Sunday, 31 May 2015

Ordinary heroes; Extraordinary strength

Nowadays, they don’t tell stories anymore. Stories about ordinary people struggling to overcome are rare. These stories do not excite much. They can’t compare with the celluloid stories on the big screen. Nowadays, it is all about the Marvel Comics heroes coming to life.  The fantastic Super-Capers saving the world. Drawn characters airbrush into our consciousness. Birdman that flies. Iron man that suits up and fires from the heart. Hawk girl with verve and great altitude. Super boy with an ill-begotten past and steely might. And the money at the movie box-office keeps churning as its story-weavers and producers get richer by the second.

But the reality we live in differs so much from these modern day urban mythologies. What materializes in our dreams and comes alive on the big screen is far remove from what each of us experience everyday. Let me share with you two tales of ordinary people struggling to overcome adversity. You can’t find any cape-crusaders with exceptional human powers in these two tales. They are no doubt true accounts as told but don’t expect their retelling to kick you off your sock or allow you to drool in wonders.

The first tale is about a boy named Thomas. You can find his story in the book “The scalpel and the soul” by Harvard neurosurgeon Allan J Hamilton MD. Thomas’ story is a tragic one. He met with an accident that changed his young little life forever. On that fateful day, he was playing with his friends when he climbed up a high tension line to enjoy the city from an elevated, perched view.

However, he lost his balance and fell and his shirt got caught in one of the high voltage towers. He was dangling in mid-air as he struggled to grab the power line. The moment he touched the power line, thousands of volts scorched his tiny body. Thomas shook convulsively and his clothes caught fire. From there, he fell 100 feet down like a flaming meteorite.

When the firefighters came, Thomas was burnt beyond recognition. Dr Hamilton, the author, described Thomas this way: “Of Thomas, there remained little that was not burned. Only the usual small patches of intact skin remained in the axillae (armpit), groin and folds of certain joints. It seemed as if every bone had been broken. Nearly all the soft organs were damaged and bleeding. No one held much hope the boy could survive. Mercy dictated that dying might have been gentler.

Thomas’ father couldn’t take the sight of his son’s body and suffered a heart attack. He died later. As for Thomas, the verdict couldn’t get any grimmer. He was practically a skinless little 10 year old. He desperately needed new skin to prevent infection in his bloodstream, which would lead to a terminal, septic coma. In a cruel twist of the plot, Thomas’ new skin was to be his late father’s.

Dr Hamilton and his team then painstakingly slice off the skin of Thomas senior and quilted it onto Thomas junior. It was literally one skin for another. The skin harvesting and transplant were heart-wrenching for Dr Hamilton to say the least. At first, Thomas did not respond well to the operation. He was still in a critical condition. When all hope seemed to flicker into oblivion, a nurse banged on Dr Hamilton’s office and stammered, “It’s Thomas…he’s…he’s trying to talk.” Dr Hamilton rushed to Thomas’ bedside and pulled a tube out of his mouth. Thomas’ first word was, “What happened to my father?

Dr Hamilton decided to hide the truth from his patient and said, “Nothing happened to your father, Thomas. He’s fine.” Thomas then replied that he saw his father. His father was just standing at the end of the bed. He even greeted his father and waved at him. It was surely one of those unexplained, unscientific moments that freaked out the hospital staff - even Dr Hamilton was speechless. When Thomas was told that his father had died three days ago, the boy said softly, “That must be his ghost then that’s waving back at me.” With that observation, Thomas soon made a stunning recovery from the horrific accident.

This story tells me that the struggles of humanity to overcome life’s trials cannot be divorced from the miracle of the unseen. We draw strength from our own hall of fame’s ordinary heroes and most of them are people dear to us. They are people who are close to us and inspire us. Their lives – whether dead or alive - give us reason to overcome and to live on with hope and purpose.

The second story is found in the book Life in the Balance written by a renowned physician Dr Thomas B. Graboys. Dr Graboys had everything going for him in his life. He was a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, a president emeritus of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation in Brookline, Massachusetts, and a senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In 1985, he was part of the team of doctors who won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

He had a beautiful and smart wife, Caroline, and two lovely daughters. But I guess you’d expect what comes next. Dr Graboys was singled out in this second story not because of his achievements, which were extraordinary by any standard, but because of the tragedy that befell on him.

At the peak of his career, Dr Graboys experienced his first loss, his wife Caroline. She endured, suffered and died of colon cancer in 1998. He was devastated. Although Dr Graboys remarried in 2002, and his life seemed to be back on track, the next loss was even more insidious than the first. Dr Graboys was diagnosed with Parkinson disease.

In his own words, he described this merciless and faceless robber of the human soul as such, “While Parkinson’s, which is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, is usually understood to be a disease characterized by loss of control over body movements, most people afflicted with the disease also experience difficulties with attention, concentration, problem-solving, concept formation, sequencing, vision, depression, and memory. But a significant portion of Parkinson’s patients – and I am one of these – have an associated degenerative disease, known as Lewy Body disease or Lewy Body dementia, which seriously impairs cognition and has other powerful side effects, such as hallucinations and violent REM sleep, that can result in injury to oneself or one’s sleeping partner. By night, I can suddenly lurch out of control; by day I feel as though I have an on-off switch that controls my brain and I am not in control of it.”

Dr Graboys struggled with everything. He took ten time longer to write a short note. He is trapped in a body that no longer fully responds to his will. He had double vision and minor hallucinations. He had to depend on others to bath, wear his clothes, eat and tie his shoelaces. He suffered from slurred speech and temporary paralysis. Even simple tasks of carrying a cup of coffee and paying for it have become a daunting challenge. He expressed his frustration in his own words: “I am angry over my losses, angry about the terrible pain and anxiety my illness has introduced into the lives of my wife and daughters, angry at the loss of much of my sexuality, angry that my young grandchildren will never know Pops without dementia, angry that it takes me twenty minutes to change a light bulb, angry that the disease has ripped apart the fabric of my life, and angry at being dependent.

Many times, Dr Graboys thought of ending his life and sparing his loved ones the agony of caring for someone who would one day treat them as perfect strangers. In fact, he was not afraid of dying, but he was “afraid of living with a mind that has been erased.” In the closing of his book, he had this advice to those who are enduring their own life-threatening illness: “Use your faith in God, if you believe in God. There were times when Caroline was ill when, for no apparent reason, I would sit in the non-denomination chapel at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, even though I am not religious person. Yet sometimes I would find comfort in prayer.

Dr Graboys passed away recently at 70 years old (Jan 2015). He fought his illness for more than a decade and fought most valiantly. From a dedicated surgeon who would give his home number to all his patients, he became a patient struggling to keep what was left of himself as the disease marched towards a certain fate. In 2012, he wrote these heart-wrenching words: “Now in the tenth year of a battle that will continue for as long as I live, I have watched as huge swaths of my abilities have calved like chunks of ice falling from a glacier into the sea. My circle of friends has shrunk, the role I used to play in family life has diminished dramatically, and my medical career is over. Control over my body is a formidable, ongoing struggle of mind over matter. As the disease progresses, my sense of myself erodes in parallel and I mourn those bits and pieces as I would the loss of a loved one.

Dr Graboys’ life (and demise) leaves no stones of disillusionment unturned for me. Life can be sheer joy and abject pain amidst living. The struggle of many like Dr Graboys is often the solitary struggle of one and readers like me only get to read about it from an arm’s length. Sometimes death is undeniably a more alluring offer to the living and it beckons with the gentle whisper of an enticement called freedom. The freedom from pain, suffering and daily humiliation. The freedom to reject waking up every morning to a cognitive (and physical) deterioration that is beyond one’s control. The freedom to not burden one’s loved ones beyond what they can take. The freedom to let go of a life that one no longer lives in or controls. But Dr Graboys defied conventional wisdom and pressed on to leave no stones of meaning and purpose unturned even as his conscious self laid wasted away.

In the Afterword of his book, this was how he concluded and how I will end here: “Personally, I have derived tremendous satisfaction from speaking to the groups of doctors, nurses, and readers who come to book stores, high schools, community centers, and hospital auditoriums to hear me struggle through a presentation that is not terribly fluid. Audiences tolerate my pauses, my disjointed words and sentences, and my sometimes inaudible voice because I think, they understand and appreciate the enormous effort it takes. And there is another reason as well: Just by showing up, I am telling them that there is hope – that even with debilitating illness, life can be both precious and meaningful. And me? Though I can no longer see patients, I get to be a doctor again.”  Ordinary heroes; extraordinary strength. Cheerz.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Can marriage survive an adultery?

When a friend recently challenged me with this question, “why can’t a man love two women at the same time? he started me thinking about whether it is possible to mentally compartmentalize monogamy and adultery so that they co-exist in a state of enduring marital bliss. Can we be faithful to two women without being unfaithful to anyone of them? Can modern marriages appreciate "multiple monogamous liaisons" without resorting to such judgmental labels like “He cheats” or “He's unfaithful” or "He can't be trusted"?

The reality is that my friend can’t leave his mistress. Or he can’t live without her.  At the same time, he can’t leave his wife either. He is in a bind. He's mentally torn. And to live without one is as good as to live without the other. He is haunted by the marriage vows and his own conscience of betrayal. So, he starts to re-shuffle the cards of marital morality, to justify his horned dilemma.

In a Playboy magazine interview in 1976, former President Jimmy Carter once made this very candid admission: “I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I’m going to do it anyhow, because I’m human and I’m tempted. And Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. Christ said, “I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery…I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do – and I have done it – and God forgives me for it.

Are the two key words in that unembellished confession “I'm human?” And are we being un-human when we project the image that we (men and women) are 100% faithful when the same is an “almost impossible standards for us”? I always wonder, are some of us living in delusional monogamy? Aren't we at some point in our marriage guilty of emotional or mental betrayal (putting physical adultery aside)?

I read that some cheating spouses even go out of their way to religiously placate their conscience by engaging in contorted definitions of adultery. To them, it is not adultery if you are doing it on a holiday or if it is a beach fling. Or if it happens when two strangers meet on a road trip or in a conference overseas. What happens in the conference stays in the conference right? It is not infidelity if the sex is driven by pure lust (as a dispassionate outlet) and no profession of love is involved during the act; or if it is paid for after an arm's length negotiation for a fair price or it is a toilet or hotel quickie. For Bill Clinton, it is not sex if there's no intercourse; so, the legal impeachment charge should fail on a technicality.

Neither is it adultery when you engage in some harmless flirting in Second Life or sign up in a social medial platform as a wife/mistress to some stranger-friend in a country whose name you can’t even pronounce. Some may even say that sexual fantasies do not count even when you are having wet dreams on the same bed where your wife sleeps. There is no physical penetration – “It’s all in the mind!” For the same reason, masturbating in the bathroom to the humping of your secretary on your office table doesn’t count too. It is all meaningless mind-sex to release some male hormonal angst, that’s all. Be open minded please!

There is even a wayward couple I read about who would undress themselves and sleep on the same bed with no physical contact just so that they could tell themselves that they are not an adulterous pair. Of course, it was only a matter of time when the no-touch rule turned into a touch-but-no-intercourse rule and then it became a touch-and-intercourse-but-must-confess-your-sin rule. And if such illicit liaisons are done with repeated regularity, the confession part becomes a form of ritual cleansing to whitewash one’s conscience so that the guilty pair can return to their self-righteous world of judgment and admonishment.

A psychoanalytic psychotherapist Brett Kahr once made this observation – the truth of which would be too taboo-ed to be admitted in public: “Many people are secretly aroused by the fact that there has been or is a third person in the bedroom. From clinical practice I know that many people will masturbate to thoughts of their spouse with the other partner and that has a multitude of meanings depending on their particular biographical histories. Some have complicated contra-sexual identifications with the male spouse, say, being excited by the idea of another penis being in his wife’s body. That can be an unconscious means of engaging in homosexual behavior, knowing that your penis and his penis were very close by in the same location.” 

Isn’t that part about “aroused by…a third person in the bedroom” some bizarre form of being faithful (having sex with your spouse) by being unfaithful (but fantasizing about another at the same time)? Alas, there is always an exception to the penalty of adultery, and that exception is the one committing the act.

So, are most of us suffering from delusional monogamy? Maybe the marriage vows - like Christ’s definition of adultery - are “some impossible standards” that are beyond our reach and the only thing forbidden about the forbidden fruit is that we are forbidden to resist it. This gives an ironic twist to the saying, “We help ourselves (to adultery) because we can’t help ourselves.

Putting the fungible self-serving definitions of adultery aside – I mean, whatever floats your love boat right? – I guess there are many reasons why we commit adultery. It is said that adultery is the most creative of sins (Anthony Burgess). One of the oft-repeated reasons is that it allows us to escape from the mundaneness or ennui of marital life (especially at a time when the wife is pregnant for the third time and the intractable children have completed their domestic coup d’-etat of the household). Infidelity allows one to live up his fantasy without limits. It is like being invited to the equivalent of Tomorrowland where you are the author and finisher of whatever that your lust fancies or serves up.

Here are other reasons for adultery as surmised by one author: “While every affair and relationship is unique there do seem to be common triggers. Affairs are often provoked by boredom, loneliness, depression, marital unhappiness and the need to spice up the ordered predictability of life with the exhilarating edge of danger. Infidelity can be motivated by childhood insecurity, anger, hate or revenge for some other marital crime. An affair can be a powerful weapon of abuse or an effective means of injecting distance into a relationship when we feel trapped, failed or unable to meet each other’s every need. We can find it so hard dealing with one person that we decide to complicate things still further by getting involved with two.” (Kate Figes, Our Cheating Hearts)

Just as we are getting more creative in our definition of adultery (thanks to the internet), we are also more intolerant of the commission of the seventh commandment. This is not a good sign trust me. Our intolerance is a result of the ideals of monogamy (the flipside of which is delusional monogamy because no one is ever lust-free). Somehow, a couple enter into holy matrimony with incredibly high expectations. They expect their partner to be unswervingly loyal and to remain that way come hell and high waters. He only has erection for me and no one else! They live their life the same way they live their marriage, planned to the very last detail, well-ordered and neatly formatted, and everything just have to be perfect. Imagine two imperfect individuals coming together in a lifetime marital stitch expecting a perfect mutual fit.

They are so hung up on the concept of soulmate that they have forgotten the humanness of their other half (and themselves). Some are so paranoid and insecure that a whiff of marital disloyalty can derail the best of explanation and intention. Their marriage is built upon the house of cards of unrealistic expectations.

As such, their idea of marriage is not practically armed or equipped to withstand the storm of infidelity. It is too idealistic, pristine and sanitized to allow for even an extramarital stain to destroy the white-washed edifice of monogamy. And should it happen, the indignity and humiliation (and shock) would be so unbearable that they can’t think of anything else but the D-word.

One author, Tim Parks, writes, “In this finely managed, career structured world we’ve worked so hard to build, with its automatic gates and hissing lawns, its comprehensive insurance policies, divorce remains one of the few catastrophes we can reasonably expect to provoke, offering a truly spectacular shipwreck. Oh to do some serious damage at last!” 

Mind you, I am not encouraging adultery here - not even by a long long shot. However, I am dealing with the aftermath of it, that is, "What to do when it happens to you?" (It is definitely not a case of "you should tempt yourself with it").

But the irony is that due to our pornified culture, erotic opportunities abound everywhere you go. Temptation is just an office colleague, a sex-phone call, or a virtual-world pornographic click away. Undoubtedly, the world has become more visually sexualized and modesty like virginity is considered a relic of the past (even frowned upon as prudes). We are seeing more cleavages, exposed thighs, seductive curves, open flirting, promiscuity amongst youths, bedroom scenes in movies, and liberal sexual mores in society (for more satisfying violent sexual gore, watch Game of Thrones). Teenage girls are no longer embarrassed or disgusted with wet kissing, heavy petting and sex scenes on television series or sitcom episodes.

Our liberal values have become more desensitized to sexual immodesty. We are no doubt more enlightened but I can’t say that we are more sure of what is right or wrong anymore. In fact, our modern values are more attuned to serving our individual tastes and satisfaction and the only person we have to please is ourselves.

For this reason, the self comes first, whether in our social environment or in the context of marriage.  And pleasure is the name of the game. Thus, good sex has become the hallmark of a good marriage (or a marriage worth holding to). And when the sex between couple has lost its luster, so goes the wandering mind scouring for other more exciting (and fresh) sexual diversions. As such, some men will inevitably stray just as a cotton tweed wore long enough will fray. And when they do, their ideal of marriage comes completely undone. The marital house of cards comes tumbling down – so to speak. In other words, the marriage is too anemic to bounce back up again. It is too pristine to be resilient. It is a one-strike-and-you-are-out mentality and we are too paralyzed to look beyond the betrayal for life after adultery. Can marriage then survive an adultery (esp. when couples are so blinded by the ideals of monogamy)?

At the start of this discussion, I mentioned about a friend of mine who loved two women and can’t live without either. He must have both because they satisfy him in different ways. One of them he adores at work for working so well with him and the other he loves at home for being his marital partner by public acknowledgment. Coincidentally, I knows his wife too. 

I recall that we talked about how she would react to the news of her husband’s infidelity. It was then just a harmless hypothetical discussion. She said that she would leave him. There was not even a moment’s hesitation about it. She said she cannot imagine a future with an unfaithful spouse. “He’s damaged goods,” she said deadpan. I then asked whether it would make any difference if he was repentant and assured her that he would cut off all ties with his mistress. I detected a pregnant pause before she replied, “I can’t see myself forgiving him.”

I guess the situation would be different when the hypothesis becomes heartbreaking reality – especially when there are young children involved and when the marriage is reasonably long and well-established. In the past, I have dealt with many divorces and I realized that the marriage was long dead before they came to me to end it. The emotional divorce (even in the absence of physical adultery) always precedes legal divorce. The point here is this, whether the couple’s sacred union can be saved when both parties still love each other enough to want to save it.

Of course, if the betraying party wants the cake and eat it, then the marriage is effectively over as it takes two to tango. But if one is truly repentant and the other is willing to forgive, I sincerely believe that no effort should be spared to save the union. There is life after adultery and a better life together even. Most times, it takes robust imagination between the parties to see a future together rather than to focus on the unchangeable past or wallow in the unbearable present.

Although every affair needs to be talked about with honesty and understanding, the one forgiving will have to look forward to a fresh new start and the one receiving the forgiveness will have to win the trust back and not expect the recovery to be an overnight affair (pun unintended). The pain will always linger and time doesn’t always completely heal the wound. It only makes it less biting and intense when it comes to its recollection. The memory of it will still bring about a dull ache as time passes on.

In the end, the couple will have to shed the ideals of monogamy (or delusion of monogamy) and be honest with each other. A marriage is about two imperfect lives joined together to confront the unpredictable and unknown – especially considering their weaknesses in the onslaught of temptation - and not two lives hoping for everything to run by some clockwork-precision event-planning. We all have our needs, physical or sexual, and although a marriage is not about having great sex, it is nevertheless about physical closeness for the purpose of intimacy and mutual growth. And this physical closeness can be an enduring kiss, a timely hug, a playful teasing in bed, a long embrace to lull each other to sleep, or a conjugal intertwining. At most times, sex – especially the 50-shades kind – can be so empty and overrated. It is also transient and superficial.

Author, Susan Cheever, once wrote this about great sex, “With a husband…, there is the delicious certainty that pleasure will be both given and received…Sex feels like a series of shared secrets, a passage through a maze leading to the most wonderful feelings available to human beings. With a long term partner, I can relax. He is not surprised by the moles on my back, nor is he self-conscious about the hair on his shoulder.” Lust should therefore bow out for love and not overwhelm love.

So there is definitely life after adultery and many couples grow even stronger after that. Many admit that their sex life is never better. Their passion is more genuine. Their understanding is deepened. Their trust restored. They do not take each other for granted as they now treasure the second chance given by one and received by the other. And it is true that a wound that has healed may leave an ugly scar, but it also tells a beautiful story of personal redemption, enduring hope, and a commitment that is prepared to fall in love with the same person over and over again. This time, it is really for a lifetime. Cheerz.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Why life can be difficult.

Why life can be difficult. Here are just three reasons for pause and reflection (amongst many of course).

1) Expectation. This is actually force-fed. I can imagine that the life of a nomad with no titles and estate to his name would be less complicated than a person living in this modern age. The seduction of status, wealth and power is endless and universal. This materialistic world will always remind us that there is more to life than being contented 
with what we have. The American dream has become the wet fantasy for many. We all expect great things and want it early in our lifetime. We cannot wait. We also do not want to labor too hard for it. If the relatively unknown can strike it big almost overnight, we can do it too. Easy cash, fast cars and swift fame have transformed our lives into an expectation-addicted society. We pitch our expectations to a cosmic-wagon. The bubbles will of course burst one day; even sooner than we think. And the majority of us will experience one 
disappointment after another. It is a reality we may not recover or learn from because one deflated expectation will readily be  replaced by another even more deluded and elastic one. This vicious cycle will go on until one day we learn to accept and embrace our present reality instead of hoping for an alternate reality fueled solely by our wishful thinking. 

2) Competition. If life is a race, then the starting point is our birth and the finishing line is our death.
 This money-driven society will never let you forget that. The moment you are born, you are placed on the assembly line to go through stages of accelerated learning and maturity. The hoops you have to jump through are numerous and your preparedness for them is secondary to what is expected of you. The expectation is mechanically processed to disregard your own pace of growth and learning in favor of the indiscriminate pace of meritocratic overdrive and materialistic 
conditioning. So, you have to make a run for it before you can even walk - to borrow an analogy. Again, you are a creature of this modern society; a product of a fast-paced, competitive society. You may of course slow down to savor life more deeply but many will unfortunately see that as an unproductive lag rather than a much deserved rest. And because the mark of success is mainly the tangible like money in the bank, academic excellence, high-society recognition 
and financial prominence, you will feel alienated when you fall short of the mark. The competition to shine is therefore incredibly intense. And the pit-stops in this race is but a transient rest for you to recharge in readiness to go faster in the next lap. It is therefore not a time for you to take stock and reflect, and possibly leave the racetrack to carve out your own pathway. This is one of the reasons why life can be difficult. And the difficulty is this neurotic need to catch up with the one ahead of you regardless the cost.
3) Unforgiveness. This makes life more than just difficult. It makes it a perpetual uphill climb; a Sisyphus task. So, we have to let go (for our own sake). There is no other way to live our life. There is no better advice. The journey will be self-sabotaging if we nurse hatred in our hearts. Nothing is in fact more damaging than to allow hate to overstay and fester. I know the deeper the cut, the harder the healing. But an open wound left to rot with time is far worse. Hatred and unforgiveness will not be satisfied with performing second-fiddle  in our life. Sooner or later, they will demand 
their majority stake. They will want full control. This is where they will start to define you. Everything you think or do will be ruled by it. Hatred will grant you the illusion of control so that it can perpetuate its hold on you. This hate will consume you most gradually unless you resolve to let it go. Forgiveness is the start of this emotional eviction (or spiritual detoxification). It will take time of course. But it is worth it. We are born with hands clasped. Let's leave with hands open. And the reward for forgiving is the freedom to live a life of authenticity and the enduring joy that comes with
 a peace of mind. Cheerz.