Now I don’t think that I talk too much about surviving my heart attack and emergency surgery, but Diane says I talk about it all the time, so you can guess who’s right. Two years ago today. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure that cloudy morning when they wheeled me into the O.R. exactly where I would end up next!
So I’m happy to tell you that I’m still here — eating / breathing / sleeping / working better, walking 10K steps a day, and feeling overall healthier than I have in several decades.
But I do want to tell you something about superlatives and denial — and how they connect.
The English language is rich in exaggerated words that once meant something else, such as awesome, awful, terrible, and fantastic. My personal favorite is un·be·liev·a·ble, defined as “not able to be believed; unlikely to be true” or “so great or extreme as to be difficult to believe; extraordinary”. (Here is a graph of usage of the term over the past two centuries.)
Connected to unbelievable is another phrase which we all love to use: “Can you believe that… [fill in the blank]?” We use this gut phrase when we know that we are right about something or wronged by someone else, which is roughly 100% of the time. Robert Wright put it best in his book, “The Moral Animal“:
“One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again–whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which–we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage is not warranted.”
The trouble with unbelievable or incredible is, well, that they’re not. If the human race learned nothing in the 20th century, it’s that the unthinkable isn’t.
Here’s a story which speaks volumes about this problem. In 1942, a Polish resistance fighter named Jan Karski escaped Europe with documentary evidence about the vast extent of Nazi war crimes and mechanized death camps. He made his way to Washington D.C., where he was received by the (Jewish) U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter. Upon disclosing his horrific discoveries, Justice Frankfurter replied, “I don’t believe you. . . . I do not mean that you are lying. I simply said that I cannot believe you.”
Of the untold things to which we’re blind, the biggest are the everyday dangers. Reasonable caution notwithstanding, it’s better not to spend all day thinking about the car crashes, bankruptcies, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, violent crime, and a long list of horrible diseases and catastrophes. Not that they’re unthinkable — just that it really won’t help to dwell on them. It’s healthier to live with a limited denial of the real world. Not only does it not help to wallow in the negative, it leads to damaging stress and incapacitation.
No, you shouldn’t stay indoors your whole life; it entails other adverse effects, and it won’t eliminate those dangers anyway. For example, helicopter parents don’t realize that their overprotectiveness actually damages their children’s capacity for independent growth, just as over-dieters suffer from their own eating-disorders. But we are all naturally blind to our blind spots.
We deny the unbelievable (1) because it’s too painful and (2) because we’re human! This is not a bad thing. We need to find the right balance between optimism, pessimism, realism, and naïveté.
So my random connection of a level of healthy denial, our relentless use of superlatives, and my outstanding mood on the 2nd anniversary of surviving come together. Enjoy — appreciate — your loved ones. Never fall into the trap of being too inhibited to tell them you love them.
We live in troubled times, but you must keep fighting, keep going. Grab life and never let go.
One last quote: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breaths away.” (Maya Angelou 1928-2014)