A person in my household is beginning puberty and has requested we not use "that P-word." This person prefers disoriented. In my day we were defined as klutzy dingbats with raging hormones, incapable of taking accurate phone messages for our parents. It was all just plain embarrassing. Disoriented has some dignity to it.
With unarmed teenagers being shot, unconscionable battles across the globe and ebola on the rise, it's easy to envision humanity as a sputtering bonfire rapidly turning to ash pit. The other popular interpretation is to measure our cultural well-being by innumerable useless standards: prowess in sports, sassy designer shoes or most ludicrous reality shows involving fear of clowns. And then we collectively mope on social media at the hopeless irrelevance of it all by posting never-ending variations of a kitty, claws deep in a tree branch.
"Hang in there, y'all. We'll get 'em in the next World Cup, amateur dance-off or world war!"
Death or irrelevance is a nonsense dualism leaving us bereft, confused and wondering why on a good day we feel like Spongebob in an M.C. Escher maze. After a week like we've just had, now seems a good time to choose disoriented instead. On any medical website when you type in disoriented they all say the same thing: Get your vitals checked.
When we walk into a clinic we're measured by four vital signs: temperature, blood pressure, pulse and respiratory rate. Improved diagnostics of comfort use physical pain as the fifth vital sign. Our shared disorientation isn't due to any of those. Our trouble is with my choice for the sixth vital sign: personal control. Yes, I made it up, but after nearly 20 years caring for the hurts that medicine can't fix, I believe we're all governed more by control than we know.
Anxiety, depression, and much of the unspoken misery that takes us to clinics, emergency rooms and doctors' offices are in need of an examination of a vital sign. But medicine has no answers. This falls in the purview of neighbors, family, friends and acquaintances. This past week it also came in the reflections after the death of Robin Williams by his own hand.
Few of us know the depth of despair that leads to suicide. More of us can relate to clinical depression and addiction, if not through our own lives then through that of a loved one. But all of us should know that the comedian isn't always laughing. Photos and video from the past 30 years show the loss, the fear, the hard work in Williams' eyes. The appeal of his mask was that the eyes always told the truth. What we saw in those eyes, we knew was within us. To forget that Williams was wearing a mask for our entertainment and his vocation is to fool ourselves into thinking we aren't also wearing one.
We live behind freakishly calm masks of control for so long that we come to believe they're our own skin and are emotionally devastated when a chunk of papier-mâché plops into our soup at an upscale social event. When we diminish the disorientation brought on by the transitions and losses in life by keeping calm, smiling on or zoning out, we miss the fact that we aren't always in control. And that loss of control is fine.
A person in my shoes once went through a wee midlife crisis and took up hula-hooping. I prefer to say I saw the light of losing some of my sense of goofy-eyed wonder, but I, too, was disoriented. I had in mind what my life would be like and yet the Grammys, MacArthur Fellowship and the Roller Derby Hall of Fame had passed me over simply because I'd never made an album, become an artist or popped on the eight wheels other than at the Old School skate with my rug rats. If not down the road to realization of my childhood dreams, where was I going — irrelevance or death? There are a lot more options, truly.
My work is with the commonly lost: people who are angry, frustrated, heartbroken and wondering how their lives ended up where they are now. These aren't people locked away in prison for life, nor the clinically depressed, nor the people who live on the streets — all of whom have known the unspeakable. The commonly lost have an abundance of positives in their lives — a social circle, reasonably secure jobs and abundant nutrition. Unfortunately our blessings often blind us to our resilience. We become so comfortable, so controlled, that when natural change hits we're disoriented and become certain that this is a problem needing fixing when we need to let life be life.
Life never lets us stay in control for long. We teeter from the wobbly confusion of puberty, the mixed emotions of living on one's own, the fear of commitment, loneliness, the agony of grief, the frustration of diminished health — spinning and tripping along the decades. But control isn't the answer last week, this week or any week. We can be lost and afraid and still move ahead. We can suffer and triumph. We can laugh with tears in our eyes. It's how we are made and we are disoriented together. S
Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.
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