A Childhood Portrait Reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and A Question Of Emotional Endurance

I’m the baby, fair budding to become a sunflower, second from left.  The young Queen Mother to my right is my only sister, while the boy doing the Winston Churchill imitation to her right is my middle brother.  Then there is the Eldest on the far left dignifying the portrait with his expression of Supreme Effort.  The youngest among us (who recently discovered this little treasure) was not yet born.

ABOUT WRITING:

LAST WEEK I RAN AWAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever missed posting on or around my Friday deadline.  Not a first-time I’m proud of or would like to repeat anytime soon.  I know there are tools available for scheduling a post to publish even when I’m gone so really, there’s no excuse.  (Not that I think it’s a life or death issue but still, the discipline is important for me as a writer.  So, note to self: research “scheduled publishing” tool and use it at least once before the end of the month.)

There.  Now on to the Easter Portrait.

ABOUT THE PHOTO:

My youngest brother became Guardian of the Box of Old Photos when my mother died a couple years ago and, during the ensuing sifting, has turned up a couple of gems like the one above.  We had no idea this thing existed.  Indeed, there are a whole series of Easter portraits that he’s uncovered, with a wide variety of outdoor backdrops (let’s play Guess What Military Base We Were Stationed At!), but this one clearly takes the cake.

The photo is of us but actually speaks volumes about my mother.  She was, like most women of her generation, trying to keep up with Jackie-O and, other than at Easter, we were always dressed in jeans and t-shirts, a fact that makes this snapshot-of-an-age even more absurd and delightful.

Ultimately though, I think it’s the accident of lighting that makes it most striking–we’re so illuminated it looks surreal, like we slipped down the rabbit hole in a string of held-hands and landed all dressed up in Wonderland.

ABOUT EMOTIONAL ENDURANCE AND THE DYING:

Moving on, I wanted to take a minute to answer a question about my last post.  In her comment afterwards, Linda over at Rangewriter asked what I meant by “emotional endurance.”  I thought it was a great question and, because emotional endurance is such a vital tool for dealing with difficult challenges of any kind, I wanted to address it in a regular post rather than just in the comment section.

Emotional endurance is just what it sounds like; the ability to endure one’s own emotions.  (Obviously, pleasant feelings don’t require much effort.  What I’m talking about are the painful ones like sadness, despair, anger, shame, loss, bitterness, guilt, regret, helplessness, etc.)  This skill was actually prevalent among the older generations but, during the current, unfolding age of budding-pharmaceutical options, has increasingly fallen into disuse.

And unfortunately, as a treat-and-cure cultural mindset has gradually replaced the older accept-and-endure one, the threshold of discomfort, pain, or uncertainty most people can continue to live and thrive with has fallen considerably.  Now…please.  I’m not saying medical advances aren’t a miraculous gift and blessing; they are.  Anyone who’d want to turn the clock back a century is, in my humble opinion, extreme.

However, there’s also profound value to be had from the old skill of knowing how to contain, endure, and navigate heavy emotions without needing to immediately escape them.  And nowhere was this made clearer to me than in the rooms of the dying.

In hospice I saw person after person after person, (all elders BTW,) deal with levels of emotional pain and loss that absolutely staggered me.  And, with only a couple exceptions, they ultimately did it without requiring antidepressants or a hastened death.  Over the course of their lives these people had somehow learned to navigate huge waves of overwhelm, fear, pain, and sorrow without losing sight of the beauty, love, and value that also populated their end.

I cannot begin to tell you what an eye opener this was for me.  I had no clue…no clue…how much stronger we are than I’d ever imagined, and if I could only pass on one bit of insight from all the wisdom I learned from the dying, that would be it.  Allow me say it one more time, because that’s just how important this is:

We are far, far, FAR stronger than most of us currently understand or believe.  By a multiple of thousands.  I know this, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it.  And I’m not talking about the rare hero, warrior, or saint, either.  (Although they are totally amazing.  Whew…)  No.  I’m talking about the rest of us.  All the ordinary, everyday, getting-along people like you and me that weren’t created for greatness; those of us who just want to raise our families, work a good job, have some hope, and live a decent life.  Us.

What I’d love to see is a cultural return to the recognition and development of this skill for emotional endurance, all the while keeping the growing arsenal of available treatments and interventions ready as back-up, just in case.  Y’know…for those rarer yet dangerous periods when life erupts into something that really is too much, too hard, too destructive, unendurable.

Can you imagine what we’d be capable of, what our lives would be like, what our world could become, with the power of inner endurance and medical relief at our disposal?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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8 responses

  1. I’ll drink to that!
    (sorry, couldn’t resist)…great post and thanks for enduring to write through all the times of doubt and fear.
    Cal
    (alias hubster)

  2. In hospice I saw person after person after person, (all elders BTW,) deal with levels of emotional pain and loss that absolutely staggered me. And, with only a couple exceptions, they ultimately did it without requiring antidepressants or a hastened death. Over the course of their lives these people had somehow learned to navigate huge waves of overwhelm, fear, pain, and sorrow without losing sight of the beauty, love, and value that also populated their end.

    this statement should be included for discussion in ALL NURSING CURRICULUMS DIA
    x

    • Thanks John, and I agree. It was not unusual to see staff try to talk patients into using meds they neither wanted nor felt they needed. There’s a puzzling mindset over here that often perceives the stoic strength of older generations as an obstacle to be overcome. While I agree there are a small number of cases where that’s true, on the whole I observed their stoicism to actually grant them a greater quality of life at the end.

  3. It’s interesting that you included the photo of Winston Churchill. I heard somewhere (was it your blog?) that he was a Depressive, and that he referred to it as “The Black Dog”. I am some sort of depressed too. I used to think it was GAD, but now I think it’s related to my Hypothyroidism. It usually takes a little something to tip me into the muck. Some days are better than others. I realize I am likely stuck with it, and I don’t use antidepressants either. So, I am really glad you are sharing these insights with us. I, too, wondered what you meant by “practicing Emotional Endurance”. I guess I am still a little vague. Is it that you witnessed this fortitude in the Elders yourself; that you know it’s inside us too, somewhere, if we only look for it? If so, I think I may see the connection. Now, help me understand. All the witnessing that most of us have missed out on has handicapped us, emotionally. Stoicism isn’t being modeled for us like it used to be even just a few generations ago. We don’t know, really know, how strong we are because we haven’t been practicing… flexing, stretching, and building up our own Emotional Endurance over a lifetime. So that when we see the Black Dog coming, we can tell him: ‘I see you there, I know what you are and what you are up to.’ And then mentally relegate him to a corner of the room for the duration of his stay. I guess the point being not to offer him into your lap.
    How do you “Practice”? Is it a meditation? And what do you mean by ‘Look for the light’? If you were to feel compelled, I would welcome more from you on how you manage your episodes or non-episodes, whatever the case might be. You are a wise woman, Dia, and it’s plain to me that you are mastering your serenity somehow.
    Love, Deb

    • I didn’t know that about Winston Churchill! I only threw the photo of him in because it looked so much like my brother in the photo. (I just did a google search on Churchill and depression and learned a lot. What a fascinating man.)

      Linda also asked about the “do exercises” reference. In all honesty, I didn’t mean specific exercises so much as just practicing endurance–y’know, like building up any set of muscles to make them stronger. Actually, there are a lifetime of different experiences behind the reference…from my warrior-father training us in childhood for character traits like courage, strength, loyalty, obedience (I’m not so great at this one 🙂 ) and endurance, to athletics, to home births, to navigating my depression without antidepressants. Part of it’s from early training, part of it’s temperament, part of it’s practicality. I think I’ll do a separate post on the whole thing because…well…I need more space. And I think it’s really important. Great question Deb. Thanks. (I’ll also try and explain the “look for light” part too. It’s something different than endurance. While endurance can buy a depressive time, we eventually need to find some kind of light in our lives in order to make them worth living. Maybe a separate post for that one, too? Big topics! Aaaah!)

  4. Dia, I love how you ease us, your readers, into the heavy topics…in this case with the marvelous kid pic. I could just imagine your mom scurrying about getting each on of you all spiffed and dressed and trying to keep you that way long enough to get the picture snapped before someone fell into a mud hole or something. Good thing the lighting was on her side!

    This emotional endurance is an interesting topic. You mention that the older generation seems to excell at it. You call it the “accept & endure” mode. This made me think about what is different between the older generation and the rest of us. What bounces before my eyes like a neon sign is the many (nay most?) elders are hesitant about exploring their “inner selves.” I think in bygone days, people simply didn’t have the free time to look inward, to worry about things like identity and self actualization.

    It seems that modern phsychology and sociology have compelled most of us to look more deeply inside of ourselves, to question our reactions, our motives, and our abilities. We call it sensitivity and bemoan those who seem to lack it. Perhaps in the rush to look inward, we come face to face with some very frightening images and aspects of ourselves. Perhaps we examine our emotions too closely so that they loom large and consume us? Does this make any sense at all? I’m rambling here. There is a price for everything. Perhaps the price of sensitivity is diminished emotional endurance?

    I love that you describe people who “contain” their emotions. That is also a very interesting way of putting it….makes me think….

    • I think I know what you mean. In one way the older generations seem more stoic and able to endure difficult emotions than we are. But in another way they can endure them more easily because they don’t explore/dwell on them/learn from them the way our generation and upcoming try to. This might make our job of building emotional endurance harder, I’m not sure. Hmmm…
      Y’know, I think of the elders I worked with and some of the stories they told me, and it’s not like they didn’t experience hell and feel it fully. They did. So many of them were still haunted by experiences that never seemed to leave them, and with me at least, also clearly compelled to try and retell the stories…sometimes over and over again. Maybe they just needed someone who finally knew how to listen? That certainly wasn’t a skill encouraged in their generation, so it wasn’t something they could really give one another. I wonder if part of the difference is that, where our elders were mainly just trying to contain and endure their aftermath, we’re driven to create some kind of meaning out of our wounds; to take the pain and transmute it into something higher that can help us cope or harness or heal?
      Y’know, ultimately I don’t think that level of alchemy is really possible if we can’t endure and contain (yes…isn’t that a great term?) our emotions long enough to allow them to transform. I suspect we need to stand on the shoulders of giants here. First, cultivate their powers of endurance, and then carry that common strength forward into our own vision of a greater level of healing. I suspect the lessons of emotional endurance are equally challenging for every generation. The difference for us though, might be that simply enduring it is not enough. We want to actually harness the suffering to create something better.
      Does that make sense?

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