Unlearning kindness

When I was a child of about seven living on Long Island’s North Shore, I remember riding my bicycle to the end of a sanded street at the back of a local school. It was a crisp winter day, with a towering pile of dirty brown snow plowed weeks before serving as the rally point for a search. I was helping several adult neighbors look for a toddler who had gone missing, a frantic scramble that was quickly resolved–he  had merely wandered off a block or two.

A surge of young pride filled my chest as a grownup thanked me for my efforts, followed closely by a profound emptiness. I would not receive any tangible reward, not from the neighbor or my parents, not even from a still omniscient Santa Claus, a figure whose mystery I only recently had come to know was a parental invention.

A nagging question hung over me with troubling implications, “why be kind”? I resisted acting on the uncertainty, and it grew stale and powerless as the decades passed.

Why be kind? Why make minor daily sacrifices for outcomes which will probably never circle back? Perhaps it is a heart-driven response. Maybe those of us naturally on the sensitive side have no choice, but I think not.

The machinations of society’s contrived priorities pressure the ego into a belief system of benefit, revenge, and competitive notoriety. However, once societal pressure is recognized as an artificial manifestation, maybe humanity’s natural inclination is to return to kindness.

Unlearning society’s taught path to kindness by overcoming the obstacles of greed, fame, and legacy may seem counter-intuitive, trite or tiresome. But it need not be so complicated. To a seven-year-old, just doing what’s right makes all the sense in the world.

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Folly and detour.

One of my most valued considerations of the past several years is an attempt to overcome unconscious prejudices, both the rigidly intellectual and gut-wrenching societal connections expressed through the judging of others. Not only am I not in a position to judge (nobody is), but I also believe that judging others severely limits potential insight into the great bottomless pit of human nature.

How do I know if I’m successful? The reality is that I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t try my hardest, categorizing perceived conclusions along the sprawling vista of unknowns that haunt common humanity. This means not accepting that any part of me is unchangeable, a lesson that, again, should be exceedingly familiar given my circumstances with Parkinson’s disease, but seems to be relearned with Sisyphus-like repetition.

The corollary to this is to return to my pre-DBS surgery state of being, of not accepting or caring about what others might say or feel about me. This has turned out to be an even harder nut to crack. Vanity fills life’s voids like water seeks lower ground, seeping into each crack in our thin veneer of identity-armor and corroding from the inside. To be defined by others is to succumb to life’s misery, never recognizing the attendant joy that rides along nose-to-nose with despair.

Why is it so difficult to honestly disregard what others say or think of you? Is it due to the intrinsic confusion of existing, of accepting that you are as aware and enlightened as anyone else, or at least could be; to succumb to life’s ultimate vanity? And so, the circle distorts into a looping sphere of folly and detour, as we move through the world re-learning the same lessons over and over again.

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Something for nothing.

Yesterday, Rob Wilson—one of the lost Intruder technical divers—and I went Dragonfly-sonar searching for a vessel of some sort that we are not certain even exists. We found nothing on the sea bottom but had solidly real conversation from which I believe we both learned. It’s always a positive alchemy of the soul when one can make something out of nothing.

As I continue to attempt to weave 56 years of memory into a cogent pattern, something that makes sense, I realize that it is from the depths of darkness, from the absence of information and light and hope, that “peak experiences” (coined by Maslow; defined here by me) emerge and brand us with surreal truth.

The intensity of my two most peak of experiences still haunt and thrill with life’s ultimate vitality, that of narrowly averted death. Being lost deep inside the Andrea Doria’s First Class dining room, fighting to find an escape was the first, occurring when I was just 21 years old in 1983. The second, in 1991, happened while flying on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger’s first strike into Iraq, a night low-level A-6 Intruder mission where the darkness was interrupted only by ubiquitous tracers and surface-to-air missile plumes.

The common thread of darkness does not escape me, a void of knowledge, certainty, fact or logic.

Yet, as terrifying as each experience was, they are what I identify with the most as “who I fundamentally am (or at least was),” and this memory somehow reassures. From each, I emerged from darkness slightly more insightful.

Gaining “something from nothing” is intuitively sought after in today’s world. But maybe it is only after we stop actively searching for such an experience that it might grace our door.

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Ground Hog day all over again…

Parkinson’s disease is complex, difficult to explain, and often unpredictable. My deep brain stimulation surgery of four years ago has bought me time, but as my Parkinson’s symptoms grow in severity, again, it is not any easier dealing with the pervasive misunderstandings of the disease.

Except for permanent bags under my eyes, I look surprisingly good well into my Parkinson’s adventure, but after morning exercise, the day usually turns into an exhausted struggle fighting surprise sleep attacks that make saying a word an arduous chore. Interpreted as laziness or rudeness, extreme fatigue makes interactions with people awkward and unpredictable.

When you look relatively “normal,” people inevitably assume that you feel “normal.” Frankly, I wouldn’t know what “normal” feels like if it jumped up and bit me in the ass. I rarely sleep more than an hour or two in a row, averaging 3-5 hours of sleep nightly. Medication makes me more tired, as does the disease itself, but I’ve learned through experience that If I do not exercise strenuously, physical deterioration and deep depression will follow.

It is incredibly draining, and day after day, year after year, it never stops. The fundamental misunderstanding is that my challenge is not one of time; I’ve got plenty of that. I face an energy problem, a frustrating, bystander’s stupor of intense boredom.

Parkinson’s has brought many positive things into my life, not the least of which is a renewed appreciation for the joy of laughter, especially when the alternative is a painstaking explanation that is unlikely to be read or understood. Now, that, is funny…

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Looking within

About this time three years ago and after 18 months of scouring the bottom of Rosario Strait, I discovered the wreckage of Navy A-6 159572, the “Lost Intruder.” Two months later, in October 2015, technical divers positively identified the jet. I was in one of my periods of profound isolation back then, having recovered from Deep Brain Stimulation surgery but still experiencing a panoply of mostly moderated Parkinson’s symptoms, although certain psychological ones were still powerful. Periodic depression was and continues to be the worst.

Learning a lesson once is not enough for most people to incorporate into second nature habits of thought and reflection. For me, it seems learning a lesson a dozen times may be insufficient. I continue to look for answers in the wrong places, to the outside, to others, to things over which I have no control. Which brings me to the fundamental truth discovered over the course of the Lost Intruder experience: happiness and peace can only be found in a lasting way by looking within.

Hoping for something to happen rarely yields a positive outcome, and even when events do unfold in line with wishful expectations, there are often unseen strings attached that swing the eventual outcome back to exactly where you started. There are no shortcuts to a content life, and hope as a life strategy is the quintessential shortcut.

So, where does one place their focus, as a life without hope seems rather, well, hopeless? Hope-less, perhaps, but I’m convinced that it need not be a life of continual despair. So, I set out once again to relearn a Lost Intruder lesson, looking within, prying whatever nuggets of peace I can from a hope-less life.

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Losing my mind

As we grow older, it becomes apparent that losing one’s mind becomes both the greatest fear and the only goal worth pursuing. No associated numbers dwell in this no-man’s land of life’s journey: no specific age, degree of education, no amount of effort or time. The realization comes differently to all of us, and for some—I imagine—it comes not at all.

Consciousness, the human concept of the mind, of thinking in some fashion, metastasizes with life experience into a misshapen lump of contradiction. What we pursue does not bring happiness, and neither does what we accept, at least not on a conscious level. But what if happiness is merely the bait, the draw toward a manner of thinking that we are unable to comprehend intellectually, that rebels against the fiber of who and what our society has taught us to value?

The release of physiologic drugs, such as Dopamine—which is near and dear to my heart because of Parkinson’s—signal the positive reinforcement that keeps a desperate humanity looking in all the wrong places, or so it appears. But maybe the direction of the search is unimportant. There is no permanence in anything, especially in happiness. Might it be the process of challenge and reflection that yields reward, that eventually heralds in an elusive contentment, only discovered through an abrogation of a lifetime of facts and figures, of “losing one’s mind”?

Happiness encourages the weary explorer forward while being mistaken by the mind for the desired end state. Embrace your personal challenge. Hug it so tight as to make you brave enough to lose your mind in the process. Maybe all that is required of life is to continue on the journey.

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Boldly going nowhere

Although there is a litany of possible Parkinson’s disease symptoms, ranging from dystonia to insomnia to depression and muscular rigidity, in my experience there is one insidiously consistent effect of the malady: a lingering apathetic malaise. This ennui, characterized by a near universal lack of motivation to do anything, has stuck with me on good days and bad, both before and after DBS surgery, and in times of general happiness and those of deep depression.

Parkinson’s makes virtually everything harder, which certainly doesn’t help. Most of the physical activities that used to be fun either no longer resonate or are outside a comfortable range of movement, at least for any length of time. When it takes tremendous effort just to make it out the door and into the car, this can lead to a self imposed isolation and loneliness. Because it hurts wrists, shoulders, and neck just to hold a book for very long or to work at the computer, one is left with a lot of time pacing the house and reflecting on life.

I’ve come to honor this time as best I can, understanding that there is a life of events, thoughts, and feelings to ponder, not with a dull memory’s illusory command of regret or self-satisfied victory, but with mind’s eye squinting in search of a sliver of insight. In frequent times of extreme boredom, I hold out hope for the permanency of an ever elusive peace, as if merely wishing for an ordered state of affairs from a disordered mind and soul might bring it closer.

Still, I jumble ahead to the circular reflection of a lonely man’s stroll into oblivion, boldly going nowhere.

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“Motion’s coming on”

Professional aviation uses high-tech flight simulators to train pilots. From the outside, these boxy contraptions hardly look flight-worthy, mounted on multiple steel hydraulic powered pedestals that move the simulator to mimic flight conditions down to the smallest sensation. Inside, the boxy look is soon forgotten as the flight crew straps in to the perfect replica of an aircraft, including a near 360-degree visual screen.

Signaling the imminent start of a training session, the words, “Motion’s coming on” warns the aircrew as a matter of safety, as the hydraulics are engaged and pilots brace in case a system turn-on hiccup causes an uncommanded violent jerk.

At first, the simulator motion makes it feel like you are sitting on the head of a pin, with the slightest shift in aircraft controls causing an exaggerated effect. But that goes away quickly, and in no time the pilot can almost forget that his total concentration is on a false situation. It’s not uncommon to have a pilot finish a particularly difficult simulator shaking from the very real stress of the fake scenario.

In a way, most lives are spent teeing up on a personal life simulator, precariously balanced on a perch of falsehoods, experiencing all the stress and fear of life without actually living, or the benefit of a warning phrase like, “motion’s coming on.”

It might take the epiphany of tragedy to see past the facade of convention. The sensation is not comfortable, the realization that the Emperor has no clothes, that the underpinnings of entire lives have been held up by false gods of materialism.

Living a simulated existence can be comfortable for a while, but we all must eventually face the simple reality of death. This is just a humble reminder that life’s “motion is on.”

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The most unlikely of places.

Personal identity is commonly viewed as an externally driven phenomenon that offers no individual recourse, a conglomeration of inputs from the superficial to the soulful that describe a person’s essence. Occupation-based assessments are a good example. The first topic of most conversations between the newly acquainted is what one does for a living. The answer, tellingly, is usually framed as, “I am a blank.” Can these four words come anywhere close to defining any human being?

Of course not, yet we not only allow such self identification, we inadvertently encourage such simplistic descriptions of the indescribable. The greater danger is that this can lead to actually believing we are bound by the limits of a job, societal role, or illness for that matter.

Small talk is, in my opinion, a celebration of the superficial; a denigration of personal meaning and power. We are creatures of habit. How we act gradually defines who we are to the only person that matters: ourselves. We start to believe in single words, such as generous or miserly. And that leaves little power in the hands of the individual when a negative personality trait becomes unbalanced, turning an opportunity for insightful change into never ending self chastisement and helplessness.

Tomorrow is another day, but why wait? Identity is our living masterpiece. Fill the canvas with your personal colors, creating the beauty that resides in the contrasts of your travels, often in the most unlikely of places.

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Part Four: Chasing the ball of life.

Humans are creatures of the earth, flesh and blood animals that possess an innate, youthful urge to move, to dart wildly in a celebratory merge of body, mind, and soul. Just like a healthy dog, we need exercise, not only to mechanically grease the inner workings of our physical entity but to also rest the mind and feed the imaginative seedlings of the soul.

Parkinson’s makes all activity hard, just a slip away from disaster on a tightrope walk above depression’s muddy swamp. In “The Lost Intruder,” I discovered that facing physical challenges—both simple and complex—would leave me with a mental high, sometimes lasting for days. I’ve learned since DBS surgery that an intense workout is at times the only tool remaining between me and despair.

During my two-year psychological recovery from DBS—I hesitate to write with such finality, as the process continues—I successfully isolated myself from most people. Probably done from a subconscious understanding, and overcompensation, that what I needed most was the solitude of reflection, the ensuing seclusion has proven incredibly difficult to overcome. I still can’t tolerate small talk and am quick to stop a budding relationship in its tracks if I sense underlying superficiality.

It makes for many lonely hours. Maybe, for the first time in my life, I am feeling the actual, utter emptiness that surrounds once dispelled of most life distractions, like alcohol and the constant background chatter of TV or radio. It’s not just being around people, it’s regularly connecting with them on a deeper plane in a manner that is fresh and new. A tall order, indeed. Slowly, it seems that I am resurrecting my old cadre of friends, but on a more complex level, and in rare circumstances making new, meaningful friendships.

It can be a tortuously slow road, but I do see progress in my journey. I suspect there are others afflicted with Parkinson’s, and other chronic diseases, who tread a similar path but are not engaging in regular physical activity. My advice: try exercising. Do anything; just move. Chasing the ball of life can be hard work, but it can still be fun if you put a spring in your paws, a smile on your snout, and you share with a friend.

#livingwithparkinsons #thelostintruder #peterhuntbooks #dbssurgery

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