The Predicaments of Life

The Predicaments of Life

A Kathe Kollowitz image that hung in the hallway of my home while I was growing up.

A Kathe Kollowitz image that hung in the hallway of my home while I was growing up.

My mother is fiercely independent and in the past this has caused us to have some conflicts. We once had a two hour “heated discussion” on the phone because I dared to check with her doctor to make sure that she was OK to drive after getting out of the hospital. That discussion ended in a deadlock. A couple of years later when she had to have surgery to fix a broken nose after another fall she was livid with me for asking the doctor if perhaps she should come home with us after the outpatient surgery. She had refused to, but I was worried that she might need some help. She insisted that I leave; that she’d be just fine to drive herself home. A few hours later I got a call from the hospital because she ended up being so out of it from the anesthesia that she couldn’t even leave, let alone go home by herself. I spent most of that night in a chair beside her bed. She was too out of it to ask me to leave.

Over the last year though she has slowly begun to come to terms with the realities of aging. When she gets stressed out, as she did around the time of my brother’s wedding, her already failing memory gets much worse. However, she has learned to let a lot of anxiety go. Her memory hasn’t gotten better, but I think that her increasing acceptance has actually slowed down the decline. She’s also been much more graceful about accepting a little bit of help from me.

Last night she took me to see the Chekov play “Three Sisters”. Like Dr. Sarno, who was almost a professional singer, Chekov was a doctor whose writing was a sideline to his primary avocation. He too seemed to have a pretty solid handle on the mind-body connection. The play begins on a Sunday, the day of rest. The oldest sister Olga remarks that it is a year to the day since their father has passed. It also happens to be her younger sister’s birthday. They have a long discussion, filled with hope, about their desire to move back to Moscow and Olga suddenly realizes that the headache that has plagued her all week has finally lifted.

The third sister is depressed, and neither the birthday, nor the discussion of a potential move to Moscow lightens her mode. Having spent their early years in Moscow, the sisters struggle with their fallen station in life and pine to return. Their father, an officer in the army, brought them to this smaller town a decade before and they exist in a kind of purgatory of the upper-class. They have the desire to work but do not need to work in order to survive. The other main character in this scene is an older military doctor who dotes on the young sister but struggles with his own depression. While this is a “modernist” play he acts as something of a greek chorus.

About halfway through the first act I looked down and saw Dr. Norton Hadler in the front row. Dr. handler wrote a book called “Stabbed In the Back” in which he details the problems of medicalizing back pain. We interviewed him for our film “All The Rage” and we have been using this discussion in the film. In it he points out that, “The predicaments of life are ubiquitous and universal. Learning to deal with them must be part of the definitions of health.” His point is that back pain occurs in the vast majority of us throughout our lives. When we turn that pain into a “medical problem” and go to the doctor for it, it has a tendency to makes the pain last longer. The data shows us that it’s much better to simply accept that pain, like one of the many other predicaments of life, because it too will pass. Throughout the play, as the predicaments of life, and the characters had somatic responses to them, his words ran through my head.

The play in set in pre-revolutionary Russia at the turn of the century. All of the upper class characters were highly repressive of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Each time they repressed an emotion they had a physical response. The three sisters had an older brother who remarked that he didn’t know why, but that as soon as his father passed, and he took on his father’s role in the family, he began to rapidly put on weight. An army officer has a wife whom he runs from constantly, and she continuously tries to take her own life. Each time she is saved he leaves the house as fast as he can. Every time that Olga finds herself in a position where she can’t express her feelings her head and heart threaten to explode with confusion and pain. When the youngest daughter despairs of never finding the love that she fantasizes about, she decides she’d rather die than continue a life that doesn’t meet her expectations. The doctor (Chekov?), who sees no hope in the world at all, succumbs to drink, and loses all memory of his medical training. Feeling powerless he becomes consumed by guilt and internal rage. There is no single character in the play who responds gracefully to the predicaments of life. The finale is a festival of crushed dreams and despair.

After the play as I walked my mother to her car she asked me if I enjoyed the play. It was very well staged and performed and I said so, but also remarked that the play itself was a bit hopelessly dark. In fact it was so dark that it began to border on the absurd. My mother’s favorite artist is Käthe Kollwitz, so it was no surprise to when she said “I like dark, I like sad plays.” My mother has had her share of predicaments to deal with and my father’s death after being hit by a car a decade ago is easily the greatest one.

As I said that the start, she’s a fiercely independent person. However, she relied on my father for a great deal, and it took her a long time to re-gain her footing in life. However, last night when I asked if I could turn her car around for her she allowed me to do it with only minimal resistance. In the past she might have responded to this offer as an attack on her independence. We are making progress. She’s 81 and she’s become increasingly graceful about the realities of aging. I don’t want to take away her independence. I want to help her be as independent as possible and she has finally begun to accept this, which means that more often than not she’ll accept just a little bit of help dealing with the predicaments of life.

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