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?

Book Reviews and Suggested Reading

I’d like to recommend a few books that have resonated deeply with me.

  1. Finding Freedom in Illness by Peter Fernando From the point of view of someone with chronic illness, Fernando uses meditation techniques and contemplation to explore the physical, emotional, and mental difficulties that often come hand-in-hand with chronic illness. Including personal stories, he emphasizes self-kindness as a way to relate to the negative self-talk that can arise with an on-going illness.  He encourages us to be present with all that surfaces in the mind and body, including an entire chapter dedicated strictly on pain. You can trust what he is saying, because you know by his words he’s been there, unlike many health practitioners who haven’t. This is a book to come back to again and again, to remind you what your true worth is. It feels like a real friend.
  2. The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff – Review on the back cover of this book: “Illness is a universal experience. There is no privilege that can make us immune to its touch. We are taught to assume health, illnesses being just temporary breakdowns in the well-oiled machinery of the body. But illness has its own geography, its own laws and commandments. At a time when the attention of the whole nation is focused on health care, Kat Duff inquires into the nature and function of illness itself. Duff, a counselor in private practice in Taos, New Mexico, wrote this book out of her experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, but what she has to say is applicable to every illness and every one of us. For those who are sick, this book offers solace and recognition. For those who care for them either physically or emotionally, it offers inspiration and compassion. Finally, this fresh perspective on healing reveals how every illness is a crucible that tries our mettle, tests our limits, and provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to integrate its lesson into our lives. “Published by Bell Tower, an imprint of Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc.”, 1993]
  3. Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of TREYA KILLAM WILBER by Ken Wilber – Review on the back cover of this book: “Grace and Grit is the compelling story of the five-year journey of psychologist Ken Wilber and his wife, Treya Killam Wilber, through Treya’s illness, treatment, and, finally, death. Ken’s wide-ranging commentary-which questions both conventional and New Age approaches to illness-is combined with Treya’s journals to create a vivid portrait of health and healing, wholeness and harmony, suffering and surrender.” Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1991