Friday, 16 October 2020

May I be at peace

And there was the father who shed his cynicism as he discovered the inherent kindness and generosity of the many people who helped his son when the child was diagnosed with a brain disorder: As awful as the experience was, he said, in retrospect we gained more from it, learned more about life and human nature and how many good people there are in the world. Erik, for his part, found redemption in how the hospital staff responded to Kate's survival. The redemption doesn't make the crisis worthwhile, Erik said, but it makes it worth something. These people, and others whom McAdams has studied, rate their lives as more meaningful than those who tell stories that have either no or fewer redemptive sequences. It's important to note that telling a redemptive story doesn't necessarily mean that our lives have objectively improved. Erik, for example, could have easily crafted a narrative in which Kate's accident led to even more negative outcomes. Kate gets exhausted easily in social situations and continues to have problems with depth perception as a result of her brain injury. She also lost much of her memory of life before the accident. Erik could have dwelled on all of the ways that Kate's life has gotten harder--but he didn't. He told a story that in part redeemed what happened to her. She simply stated very matter-of-factly that I hadn't done the assignment correctly. Then she looked at me squarely in the eye, unblinkingly, and said, You need to go there. At her last words, I felt strangely stunned. You need to go there. There seemed to be a reason for the stunning sensation, only I had no idea what that reason was. And where was there? After sitting in this stunned state for some time, the workshop session finished. My fellow participants and I were free to leave. Out of sheer, blind will, I managed to drag myself to walk out of the meeting room, into the dazzling heat of the midday sun. Still feeling stunned, I slowly walked alone on a path leading down the steep, dry slope of the desert mesa.

Plan B doesn't have to be second best; Remember when I said at the beginning of this article that there's always a time and a place for intervention? It would be naive to believe that we will all have the natural, drug-free, intervention-free water birth of our dreams (if, indeed, that even is your dream). Birth can be unpredictable and so too can pregnancy! No amount of relaxation practice will prevent premature rupture of membranes, or pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes or obstetric cholestasis from developing. Therefore, with so many variables that we can't control, it's essential to remain open-minded. Of course, focus on the birth you want, but know that should things need to change you will be able to navigate those changes with confidence, using your B. Ultimately, you want to be in a position to bring your baby into this world calmly and with love, feeling relaxed, respected and hugely empowered by the experience, giving yourself and your baby the best start. That is what a positive birth is! And that is what we are all aiming for. We worry and wonder the whole time which one might just jump out and frighten us, because we never know which character the gals are playing. Our wonderful neighbors certainly put the happy in happy Halloween! Decorate your pumpkins with character. Use fresh vegetables and toothpicks to fashion a face--a carrot for a nose, a cucumber slice or olives for the eyes, colorful corn or white garlic cloves for the teeth (you can glue them on), cut potato pieces for the ears, a little lettuce for the hair, and you've got the makings of a pumpkin with personality! Name these little guys and display them on your table, front porch, or on each step. Halloween was made for candles. Illuminate everything. Carve large pumpkins for a big scare, and use small pumpkins as candleholders. Scoop out the top with a melon baller to fit a taper candle. Turn the lights down low and fill the room with votive candles and taper candles of all sizes.

Emeka was in a similar situation: he could have told a story about how being paralyzed spoiled his dreams, but instead he focused on how the injury changed him for the better. The opposite of a redemptive story is what McAdams calls a contamination story. In these stories, people interpret their lives or life events as going from good to bad. One woman he studied told the story of the birth of her child, a high point in her life. But then she made a striking narrative choice: she ended the story with the death of the baby's father, who was murdered three years later. In her telling, the joy that the birth of her child brought to her life was tainted by that tragedy. People who tell contamination stories, McAdams has found, are less generative, as psychologists put it, or less driven to contribute to society and younger generations. They also tend to be more anxious and depressed, and to feel that their lives are less coherent compared to those who tell redemptive stories. Redemption and contamination stories are just two kinds of tales we can spin about our lives. Some life stories, for example, are defined by inner transformation and personal growth, while others are defined by stagnation or regression; Suddenly, halfway down the mesa, a shocking visual image emerged. I halted in mid-step. It appeared that my entire body was encased in a large, semi-transparent eggshell--or seed shell. I was inside a huge, light silverish-gray shell. And the shell was cracking all over. I had a knowing that the shell was my identity. At the same time, the bottom of my gut felt like it was dropping out. It felt like the personhood that encapsulated who I was had been broken. My identity was shattering. I felt an irrevocable destruction coming on.

I say it time and time again, but the mechanics of how a baby enters the world matter little in comparison to how the mother feels during her most significant and life-changing moment. It's the feelings (and memories of those feelings) that last a lifetime. So, when I talk about a birth plan or rather a set of birth preferences (the latter being my preferred term), it's definitely not about creating one single plan and going into birth wearing blinkers, believing that any deviation from the plan would be negative or, worse, failing in some way. Rather, I want women to go into birth with a document that they have created, in which they outline their preferences for different scenarios. Back to the power of language! The word `preferences' carries very different connotations to `plan'. Stipulating your preferences for birth suggests that there is a way that would be your preferred course of action, but that you're open to other ways should they be deemed better or become necessary. A `plan' on the other hand feels less fluid and more fixed. Within the birth preferences document, I recommend considering a few different scenarios and outlining your preferences should they occur. For example, if you're planning a home birth you would obviously outline your preferences for how you want that home birth to go, but you might also outline your preferences if you were to transfer into hospital. You can even place an illuminated pumpkin in the fireplace for a fun, eerie glow. Host a party and make ghoulish foods like deviled eyeballs, brains, and witch's brew. Deviled eyeballs are nothing more than deviled eggs with a green olive in the center for an eyeball with a small piece of pimento for the devilish red. Brains are easily concocted by scrambling eggs and adding some blue and yellow food coloring (the secret is in arranging them in the shape of an actual brain). And finally, for witch's brew you add some blue food coloring to lemonade. Bake a graveyard cake for all the ghosts and goblins in your life. Use your favorite cake mix (I like chocolate) and bake it in a nine-by-thirteen-inch pan. Ice it with chocolate frosting. Decorate the cake with crushed chocolate graham crackers for dirt, with gummy worms coming out of the icing and candy spiders and other bugs all over it. Slice marshmallows sideways to make gravestones to put the final touch on this spooky treat.

McAdams has found that beyond stories of redemption, people who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion, and agency. These stories allow individuals to craft a positive identity for themselves: they are in control of their lives, they are loved, they are progressing through life, and whatever obstacles they have encountered have been redeemed by good outcomes. The stories we tell about our lives reveal how we understand ourselves and how we interpret the way our lives have unfolded. They can also reinforce different aspects of who we are. Someone who is depressed or pessimistic, for example, may be more likely to tell a contamination story about his life--and that harmful story could lead him to feel even worse about his circumstances. But there's a way to break out of this cycle. Just because some stories give rise to more meaning than others doesn't mean that people who tell negative stories about their lives are stuck in a meaningless rut. We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we're telling them. One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise, and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts. The psychologist Michele Crossley writes that mental illness is often the result of a person's inability to tell a good story about his or her life. I did not just feel destroyed, as if experiencing an intensely distressing emotion. This was a destruction that seemed to happen beyond emotion and outside of my choice or doing. I felt much like I imagine a seedling or a chick would when it was about to emerge from its shell. The experience was absolutely astounding. I felt like an incredibly vulnerable baby animal. I was losing what had been comfortable, and there seemed to be no going back. Disoriented, I scaled down the remainder of the mesa slope and walked into the first building beyond the path. Desperate, I walked through its three rooms. My eyes were bleary, and I barely recall noticing the few people sitting inside among the article-lined walls. It appeared to be a small library.

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