argue instead that while it is true that we are no longer developing new structures or changing the size and shape of our brain and body, we are evolving at a much more micro level which cannot yet be seen by the technology we have developed. I believe that rather than creating new structures, we are simply modifying the connections in our brain, and while we cannot necessarily scientifically measure these shifts yet, the cognitive and behavioural processes and the advancements of our technology are a manifest of these developments. Our culture and behaviours have shifted in major ways since the explosion of technology, particularly in terms of the internet and mobile devices such as the cell phone, tablet, and laptop. Thus, this invention of the online social network, this digital diary of sorts, can be conceived of as a modification of our cognitive processes, our psychic reality. To avoid the terror of our mortality, we have figured out this incredible system that now makes us Gods in a sense. We live forever. For many of us we live our lives so completely online, that people truly could get a perfect picture of our lives, but for most, it almost becomes debatable how we actually lived our lives when all that is available are the most exciting snapshots of our lives. And it’s sort of incredible. And really terrifying. Because 100 years from now when I’m worm food, what kind of person will I appear to have been to whoever happens to find my digital thumbprint? Will I leave an authentic image, or a sort of airbrushed version of my existence? Will they understand me when I can no longer explain myself?

taken from here.

taken from here.

This seems to come at a pretty heavy price when you realize that all this immortality means living half your life, because the other half must attend to your online memoriam that is always under construction. So we live half our life constructing what we will leave behind.

So was the whole point of this to make you swear off the internet (except for reading this blog, of course)? No, just that maybe we should be aware of how technology impacts our lives, and how sometimes we need to just disconnect from Internetland and live in the moment, not so we can post about it later. Really just a restless thought of a sleepless mind.

P.S. Tune in next week – there will be a follow-up to this post based on one of the most interesting things that has ever been said to me…. “And then death gets interesting…”