Saturday, April 14, 2012

Careful of that dead thing

I had a terrifying dream last week. I was driving my family in the car, on a nearby nondescript suburban road (County Rd C in Roseville, MN, if you care). It was late twilight and cloudy. Suddenly ahead of us, there was a burst of flame: the afterburner engaging as a jet fighter swooped up and to the right. It startled my wife, who yelled. There were flashes in the sky, like lightning behind a cloudbank.

Then off in the distance, way off in the distance, ahead of us and slightly to the left, was a blinding blue-white flash, with a shockwave visible pushing away from it. I knew right away it was a nuclear explosion. Someone had set off an atomic bomb. My immediate question was, what do we do, where do we go? Do I turn the car around and run like hell for home? Would I make it? Would the shockwave get us this far away? Would more bombs explode?

This was the cultural shared nightmare from my growing-up years: nuclear armageddon. I don't remember actually having nightmares about it then—I remember nightmares where I watched passenger jets crash nearby, coming in low and screaming and flying all wrong, and then a cloud of moke from behind a line of trees. But not the Big One. Neither is it really a daylight nightmare for me, and hasn't been since glasnost. Terrorist attacks and pandemics are what tend to set me off in the same way today.

What the heck?

I've been coming back over and over this spring to how we tend to avoid awareness of mortality—not just ours, but the mortality of those entities we are part of. In particular, when we found an institution, we seldom build into that institution's structure the assumption that it will one day be dissolved. Most legal entities have procedures built into their generic type: how to dissolve a foundation, corporation or church. But when we found most institutions, we expect them to go on "in perpetuity."

I think I had forgotten how viscerally overwhelming it is to actually face the end of our own bodily life. No philosophy, no rationality, just an overwhelming urge to figure out how to go on living; how to get out of this dangerous situation now.

As I keep moving forward in this exploration (can I really call it that? seems like pretty random wandering much of the time), I need to bear this in mind: the subject of endings can touch off a panicked response that seems to come out of left field. No-one who is not facing excruciating pain wants to die. And no-one who feels their very life depends on a larger organization will therefore respond well to suggestions that the organization ought to be left for dead.

I really enjoyed, earlier this week, listening to Kevin Kling talk about what to him was a new an revelatory way of thinking about storytelling, as part of an interview with Krista Tippett on On Being. He says:
Well... with this post-traumatic stress a few months ago, after years and years, it came back with a vengeance. And I went to a therapist and she said, "You got to understand... it's not time [that heals]— it... doesn't work, it sits in such a deep place that it's not triggered in ways you would think. It's not something that time heals. It will come back." And so what she had me do, which was so right fit just with my weird, Jungian sensibility, she had me tell the story of my motorcycle accident.
It was a bit more complicated than this. She told me the story, but instead of hitting the car, I missed the car, and I went to where I was going. And by retelling the story and having a different outcome, I started sleeping better. I started, all of a sudden the post-traumatic stress really dissipated in a significant way. And it was because I retold the story in another way that had me survive in another way.

Now the struggle with me is, I still wake up in the morning with my arm not working, with all these things. So there's a reality, and then there's another story I've created. And it really seems to fit with the way we work as, as humans, especially these days. We need to rewrite our stories sometimes just so we can sleep at night.
...but it's not the reality. But we can't live in the story that makes us sleep, but we need it to sleep. And so that's my struggle now, putting those two together, taking the myths we form to make ourselves feel better and fitting it with the reality that we live in.
And I think that about sums it up.

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