Exploring exploring

Twenty-one years ago, I began a quest of self-discovery that is only becoming clear to me now. I was flying for United Airlines at the time, well before my Parkinson’s diagnosis, and had grown unsatisfied with a life of going through the motions without a greater purpose or goal.

Most of the usual culprits of modern distraction did not interest me greatly: money and power held no special significance, and although fame intrigued, and eventually infecting me with an unrealistic – at least for me – definition of success, my reality stomped that out decisively when my first book did okay but was not distributed in a second edition by Ballantine.

I had looked to increased knowledge as a remedy for a dormant soul, devouring non-fiction histories and political books, scouring several newspapers daily, and often found myself entrenched in arguments that mattered little, if at all, and left me ill at ease and unfulfilled. My ego was firmly running the show, and I was no closer to happiness or a sense of peace.

Fortunately, Parkinson’s intervened, introducing irrevocable truths that could not be ignored. It has taken fourteen years, but I am beginning to now see the path that has always been there but is disguised by a society that places little value on the only life habits that lead to joy. I have written about much of this in The Lost Intruder, which describes the process of my growth up through about 2016.

The past two years have been difficult as I slowly sort out often conflicting inputs of body, mind, and soul, but I believe that I have learned several things that inspire promise for the journey. Here they are.

Embrace your personal challenge. We all have struggles. Hold yours close, learning, living, and loving with this integral part of you.

Try not to get caught up with meaning. It is unlikely to hold any answers and may be beyond our ken, if it exists at all. Be satisfied that compassion and kindness can provide the same warm contentment as unequivocal purpose.

Press on. Don’t quit exploring yourself; every experience is valuable, especially depression. Melancholy was the term used by the ancients to describe this transformative, albeit often excruciating, process of personal reflection. Not all pain was meant to be “cured,” which in today’s world usually means masking discomfort with a series of drugs. The examined life is the only one worth living (apologies to Socrates).

Trust in the process of life. Know in your heart, through faith, meditation, or a feeling of unknown origin that on the deepest level, it is all okay; it really is.

The bear went over the mountain…

Climbing, head bowed in effort, legs churn to crest the apex only to find still another desolate rise taunting the familiar.

“The bear went over the mountain; the bear went over the mountain…” A child’s tedium sing-songs as timeless remnant, nestling in the brain, slowly seeding aged apprehension.

There is no need to strain tired eyes, to look beyond. It’s all okay.

“The bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see…” Louder now; a mocking chorus of Teddies seducing the body to believe.

Legs slowly go into motion, breaking the stasis of logic.

“He saw another mountain, he saw another mountain, he saw another mountain, and what do you think he did?” A strained chuckle escapes pursed lips, tempting infinity’s wrath.

The child’s voice fades as a tip to fate’s wanton hand, swapped for empty calm, the perfect irony of balm for the old soul.

Where gritty meets sublime

Browsing in a used bookstore the other day, I came across an original hard cover copy of “Where the Wild Things are” by Maurice Sendak, a marvelously playful romp into childhood’s dark side. The story’s hero, Max, escapes the drudgery of parental rules to create his own world of scary creatures where anything seems possible, where life’s exciting beauty traverses the imagination without, for a short time, limit.

Max must eventually return to society’s defined reality, but with the whispered caveat that our secret world of creativity will always be there when needed, when we find that society’s rigidity of form can’t meet the needs of body, mind, or soul.

Can an equilibrium of these three uniquely human traits comfortably coexist in today’s world, and if so, is this even desired?

The pendulum’s swing overshoots the mark in everything we do, both as individuals and in our social groupings, manifesting perpetual struggle and internal and external conflict. Are the impermanent borders between body, mind, and soul the root source of life’s trials, the ultimate reason for the physical, intellectual, and emotional pain that we all must endure at various points of the journey before it transforms beyond our ken through the inevitability of death?

It is not the pursuit of perfection that makes for great art, it is the perceived flaw that makes the masterpiece. Only the spark of imagination can explore where gritty meets sublime, distorting the boundaries between body, mind, and soul, ushering in that unique balance of distress and comfort that makes us human.

This has always been the challenge. In an era of intellectual absolutes, with science transcending toward religion with increasing speed, might the pendulum be moving beyond a moderate range, threatening to decimate our innate hubris, perhaps leaving us to flourish–for a while–where the wild things are?

Desolate exploration

Many years ago, well before my Parkinson’s diagnosis, my mother gave me a small piece of wall art depicting a Greek fresco of Saint George slaying the dragon. She proclaimed it to portray “Saint Peter, slaying his next dragon.” She was referring to my next life adventure and asked that I place it near the bed where it might protect me while sleeping.

Neither my mother nor I have been particularly religious in the organizational sense, but I do believe that we have both attempted to be spiritual in character. It hung on the wall as a silent nighttime companion for decades.

Intuitively, I understood that this ostensibly religious icon was appropriate for my life, but I had not attempted to understand why this was so, at least not on a conscious level. Until recently.

The legend of Saint George, a Roman Christian who lived during the 3rd century AD, at its essence tells of the killing of a beast that was terrorizing a local populace. It inspired myriad pieces of artwork across the ages.

The image is powerful, vividly illustrating a horse rearing up as Saint George readies to deliver the death blow. Both man and horse stare wisely at the dragon as the spear threatens to be thrust home. It can be vaguely unsettling, but given time, the picture brings me to a place of peaceful contemplation.

I believe that the legend points to several life truisms, the most obvious being that we all have our demons to conquer on some level. To me, it also speaks to life’s intrinsic struggle, and to the lack of a happy, acceptable, or even understandable resolution (Saint George was subsequently tortured and martyred for his refusal to denounce Christianity, never mind the fate of the dragon).

Regardless of how things appear, we are all hero’s, flawed and beautiful in our own right, silently battling our shared dragons of uncertainty, pain, and lack of meaning, each on a personal journey of desolate exploration, leaving me to wonder whether the target of the spear is really the dragon, or far beyond.

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.

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.

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.

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…

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.

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.