Cosmic Meaninglessness and the Chance to Choose

You may have seen pictures recently of me clutching this red-heart pillow….  and wondered what the heck it is….  well, when you have heart surgery you are given a heart pillow (or teddybear, or whatever….) to hold tightly to your chest when you need to do anything that impacts your breastbone, like breath or laugh or cough or God-forbid sneeze.   So, if you see someone walking slowly around your local mall or grocery store clutching a heart-shaped pillow, know that they have just had some sort of open heart surgery and are doing the very best they can!

My and my constant companion heart-pillow after surgery.

My and my constant companion heart-pillow after surgery.

On January 7 I had open-heart surgery.  The surgical team took an artery from my right leg and a vein from my left forearm and grafted them onto two of my coronary arteries which, although previously “stented,” had become blocked again.   After a few days in intensive care and a few more days in the hospital, I came home on Sunday January 11th…  Today it is 3 weeks later…. Sunday February 1…    I have made it through the most difficult part of the recovery process, and have about 5 more weeks until being fully back “in the swing” of my life and work.    It has been a rollercoaster of intensity and I have had moments of utter despair, triumph, excruciating pain, surrender, gratitude, fear…. experiences all over the map.

It seems like there should be some WISDOM and MEANING that comes from all of this, doesn’t it?    If you are like me, when really bad things happen, you somehow can get through it all more easily if you know that it is happening for some worthwhile reason.

We like to believe that the forces of the universe deliver circumstances to our doorstep when we are ready to handle them…  that life is a series of events that come to us so that we can learn from them and grow.   We hold on to the notion that there is some sense to be made of the sometimes confusing way that life unfolds around us — that it INHERENTLY holds some truth and meaning.   Particularly when events cause us to suffer, we take some solace in the notion that there is some reason or logic or meaning in why things are as they are.   I have watched myself in this same inner struggle, striving to have my suffering be mitigated by the meaning and deeper truth of what was happening, if I could only see it.    What I discover, however, as bleak as it may sound, is that the events of our lives are inherently MEANINGLESS —  there is no inherent sense to be made of the tests and challenges that we must navigate on our journey.  It seems a bit blasphemous to say that….  somehow we are supposed to think that life inherently has meaning and purpose.   But, this conclusion is not just bleak and hopeless — it is actually a liberating paradox.

One of the experiences that is commonly reported by people who have had open-heart surgery is emotional upheaval in the weeks following surgery.  In particular, deep dips into despair or depression, and moments of uncontrollable tears happen regularly.   Being a ten-year veteran of heart disease and the proud vessel for 12 coronary stents that were implanted a decade ago – I had some understanding of the possible depression that might follow surgery.   I’m glad to say that I have not yet experienced bouts of depression this time around.   However…. during the first two weeks at home I have experienced wild emotional swings and periods of uncontrollable tears that seemingly well up from nowhere in any moment.   This happens in any setting and just happens….  my care-takers, bless their hearts, can attest to this having been with me in all sorts of setting when it has happened.

During my first week at home my husband John took me out to our local Whole Foods Market so that I could do my 10-minute “walk.”   Somewhere in my slow trek down the snack food aisle I suddenly was overcome by deep despair, and a sense that God had forsaken me….  that I was being rendered helpless and left defeated by a very cruel and unfair universe.   Poor John watched as I turned, sobbing and gasping for air, into the bags of whole-grain organic tortilla chips.   I felt angry and defeated — I thought “OK, God… you have brought me to my knees…. I surrender…..”   I wanted to know  WHY?????   Through my tears, I wanted to shout out to God that I was willing to be brought to my knees as long as there was some MEANINGFUL PURPOSE in it!   If I knew that I could learn something useful or gain some shred of wisdom, then I could more readily accept being brought to my knees.

Bargaining with God…  it feels familiar to me.  I want for this human life to be somehow “fair” and to “make sense” — for there to be some inherent karmic law that balances everything out at the end of the metaphorical day.   And, what I realized in that moment is that these notions are all a sort of wishful thinking that we construct so that we can more easily navigate the suffering of life.    There is no inherent meaning, and “fairness” does not factor into how life unfolds.   There is no purposeful lesson to be learned.  It just is.

The very strange thing is that as I realized all of this,  I first felt such a dark and hopeless sense of gloom —  and then I started to giggle.  Yes, I started to laugh.  Part of me was noticing how intensely melodramatic I was being.  A voice in my head was saying…. “Well, duh… Art…. you already know this….  you have a blank canvass here of circumstances and experiences and it is your opportunity to create meaning from it… you get to make it up….  It means NOTHING, which means you get to decide what it means for yourself.”    Because, you see….  we have the agency and wisdom and creativity to construct the world we experience and live through in every moment.    Life does not dictate meaning to us… it does not come with pre-packaged meaning…. rather, we construct the meaning of life in every moment.   One one had that can seem devoid of any hope but at the same time is incredibly liberating.

And so, then…. what does it mean?  What meaning am I constructing from the events of my life at the moment?

  • I am courageous and can navigate pain.   People do not generally like to expose their vulnerability or disclose how difficult their struggles might be — including the reality of what it is like immediately following open-heart surgery.   This has been the most difficult and physically painful process I have ever navigated and it rendered me HELPLESS following surgery.  I learned that I can surrender to the difficult things…. I can accept being a very wounded animal and can gracefully allow others to care for me and hold me up.   I can accept and move willingly into the pain and suffering that must happen and I can navigate it and construct meaning from it.
  • I am not the circumstances nor roles nor well-though out plans of my life.   When I learned that I needed to urgently undergo bypass surgery, one of my reactions was “But wait…. this can’t be happening now because I have PLANS.  I have work projects scheduled and groups to lead and this just isn’t a convenient time!”   It is quite a jolt to, within one week, need to cancel EVERYTHING on my schedule for several months ahead.   I was confronted by huge discomfort that — without all those work projects — I would somehow cease to be.  Without the roles that I play, who would I be? I was struck by how much I have defined my identity by my professional activity and role.  It forces me to dig deeper to a more essential sense of who I am and what matters in life.
  • I am not invincible, and neither are you.  I like to pretend that I am some sort of invincible super-hero who does not need help, who is strong and independent… who always helps others but is not vulnerable himself.  This experience reminds me in a new way of how human we all are, and of the power that comes from a willingness to be vulnerable and to yield.   Many want to help and support and provide care in times like these, and this experience provides repeated constant practice in allowing others to give — in accepting love and support with grace and with gratitude.   I have been very blessed to have a core group of friends around me that have loved me and cared for me during these weeks… I have had acupuncture treatments and massages and meals and visits and errands and hands to hold, and am deeply grateful.
  • And, this is practice as well in having compassion and understanding that everyone is different and has a different way of responding in situations.  For some, it is immensely uncomfortable to “be with” the suffering of a seriously ill or injured loved one.   Some of my closest friends and family have needed to take a step back during this difficult period… to distance themselves from it in some way.   I notice how quick I am to judge when others who are friends or family seem to be unable to reach out or be present with what is happening.   It is all too easy to take offense or interpret their reactions personally, rather than to have compassion and recognize that they are doing the very best that they can.

This has been a time to take stock of life with my husband John — to ask ourselves what really matters and to assess how we most want to live our lives in the years ahead.   I made a decision to travel less and take more time at home, which means transitioning out of the business that I have helped to create in Colombia South America.  It prompted a somewhat impulsive saying YES to purchasing a vacation condo in Rockport on the North Shore of Massachusetts as a get-away place for me and John and Mario.

More to come.  This is just week 3 of an 8-week recovery period.   My intent is to keep navigating this process consciously… to not expect there to be logic or meaning or justice in the circumstances but to use every moment as an opportunity to CHOOSE the meaning that I construct from the ongoing unfolding of life.

~ by Art on February 1, 2015.

7 Responses to “Cosmic Meaninglessness and the Chance to Choose”

  1. Dear Art, I love your writing, insight, and candor. While reading, all I could think is that you will be an even deeper and more compassionate consultant with this experience–though it’s hard to say how this could be possible. Somehow, your insight will get sharper, your humor even more adorable, and your big questions even bigger. I laughed when you said the experience encouraged you to buy a condo for the weekends…My cancer treatment encouraged me to help our daughter with graduate school and send her a check every month…What was I thinking? Next time something big happens to me, I’m buying a weekend place! 🙂 I send admiration and love. Sarah Pierson

  2. *virtual huge*

  3. It has been 10 years ago today that I had my bypass and I was struck by how your reflections were still so immediate and present in my life today…Still learning to be gracious among other things. Look for the yucks; they are all around. I found the 3 Stooges to be particularly prophetic.

  4. More wisdom, insight and love from a man who continues to CHOOSE to give to others in unimaginable ways even through challenging times. I love you Art !

  5. I adore you. XO

  6. Wow Art! So much meaning in the meaningless as you say… It makes sense to me..
    Having ‘choice’ over the meaning we choose to make of an experience is freedom, & meaningful learning emerges that we needed to create…
    Lots of the points you wrote resonated, like the others who couldn’t ‘be’ with your pain/suffering.. That helps me. And I also felt tears dwelling up in my throat about ‘who I am without the plans & professional roles’, that makes me afraid.. And it also makes me ready to be connected with my essence in all moments …. Stay well .. Love, Rozana

  7. Art, I so deeply appreciated reading your reflections on this post-open-heart surgery cycle–and will be interested in whatever might come next as you continue to navigate this process. Given my own experience with illness in the last two years, I experienced much resonance with your observations. I am sending love and gratitude.

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