It’s the Little Things That Make a Difference


A few months ago, Bonnie had a bit of a rough day. Admittedly, that description doesn’t really narrow things down much, but I don’t remember the exact circumstances. She was probably frustrated or feeling overwhelmed. As we were sitting in bed, I was messing around on the computer, and she was looking at her phone (don’t judge. You can’t have a deep conversation every night). Anyway, I came across some youtube videos that had us both laughing our heads off. The only one I can remember specifically is the one at the top.

In the grand scheme of things, there’s probably not a lot of value in the massive number of ridiculous, mindless videos on the internet, but a good laugh was something we both needed. I think there’s a kind of beauty to the idea that even something silly and small can be just what someone needs.

This sort of thing translates very well into a good approach when we’re trying to offer comfort to those who are struggling. People often ask Bonnie and me what they can do, looking for some big (or small) way that they can change our lives for the better. While there have been a few instances where we needed a big thing (moving comes to mind), the truth is that there usually isn’t anything they can do to actually change our situation. Most of the time that will be the case. Instead, the things that I remember and the things that mean a lot to me are usually the small things:

– People saying hi to me – not the “pity-eyes” sort of greeting, but a real friendly hello.

– People who talk about things other than cancer, college and kids. (I considered spelling all three of those with a “k” so they would underscore the alliteration, but that would make an unfortunate acronym).

– Basically anyone who acts like I’m still a normal person and not a project.

In essence, I’m finding that small gestures make a difference. As I was writing this, I remembered a story that President Eyring told in the Oct. 2010 general conference:

Once I was at the hospital bedside of my father as he seemed near death. I heard a commotion among the nurses in the hallway. Suddenly, President Spencer W. Kimball walked into the room and sat in a chair on the opposite side of the bed from me. I thought to myself, “Now here is my chance to watch and listen to a master at going to those in pain and suffering.”

President Kimball said a few words of greeting, asked my father if he had received a priesthood blessing, and then, when Dad said that he had, the prophet sat back in his chair.

I waited for a demonstration of the comforting skills I felt I lacked and so much needed. After perhaps five minutes of watching the two of them simply smiling silently at each other, I saw President Kimball rise and say, “Henry, I think I’ll go before we tire you.”

“I thought I had missed the lesson, but it came later. In a quiet moment with Dad after he recovered enough to go home, our conversation turned to the visit by President Kimball. Dad said quietly, “Of all the visits I had, that visit I had from him lifted my spirits the most.”

I think I finally get this story. President Kimball didn’t come in trying to say the right thing. He wasn’t there with some idea about the perfect thing to say to buoy up Henry’s spirit and faith. He also didn’t make him give detailed explanations of his diagnosis and condition. He just came as a friend to see someone that he cared about.

Update on Bonnie

george-michael gif

I feel you, George Michael.

It’s been a long, stressful day. Bonnie wasn’t feeling very good last night, so she was up a lot. That translated into oversleeping for her doctor’s appointment. It’s always nice to start the day out right.

More importantly, it’s looking like her current course of treatment just isn’t managing the symptoms the way that we would like. Bonnie has been falling down a lot and her balance is really impaired, so we’re going to be switching to something more aggressive. At this point, Bonnie’s condition makes her such an outlier that there’s not really a proscribed course of treatment, so it feels a little bit like both we and our doctor are shooting in the dark.

We’re going to try a really high dose of the medicine that she’s on, which will involve some pretty serious time in the hospital. So that’s not going to be fun for anyone.

We also had a visit to the physical therapist, who basically said that there’s not much that he can do to fix things (not really surprising), but he gave us some strengthening exercises for Bonnie to do.

When I write it all down, it doesn’t sound like that much, but I just feel totally mentally spent. It’s the cancer anxiety. You just sit around waiting constantly for something to go wrong. It’s like your brain is stretched out too thin, or you’ve got this constant feeling of falling but you never hit the ground. Then when you get more bad news you just don’t have the energy to process it because of all the energy you spend keeping it together on a normal day.

That’s probably enough whining from me. I still have a great little family, and I’m sitting here watching a little show with L and R while I type this, so the day is not all bad. Even when things go poorly, it’s always nice to get a chance to sit around with the kids at the end of the day. But if you see my lying on the floor, you’ll know why.

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.

Let’s start with a depressing post

IMG_1206My wife is dying and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I’m sitting in the hospital this morning, waiting for her to finish a procedure where they inject chemotherapy drugs directly into her spinal cord to try and slow down the progression of the disease. It’s a treatment which no one even expects to work. The best we’re looking at is buying more time.

She’s 27 and she’s dying of breast cancer.

It’s been a little surreal this last week. On Friday, it was our sixth wedding anniversary. Bonnie called the doctor to get the results of a fairly routine scan. She’s been undergoing cancer treatments for the last year and a half, but we were supposed to be done with aggressive treatments for a while. Instead of the “all clear” that we were expecting, the doctor told her that he wanted both of us to come in on Monday to talk with him. That of course made for a nice, stress-free weekend while we tried not to think about all the things that could be going wrong.

My typical stress-relief strategy of “what’s the worst that can happen?” was useless in that context.

And then of course he gave us the news. That whole situation deserves its own post, so I’ll give you the short version. The cancer has spread all through her spine and part of her skull. It’s pushing on her central nervous system and there’s really no effective way for us to kill it at this point.

When you’re facing the death of a spouse, there are a lot of ugly words. Even words that didn’t sound so bad before have become really ugly:

metastasized

shunt

single parent

leave of absence

hardship exception

widower

One of the most frustrating things about this whole thing is that the grief doesn’t even get to be private for any amount of time. The day we found out about the prognosis we had to start making arrangements. Bonnie called her family, I called mine. I had to start talking to my school, Bonnie had to start working on the insurance. There’s not enough time for grief or silence, for just being alone with each other. The pain is immediately trotted out and shared with the whole world. People want to be supportive and they stop by and call and ask invasive questions, but I wish we could have had just a day or two with each other.

Cancer is a jerk.

People keep asking me how I’m doing, and I keep saying that I’m fine. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to process this situation, much less explain it to anyone else. So in lieu of actually talking to anyone who is physically here, I’d rather just send some thoughts out onto the internet. The internet is like therapy with more cowbell.

I think that’s the reason I decided to start this blog. I need to talk or vent or whatever and the internet seems to have an unlimited capacity for absorbing that sort of thing. Thanks, Internet.