O were my love yon Lilac fair…

Bonnie and Me Lilacs

Bonnie and me looking younger and thinner…

By now I assume that anyone reading this already knows that Bonnie passed away ten days ago. We had the funeral Wednesday, and I still feel like I’m trying to process everything. I expect that feeling will persist for months or even years. I had a long time to plan and prepare for this, but it’s still totally devastating and life-altering.

It’s what I imagine losing a limb would be like. You keep expecting it to be there. If you’re not thinking about it you sometimes forget that it’s gone. I’ve heard of people having a phantom pain in a missing limb, and I think they might have some idea what it’s like to wake up and look over to Bonnie’s side of the bed and remember that she’s not there anymore–that she won’t be there ever again. A part of me is gone, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel completely whole again.

I do believe in the resurrection. Life would be too pointless and cruel without it. However, that belief doesn’t seem to mean that I’m spared from the pain of loss. As with most things in my life, art and music seem to be the most readily available sources of comfort. I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem by Robert Burns, so I thought I’d share it:

O were my love yon Lilac fair,
Wi’ purple blossoms to the Spring,
And I, a bird to shelter there,
When wearied on my little wing!
How I wad mourn when it was torn
By Autumn wild, and Winter rude!
But I wad sing on wanton wing,
When youthfu’ May its bloom renew’d.

That’s only the first stanza, but it’s the one I like the best. I don’t actually know if Robert Burns was religious or not, but if my excessive time in academia has taught me anything, it’s that any one thing can mean any other thing if you want it to. So for me this makes me think of the resurrection. I love the imagery of separation and reunion in the poem. I can identify with the bird being cut off from its shelter through the rude winter, and, like the bird, singing will be high up on my list when I see my fair lilac once again.

Thankful Thursday 7 – MIB

I’ve been slacking off with my posts lately. I think Zed’s describes me missing so many Thursdays in a row well.

A few weeks ago my sister got married to a great guy (congrats again Linda and Jared). It’s always fun to see people get married. There’s an excitement and a sense of potential that can easily get lost as we move through life and get down to the business of actually being married.

I have to confess, I don’t remember much of anything about our wedding day. I don’t really remember what people wore. I don’t remember the ceremony at all. Basically it’s all a giant blur with occasional moments that stick out like snapshots.

As I’ve been reflecting on this for the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by how our wedding day is both completely essential and totally inconsequential. On the one hand, our covenants are eternal and have given Bonnie and me a lot of comfort as we’ve tried to deal with her illness. On the other hand, the actual day of our wedding is totally irrelevant. It could have been any day of the week, any time of the year and it still would have been just as effective. We could have had a tiny reception with just family and close friends or a huge party where the whole city was invited. The thing that really matters is what happened in the temple when we were sealed.

Today I’m grateful for marriage and temples. I’m grateful for Bonnie, and I’m especially grateful for the covenant that we made to each other.

Bonus Picture:


L and R looked awesome in their wedding clothes, which I totally picked out.

Remote Misses, Eustress, and My Kids

Full Disclosure: This is an affiliate link to Amazon. But it’s an awesome book and totally worth your time to read.

On our drive out to Utah, Bonnie read aloud to me some of the time. The book we read was Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. It’s a thought-provoking book that explores why people or groups often succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. In particular, he looks at how things that at first glance are disadvantages can become tremendous strengths.

There is a web of related concepts from the book that I’ve been thinking about. For instance, he introduces the idea of “near misses” and “remote misses.” (Much of this next section is me paraphrasing and summarizing from Ch. 5) This terminology comes from the work of J. T. MacCurdy, who studied the psychological effects of the London bombings during WWII. In particular, MacCurdy was trying to figure out why the bombings didn’t cause mass panic and hysteria, but were instead met with an indomitable resolve among the British.

He theorized that when a bomb falls, it divides people into three groups: casualties, near misses, and remote misses.

Casualties got hit. They don’t really affect morale because morale “depends on the reaction of the survivors.”

Near misses feel the blast, they see the devastation, they might even be injured. For them the blast is a deeply traumatic event. Their morale is very low.

Remote misses have the opposite experience. For them, the bomb hits some distance away, so they hear sirens and maybe even hear some explosions, but they aren’t really confronted first-hand with the devastation. After experiencing several remote misses, they get a feeling of invincibility. On some level, after a person emerges unscathed from the experience of their worst fear, nothing else seems so bad.

Gladwell ties all of this discussion into the idea of “desirable difficulty.” Essentially, not all difficulties are bad. They can act to make us stronger, better people as we overcome or compensate for them.

To use an example from my own life, I was cast in one of the lead roles of the high school version of Les Miserables when I was 18. It was the summer after my senior year, and I had never done a stage show in my life. I had never even taken an acting class. The director would say things like “take a few steps upstage” (an incredibly simple stage direction) and I would frantically look over at my friend who would point to where she wanted me to go. I just had no idea what I was doing. However, by the end of that experience, I had gotten a nice crash course in basic stagecraft that was incredibly useful to me during my degree in vocal performance. The experience was very hard at the beginning but it offered me to opportunity to experience tremendous growth.
The ideas that Gladwell discusses remind me of some of the psychology and physiology classes that I’ve taken. There’s a concept that comes up called “eustress.” Basically, it means stress that is good or beneficial, as opposed to “distress,” which encompasses all of the negative effects of stress.

The source of the stress can be anything, it’s the response to the stress that matters. Do you perceive the stress as something positive or something negative? A difficult challenge, or a dangerous threat? Deadlines are a good example of a stressor that can cause either eustress or distress. For me, a looming deadline is usually a huge boon to productivity, but there have been a few times where I’ve been totally overwhelmed, and that deadline has caused paralyzing worry and fear.

I use these ideas when I’m teaching voice a lot. I think Gladwell touched on this in his book, but that’s not where I first encountered it. Basically, if you imagine your mental state as a continuum with boredom at one end and feeling overwhelmed at the other end, then you want to try to keep students in the middle so they’re challenged but not overwhelmed. If you can keep your students in that zone, they’ll enjoy themselves and learn a lot too. If you go too far to either end, then both learning and enjoyment take a nose-dive.

Returning to Gladwell’s book, he has a long section about children who have lost their parents-fairly pertinent reading for Bonnie and me right now. He cites a variety of studies which suggest that a strikingly disproportionate number of extremely successful people lost one or both parents in their youth and childhood. In that same vein though, a striking number of convicts also lost one or both parents early on in their lives.

So after reading and thinking about all of this, I am left with several unanswered questions. If my kids lose their mother, what do I do to help them emerge from that difficultly as stronger, better individuals? I don’t think you can reasonably call the death of a parent a desirable difficulty, but there must be some way for something good to come out of all of this. I like the analogy of the near misses and remote misses, but this is different. It’s like trying to turn a casualty into a remote miss. How do you do that? How do you pull your kids out of the path of an incoming bomb? How do you patch them up once they’ve been hit? These are the questions that actually matter, and I have no idea how to answer them.

What does faith look like?

a-gattaca-1I’ve been thinking a lot about faith in this situation. How exactly do you go about having faith when faced with a terminal illness? I am a great believer in both religion and modern medicine, but in this case there is some clashing between the two narratives.

I believe in a religion where miracles can and do happen. I want to be open to that possibility. However, I also believe that usually what the doctors say is what happens.

How then can I exercise faith while still dealing with the medical facts. There are two approaches that I see people use, and both have advantages and drawbacks.

The first approach might be what I would call the “Gattaca approach.” Gattaca is a cool sci-fi movie where genetic engineering of humans is the norm. The main character (Vincent) was not engineered, but his brother (Anton) was.

*spoiler alert* (although really, the movie is like fifteen years old. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler.)

The brothers compete constantly but the younger Anton always wins. Years later they meet up as adults and try to swim across this big body of water that they used to swim in. In this final competition, Anton gives up before Vincent and has to be rescued. Anton asks Vincent how he did it and Vincent says, “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.”

I think for some people this is the kind of faith that they use. Or maybe I should say that this is the way they approach faith. It’s an all or nothing proposition. This would mean that I would have to believe that the doctors are all wrong because God is going to intercede and heal Bonnie miraculously. This would be fantastic if it happened, and there are lots of examples where this kind of belief payed off for people. When that happens, it can be a tremendous source of strength and inspiration. I think this is the kind of faith that let some of the prophets experience the kind of rejection that they went through and still remain faithful.

Unfortunately it can cause all sorts of distress. Sometimes even with all the faith you can muster, the thing you want doesn’t happen. What happens to your faith then? By single-mindedly focusing on one outcome, you’ve left yourself without a safety net, and you’re unprepared for the result. At it’s worst this kind of faith smacks of pride because you’re dictating to God what the outcome should be; nothing else is acceptable.

On the other side of things, there’s the more academic approach. I think these people believe in the idea of miracles, but they don’t believe or expect that miracles happen for them. Or they tend to intellectualize things too much and say that “if people had all the facts, then it wouldn’t even seem like a miracle. We would have predicted it.” These people tend to latch on to the idea that miracles operate by natural laws, even if we don’t understand all the laws yet.

This approach is appealing because it allows you to prepare yourself for the worst outcomes. Mentally taking the time to process and plan for the future is essential. It is also a good approach because most of the time the miraculous healing doesn’t happen. If it did, it wouldn’t be miraculous.

However, I’m not totally comfortable with this approach because of the way that it glorifies human intellect at the expense of God’s power. It doesn’t seem to leave any room at all for the miraculous. If you’ve decided that death is the foregone conclusion, then why would God step in and change that? Miracles work by faith, I don’t see how this approach exercises any.

As I thought about this issue, I remember one of the best conference talks that I’ve ever heard. It’s a talk called “But if not…” by Dennis E. Simmons from the April 2004 conference.

In the talk he tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They refuse to worship an idol, and for this they are about to be thrown into a fiery furnace. In response to the king’s taunt about their God, they reply, “If it be so [if you cast us into the furnace], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand. But if not, … we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

I think the “but if not” statement is the thing that combines these two approaches. There is a wholehearted trust that God can perform miracles, that he can intervene and save us. But perhaps more importantly there is a wholehearted determination to serve the Lord. That’s the attitude that I need to develop.

I think the last two paragraphs of the talk express this the best:

“Our God will deliver us from ridicule and persecution, but if not. … Our God will deliver us from sickness and disease, but if not … . He will deliver us from loneliness, depression, or fear, but if not. … Our God will deliver us from threats, accusations, and insecurity, but if not. … He will deliver us from death or impairment of loved ones, but if not, … we will trust in the Lord.

“Our God will see that we receive justice and fairness, but if not. … He will make sure that we are loved and recognized, but if not. … We will receive a perfect companion and righteous and obedient children, but if not, … we will have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that if we do all we can do, we will, in His time and in His way, be delivered and receive all that He has.”

I couldn’t say it better myself. I know that God will deliver Bonnie from her cancer, but if not I’ll still serve Him.

How do you rationally approach your worst fears?

scylla-and-charybdis-bookpalaceI’m sitting in the hospital right now waiting while Bonnie undergoes a surgical procedure to make her treatments more convenient. My situation-my whole life-feels a little surreal. Cancer creates a lot of havoc in your life, but one thing that I never thought about is how strangely it forces you to deal with really horrible possibilities.

Last night as we were preparing for the surgery, Bonnie and I got talking about living will/end of life issues.

A: So you’ve said that you want a DNR (do not resuscitate) order later when we’re in Utah. What about tomorrow? What if you’re one of the statistically minuscule number of people who have serious complications in this surgery?

B: Tomorrow I definitely want to be resuscitated. I want to see all of our family.

A: Okay, what if you’re in a coma or something?

B: If my brain is dead, then let me die. That’s fine. I don’t really want to be kept alive if I’m a vegetable.

A: What about if you’re not a vegetable, but you have major personality changes or you lose like fifty or sixty IQ points? Should they take extraordinary effort to keep you alive at that point?

B: I have no idea. Do what you think is best.

A: Thanks. That sounds like a really fun decision to make.

Now take a second and think about this conversation. Really think about it. It’s horrible. Everything about it is horrible. Bonnie is discussing the imminent possibility of her own death or disability, and I’m talking about the possibility of losing the most important person in the world. Not just losing her, but of actually making the decision not to save her life. This is not a conversation that anyone ever wants to have, much less when they’re not even thirty.

This cancer just robs you of so many little things. There are so many injustices and indignities that Bonnie has to go through, while I sit helplessly on the sidelines, unable to protect her from the one thing from which she really needs protecting.

I think what really drives me crazy about this whole situation is that fact that I have to be relatively composed and calm about the actual decision. I have to be rational, because the only decision that I want control over-the only decision that really matters to me-is out of my hands. I can’t say, “I’ve decided that you’ll live and everything will be fine.” Once that’s gone, there are only bad decisions.

Choosing from a bunch of bad choices doesn’t feel like a choice at all.