- Karl Thunemann
O! O! An Aggravating Blessing
Turning to the first of the “four contemplations” offered by LoJong slogan #1, I quickly discover myself on the ropes, like an overmatched boxer with no place to go. Not at first, of course. Only a sour person would take exception to such a fine platitude as “recognize the rarity and preciousness of human life.” That is the first of the “Four Thoughts.” May I strive not to avoid being sour!
One is supposed to begin every LoJong session by working with the four preliminaries. I did this for a few days with no particular effect, cutting myself some slack because I was a beginner at this practice. And then I awoke in the wee hours one day to a visual and aural phenomenon. Two definite O’s—just like those in the title of this essay. An anguished, high-pitched voice gave them an aural patina. They exploded in quick succession—white letters on a black background.
… though without, of course, the exclamation points. At first I could make nothing of it, except to suppose that the dramatic presentation meant this was very serious. A generalized anxiety enveloped me over the next few days. But it took a while to connect this angst with a rare recent experience: three falls at home. These falls were minor, with no consequence other than a few days of achy tightness. But they were my first falls in about 20 months, an evident reminder that I had lost touch with Thich Naht Hanh’s injunction: Arrive with every step.
I soldiered on with my practice until a distinct impression overwhelmed me. I am not a Buddhist, but through years of Buddhist-based meditations I had supposed there was an implicit message that to be human was to be damaged and fallible; only through meditation and discipline could this estate be modified. I do not think I truly believe that, but this message from my unconscious begs to differ.
I suggested to my counselor that perhaps we should be doing some more serious therapy, not engaging in friendly chats as had been the case for several weeks. And we should start with my aggravating response to “the rarity and preciousness of human life.” I told her that my inner life had focused more on what struck me as “the Unholy Trinity.” These were not news to her. In studying James Hillman’s classic Healing Fiction several years ago I had fleshed out a story that seemed to account for each of the Unholy Three.
All have roots in my early childhood. And my early disdain—is that the right word? —for my human body was the first to command my consciousness. Although I have no memory of being born with cerebral palsy, it became a central part of my existence early on. My father was away in the Army until I was past two, and when he returned, we did not bond well. He was ashamed of me. He was young and athletic, and probably felt he didn’t deserve this shackle. So he bullied me, sending me along a path that made me vulnerable to bullies. During my career as a journalist I had the opportunity to work for a number of bullies, and I did not fare well with them. In mid-life I sought help and was lucky enough to discover helpful professionals and friends (some were both!) who helped me learn ways to cope with this. My Feldenkrais teacher helped me overcome shame about my body, and when I decided I wanted to learn solo performance, she sent me along to another person who helped open that door.
I must interject here that my father softened over his last 20 years of his life. I once observed that I had difficulty descending the stairs at his new house because there was no railing to grasp with my right hand. The next time I visited, a beautiful brass railing had been installed. And in the end he made gracious amends, perhaps a challenging task for someone in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease.
For a time I thought I had completely reversed my body image. But as time wears on, and my body wears out, something is recurring. This is speculation, but I would say the notation—O! O! –is an effort to summon my attention. It is not a journey back to the agonies of youth. I no longer feel ashamed of my appearance, whether shuffling through a crosswalk or standing to speak at a gathering. But serious matters are at hand.
Now I wonder about this boy. … He would be in his mid-70s. Was he able to avoid PPS? …His name is not uncommon. An internet service said California alone had 17 people with that name. I dropped my search as unrealistic.
The other day I had a visitor from that long ago past. I was meditating and sending loving-kindness to a pair of friends who are living with post-polio syndrome. They both had polio in their youth. They seemed to have made full recoveries, and yet in late middle age post-polio syndrome assiduously began to assert itself in their lives. Both have continued on heroically. And as I sat sending loving-kindness to my friends, I thought of a childhood acquaintance who had a mild attack of polio when he was 10 or 11.
He recovered quickly and was treated at the same county school for the disabled where I received physical therapy as an outpatient. The school had a stationary bike, and the staff kept a visible public record of times recorded by each student. I was inordinately proud of recording the best times. But when my acquaintance showed up, he quickly eclipsed my “fastest” times. I felt humiliated. Internally, I had used every trick I could imagine to separate myself from others at the school. And now I was lumped with the also-pedaleds.
Now I wonder about this boy. Is he still alive? He would be in his mid-70s. Was he able to avoid PPS? I tried looking him up online. His name is not uncommon. An internet service said California alone had 17 people with that name. I dropped my search as unrealistic. If he is still alive and I succeeded in contacting him, what would/could I say? We were only acquaintances. Far better to send loving-kindness from afar.
I begin to question how this side trip has made its way into this narrative. Shouldn’t this side trip stand on its own, or be overlooked entirely? No: The manner in which this memory popped up testifies to how the world of O! O! works. It honors no boundaries. It does not accept injunctions aimed at limiting its authority.
So these two stories belong together, and I must find my way to make my peace with them, however troubled it may seem. And so you might ask, what about the second and third entities of the Unholy Trinity, impatiently awaiting their turn? Well, it will not come today. I cannot speak for tomorrow.
And because this is a gratitude blog, to whom and for what am I thankful? Astonishingly enough, I must thank the LoJong sloganeers for turning my attention to subjects I would have preferred to ignore. And I feel gratitude toward my friends for the example they have set. And may it be with a sense of gratitude that I continue to pay heed to these mysterious slogans.
Blogger’s note. Want to know more about post-polio syndrome? A good place to start is Post-Polio Syndrome Fact Sheet | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (nih.gov)