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24 February 2014

Basins of delight and dismay

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Before my life spun into a different direction, I was thinking and writing about the Five Percent by Peter Coleman. Coleman writes about the intractability of a small number of conflicts (local and global) and uses ideas from complexity theory to make sense of them. It’s a fantastic book and it shapes some of my thinking about my work—and it turns out to shape some of my thinking about my sense of my health and my life as well.

Coleman writes about attractor basins, and the way our sensemaking creates little patterns of stories that all of the data seems to go into and then get caught in.  He talks about it with conflicts between people, but I have been noticing it lately in my own sensemaking and the sensemaking of those around me. I am watching how much of our pain is self inflicted, and how unhelpful that is in a world that offers plenty of opportunity for pain as it is.

I have had the opportunity lately to watch myself cycle into periods of peace and then drop like a stone into periods of despair. We probably all have that experience of ourselves, but my cycles are rather shorter now than they ever have been. I am not opposed to the darkness of the dark—this is a life and death illness, and while my cancer is better than many, it is unfortunately worse than others (and obviously worse than not having cancer). It seems reasonable that I would find my days of darkness, especially as new and threatening information comes along. In some moments, I fall into what looks like a self-organized basin of misery and every single thing gets pulled into its magnetic pull of gloom.

Some of those experiences are relatively brief—a good hard cry with a friend and then a walk on the beach. Those feel like a dip into a shallow basin of darkness from which I can emerge soon. Some of those experiences are much longer and I find that I struggle to smile for hours or even days at a time. These feel like deep pits with slick sides and a narrow point at the bottom—everything slips down into misery. I know that my life is no less wonderful, that Aidan is no less amusing, that the beach and the hills are no less beautiful, but in those deeper basins of despair, I can’t pull up enough to make sense of any of that except through the particular vision of woe and potential loss.

There is a bigger and wider basin of emotions that seems to hold much more range and where things get all mixed in together. I see this as having a wide mouth and a relatively flat bottom. Emotions mix and change there freely, but the valence is towards gratitude and love and delight. Sadness is a piece of that experience, but it doesn’t sweep through and take the others to a narrow focal point; the aperture remains wide. This is happily a more frequent home for me. I like it much more and it seems much more suited to the multi-variance of life in any case. The pit of despair seems not only miserable, but unhelpfully simplistic.

I wonder whether I have always had these different modes, whether you have them too, or you have your different ones. I wonder whether there is a kind of a patterning of our emotions so that some get deeper and more narrow basins and some are wide and flat and variable. Coleman writes this way about conflict—the more intractable it is, the deeper and more narrow the basin is.

So, then the question becomes: What can I do to widen the basin of the misery or move out of it into the other basin which is more rich and varied? And, lucky me, I have had plenty of cycles to be able to pay attention to the questions that spin me down.

One of the things Coleman points to is the way that deep attractors become simple—they take a very complex situation with lots of diversity of thought and opinion and perspective, and they build to one very simple black and white story. Boy do I know that feeling. I get locked into a “cancer sucks and is ruining my life” kind of story and the basin narrows and deepens. (The other set of questions that pulls me in are the looking backwards question: How did this happen? Why didn’t I catch it sooner?” These are unknowable and just spin me down into misery)

Then the Coleman ideas get even more helpful. His first point: “Respond to dynamics, not events” is cognitively helpful and it’s what this repeating pattern of cycles is allowing me to do. I think of these as events (like when the oncologist told me there was a 10-20% chance the cancer had already metastasized) but really that is just part of a dynamic—I hear news that opens up the possibility for a shortened lifespan, I ignore percentages (because honestly, in the moment, all percentages are bigger than they should be when you’re talking about your lifespan), and then I fall into despair. I had thought I was getting better at resisting this pattern by gathering information so that I would no longer be surprised, but since I am so often surprised in doctors offices (and since Jonathan asked, teasingly, “When do you think you’ll know enough to eliminate all possibility of surprise?”), I think that’s probably a losing strategy. Hooking into the pattern I’m seeing rather than fixating on the data (the event) might be a very useful thing to do. Watch this space to see if I can manage this cognitive exercise at my next oncology visit next week.

Then there are two points I’m practicing each day. Coleman says “Respect the logic of the conflict.”   This is a thing I’ve noticed about myself and have asked for from my friends: respect my fear and dark moods without trying to jolly me out of them or, in the moment, tell me that 10% is a small number and that I should focus on the 90% of women who don’t die in two years. Yes of course they’re right, but as Coleman suggests (and I can easily support), those ideas bounce off fast.

The other point that seems core to me right here is Coleman’s: “Open it up.” This is where you make careful use of the complexity of the situation and weave it through the simplicity of the deep basin. I have taken to listing the things cancer brings into people’s lives that they love: the deeper relationship with family and friends, the ability to have conversations with friends, colleagues, and clients about death and passion and purpose. It seems like cancer has the chance to be awfully developmental. And, as Aidan said as we were walking towards the bus stop this morning, “You have cancer, Mom—now you’re not boring at all!” Cancer is not a simple disaster; it is a piece of life experience that connects me to pain and to other people and deepens my attachment to life and joy and purpose. I am trying to “open it up” to hold on to the complexity of it as it weaves through my life. (And I’m using the Anticancer book to create a body so hostile to cancer that it closes it down!)

So this is me on a day so hot (for Paekakariki) that the sea fog has rolled in and in the last 20 minutes has obscured the islands in front of me. Here is the downside of a hot and still day. In another few minutes I won’t be able to see the car in the driveway. And then the wind will shift and the fog will blow away and it’ll look different again. Like life, really, except when I get caught in the basins that don’t allow the fog to lift.

4 thoughts on “Basins of delight and dismay”

  1. joanne pirie says:

    Dear Jennifer I greatly appreciate you sharing your thoughts-feelings about what is going on for you. I have sat back for a while appreciating your writing in its different forms and yet not expressed this. I would greatly enjoy to sit and chat over a good ole proverbial New Zealand cuupa tea. The best I can do is send you thoughts-feelings of loving-kindness and wish you as much ease as possible in the process that you are going through. With warm regards Joanne

  2. I love the description of a wider base of experience and the opportunity to open up and to resist the narrow focus. Is this the ability to forego labeling things good or bad, to just experience them?

    Thank you for your wisdom, and Aiden’s too.

  3. Kate Tunstall says:

    Dear Jennifer, the dynamic is there in your writing and I am inspired to respond to it. A beautiful expressive post.

    Thank you.

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Thanks so much Kate! May you have more basins of delight than dismay…

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