The Greek philosopher, Socrates, is held to be the originator of the statement that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and, since I am always trying to understand why and what and how to lace together all the pieces of my life, I use that statement as justification for my constantly chewing over events and people. We see and are aware of so many little independent facts and the challenge is to piece these into usable knowledge – and that requires memory and attention.
Just yesterday, a simple question from a friend was so enlightening it was if I turned a switch, expecting a tiny light and the entire room was lit. She sent me a message and asked simply how I was doing emotionally. I replied, asking what made her ask that particular question.
This friend had been aware that a couple of weeks ago I had hurt my back and was struggling to get past the injury. She replied that once in the past she had been struggling with post-operative pain and that made keeping her emotional balance while dealing with her chronically ill husband very difficult.
That reply, and a book chapter I had read the night before, explained an entire string of events that had occurred the evening before.
There is a phenomenon known as ‘priming’ that describes how your memories, even seemingly inactive ones, can effect how you respond, how you think, how you act, even how you feel.
And the incident, and the explanation, goes like this:
Prior to my hurting my back, our daily caregiver would leave at 5 and I would have responsibility for caring for Jackie until bedtime.
Our evening schedules were always quite similar. I would arrange her in bed, change and clean her up and we would watch a movie together. Actually I usually pre-recorded a movie whose content would be pleasingly visual but not violent and she would watch the images and I would read. Then I would get and feed her supper, then do the dishes and get her settled for the night. It felt good, I felt useful, to be able to actually do something for her, when in the face of this disease, there was not much I could do.
Then I hurt my back, making turning, changing and moving Jackie a damaging and painful chore, so the daily care giver extended her hours and took over what Jackie and I had been doing together. Although it was a relief not to exacerbate my injury, I somehow missed the calming effect that actually caring for her physical needs, touching her skin and making her comfortable, had on me.
Jackie’s sleeping habits changed and there were two hours in the early evening when she slept so her caregiver, an intelligent, warm, experienced woman, and I would have supper together and talk. We had started talking about life’s inequities so I told her about an incident that happened to me about ten years ago. (I had actually written about the incident on my photoblog at http://lewlortonphoto.com/blog/2010/9/the-color-of-small-money )
The incident itself had always been important to me, but I had told it before as a fairly mundane example of how life is difficult for some of us and relatively easy for others. This time, partway through the story, I started to choke up and in just a few more words I was sobbing uncontrollably, crying with my face in my hands about a trivial interaction in a far off land that was over in less time than to talk about it.
Reading about my friend’s experience with pain and emotion and remembering those few paragraphs on priming from a popular psychology book made everything obvious in retrospect. My wife was getting worse, I could not help, I was cut off from the only part of care that made me feel as if I was doing something – all that was stored up inside a macho tough exterior, only to be let out by the memory of a not nearly so painful incident a decade before.
The care giver gave me a hug and left me alone. I cleared the table and did the dishes and when the care giver had gone, I was able to go sit with Jackie.
I felt clear and light and relieved and could sit and hold her hand and did not have to cry for my dying wife.