Accepting the Unacceptable

I recently saw a documentary called Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (Flooks, Lichtenstein & Tempest, 2018), about the life and death of Teddy Pendergrass.  For those of you who don’t know, Teddy Pendergrass was a soul singer who became popular in the ‘70s. But at 31, at the height of his fame, he had a bad car accident that made him a quadriplegic. Fortunately, he was able to breathe on his own, talk, and raise his arms half-way.

Understandably, he fell into a deep depression. Can you imagine? He went from being a famous, successful star to suddenly becoming some guy in a wheelchair; hardly able to move. He hadn’t invested his money well and didn’t have much to support himself and his family. Talk about changes in identity!

            He ended up going to a therapist who was also in a wheelchair. Session after session, Teddy showed up, but finally came to the conclusion to end his life. His therapist told him that he had a moral obligation to tell his family his decision, and Teddy agreed to have one last session with all of them there.

            When the time came, his family begged him not to take his life, but Teddy was adamant he was not going to change his mind. On the way out the door, he said to his therapist, “Well, I probably won’t see you again, so good-bye”.

            His therapist hung on to the word “probably” and then suggested the most surprising thing: that he set up a time for his family and close friends to get together and stage a funeral for him, during which time Teddy would be covered with a sheet. He was not to say a word while everyone spoke about him as if he were dead.

            After everyone finished, the sheet was lifted and he said, “I want to live”.

            He then concentrated on building up his strength and because he was able to lift his arms, he could exercise his lungs and was eventually able to sing.

            His therapist, who hadn’t been in a wheelchair that long himself, said, “saving his life was like saving my own”.

            I love this story. Not so much because he went on to find fame and fortune again, but because he took his suicidal thoughts as far as he could without actually playing it out. This unorthodox ritual is finally what it took to turn him around and give him the inspiration he needed to find purpose in his life again.

            I wonder what his friends and family told him that changed his mind? What would I say to a loved one in a similar situation? Why hadn’t their desperate pleadings in the therapy session make a difference, but what was said in the funeral did. What would I want to hear if I were playing dead?

            What would you need to hear to help keep you going in the worst of times? Can you tell yourself these things now? How do we accept the unacceptable in our lives? What abilities do you still have, and what can you do to continue to develop them? Can you find purpose and meaning in your life just the way you are? What do you value about yourself? Can you ask your loved ones now what they value about you, what it is they would miss if you were dead?

            This movie, too, reminded me of the book Tuesdays with Morrie, a true account by Mitch Albom (1997). Morrie was Mitch’s mentor who ended up having a terminal illness. Morrie decided that he wanted a memorial service while he was alive, so that he could hear what it was that people loved about him. His thought was: why wait until I am dead when I can’t hear what they say?

            Would you want to do the same thing?

Would I?

What About Joy?

The other day, one of my caregivers arrived with Riley – a 2-year-old, small poodle, who has come here before. I forgot she was coming or else didn’t know, but I was having a particularly dismal morning and when my caregiver opened the door and let Riley in, I burst into tears; both from joy and pent-up sadness at having one more day of difficulty. Riley immediately jumped into my lap, and the tears poured out more.

            Listen. I know all dogs are “good dogs”, even the “bad” ones. I know your dog is “the best” dog ever to pad the universe. But I have to tell you Riley is at the top of the list. She is also the Absolute Cutest Dog in the world. She is a true lap dog, weighing about 10 pounds, has the sweetest brown eyes and the best disposition. She is the embodiment of joy.

            Many days, I contemplate what I can do to make myself feel better. I think of meditation, relaxation CD’s, Yoga, or calling my therapist. Serious stuff. Yet, on some levels, all these can take effort or determination. Dogs, on the other hand, take nothing at all to lift your spirits. They embody loving-kindness, unconditional love and acceptance. They jump in your lap, lick your face, are genuinely glad to see you. They don’t judge you; they have zero pretenses. This is refreshing. This is good news. They don’t care if you can’t walk, can’t sleep, are in pain, or have snot on your face. They simply just love you the way you are. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling at my worst, my negative judgments come sailing in. So, to have this little, exuberant bundle of joy come literally leaping into my lap, is a precious gift and a reminder that who I am, right here, right now, is perfect. I don’t need to do “it” better. I’m not a failure for having anxiety and not sleeping (again). Who I am is deserving of unconditional love – no matter what state of mind I’m in.

            Thanks for the reminder, Riley.

Riley
Me and Riley




What is Happiness?

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – Dalai Lama

The other day I wrote in my blog that I was happy. I had slept well enough for me, was able to spend quality time with 3 friends and I felt like a “normie”. But that kind of happiness, although welcome, is conditional: if I’m not anxious, overly sleep-deprived or seizury, I feel happy.

Recently, I had an exchange with an old friend via email. I had noticed before that he seemed quite cynical and I suggested a book he might want to read that I found uplifting. In the exchange, I told him I wanted him to be happy. He responded that “happiness is a strange thing” and went on to say that in many ways his life was blessed. But a few years ago, his son died in a tragic accident and there were times he felt devastated and had a hard time functioning. He said that next time we talked he would try to be more upbeat.

I had to think about what I wrote. How can we be happy when a loved one has died, especially tragically? How can we be happy when our lives are diminished, when our activities are limited, when we are in pain? Is happiness even a realistic goal? And is happiness only based on outside circumstances?

            I instantly wrote back to my friend that I didn’t want him to be inauthentic. I didn’t want him to pretend to be “upbeat”. What I wanted, I realized, was for him to not get stuck in bitterness, which I feared was what was happening. I’m afraid of that in myself sometimes, or that I’ll fall into a pit of despair and not be able to come out of it.

            I think a deeper, more intrinsic kind of happiness is based on kindness and compassion. Suffering and hardship will come to all of us some way or another. If we hold ourselves and each other with kindness and compassion, we tap into what could be called our true nature, and that is based on not only no conditions, but is comforting and always available.

            And yet, I know how hard it is to deal with an on-going illness, and how it can lead to bitterness, depression, despair, and other difficult mind states that can overwhelm us. Therefore, to get in touch with our innermost self, we need to cultivate kindness, compassion. This takes practice, continual practice.

            This, in my opinion, is what leads to true happiness. If we strive towards a happiness that is only based on outside circumstances, we are eventually going to be disappointed; for these circumstances are bound to change. But when we strive for happiness that is based on our own natural resources, we will be tap into something that can never be taken away from us.            

What do you think?

Edited to include an additional paragraph