Welcome to the Shitstorm
by Rosalind Kaplan, MD
Like many people, I work actively at happiness. It isn't my natural state; in my life, happiness hasn't flown down and alit on my shoulder like a pretty butterfly. I've paid attention to the research on what actually makes people happy in the long run (for that information, try listening to The Happiness Lab podcast with Dr. Laurie Santos). One of the 'happiness hacks' I use is writing in a gratitude journal. Okay, yes, it sounds sappy and trite, but the evidence for it exists. So I list what I'm grateful for each day. Sometimes it's really little stuff--the ice cream I ate or how soft my blanket is, and other entries are the big things--purpose in life, my partner, the fact that really great books exist and I can read them.
The last couple weeks, it's been hard to feel grateful. We- me and my husband, and our more extended family- are riding out a shitstorm. An imminently dying elderly parent, an adult child with a medical issue, a broken bone, crazy work transitions-- all on the heels of another death in the family, a cancer diagnosis, surgery, and covid (I'm being intentionally vague on whose parent, whose cancer, etc-- some things are private, even for a writer of memoir). It has felt, recently, that every day brings new adversity and I worry that we will run out of resilience, as though it is a commodity and not a personal characteristic. Navigating all the shit in this storm feels quite perilous.
I try to remember my privilege, and that, despite all these negative personal events, we are lucky. The dying parent has lived a long and good life. The medical issues are manageable, the broken bone will heal, and work, even if it is stressful and chaotic, still pays the bills.
Even the cancer has turned the corner in a positive way, and though, as physicians, we are still seeing covid, we didn't lose anyone close to us to the virus, and nobody in my immediate sphere has been seriously ill with it. Things could be much worse. We could live in the Ukraine. We could be one of the many, many families affected by the increase in gun violence or the worsening of the opioid crisis, but we're not. I try to remember this, to be grateful, but sometimes it feels a little bit Pollyanna.
The recent events in our lives feel very heavy, and I don't think we can fault ourselves for feeling sad and stressed and dysfunctional in the face of all of it. The reminder that we are next in the line of mortality if the 'natural order' prevails is enough in itself. This year, 2022, is also the year I turn 62-- the age my mother was when she died. I wish I could say something to myself like, 'Well, she had cancer, or she had heart disease...', diagnoses I myself don't carry. But I can't, because she died suddenly and inexplicably. Of course, I have no reason to believe that I will suffer the same fate, but there is some strange magical thinking that has me believing I might. I mean, I also have no evidence to back up the assertion that I won't.
There but for the grace of God...but wait, I'm not really a believer.
I wish I did believe in God, or at least in a higher power that would make sense out of suffering and death. My higher power is not at all concrete, and it doesn't answer my questions. The longer I live, the less sense it all makes, but for some reason, the more I still feel hopeful.
All I can say is that I plan to live through this year, and this birthday, and many more birthdays. And I plan for our lives to cease being a shitstorm in the near future. Of course, at this point, my plan is merely a hope, an unwarranted optimism. I will name it Pollyanna. I am grateful for it.