Sunday, October 27, 2013

Does Life Change in an Instant?

Does life ever change in an instant?

I believe the answer is no.

It's a question I sometimes want to explore creatively, to show stories of people whose lives do change, but not in an instant. I believe that even when there is a memorable turning point, we are incapable of changing who we are in an instant.

NPR's Ted Radio Hour this week was a rebroadcast of an episode called Turning Points, with three stories from people who theoretically had their lives change in an instant.

The first storyteller, a successful surgeon name Sherwin Nuland, seems to have been pigeonholed into the theme without necessarily really believing that his life did change in an instant. He had been hospitalized for depression for a year, and underwent electroshock therapy. The first eight shock treatments had no effect. Finally, the ninth one seemed to bring about a little change. Slowly, he gained enough of his health back to be let off the hospital grounds to take walks. One day, he walked to a nearby service station and was talking to an employee there who suggested he push away his depressive and obsessive thought by just saying, "Oh, fuck it." And that was perhaps the moment everything changed.

Except it didn't. Nuland goes on to say that for the first few months of trying out his new coping mechanism, it was really hard. It was only little by little over time that he recovered and got his life back.

Without being dismissive of people who do believe their lives changed in an instant, let me say this: Our lives don't change any more or any less on a given day. It is the seeming magnitude of the things that happen that changes, and the magnitude of our response.

What I mean by that is the external actions and effects that happen are nothing. Our response, both in how we perceive and how we react, is what makes the action or effect real, or meaningful, or completely insignificant.

In the second story from this same show, Ric Elias survives a plane crash and professes that his life radically changed thereafter. He appreciates life more, chooses happiness over trying to be right, and now dedicates himself to being the best father he can be. But all those things, surely, did not switch on instantly on the day a plane landed in the Hudson River. They did not come from nowhere. They had to be things he felt and knew for some time before, even if he hadn't acted on them as fully as he does now. Every day he changes. Every day the magnitude of his response to outside actions and effects changes.

The change is constant, ongoing.

We do not become new men overnight.

When I think about this question from a creative standpoint, I definitely take my own experiences into account. I have a number of stories about events that should have been "turning points," but when I think through them, I realize that nothing so significant ever happened on a single day.

The meaningful things that I can point to in my life, when I think about them in their entirety, are never so simple as to be caused by a single event. Everything interlocks. All the momentum connect.

I have been struggling my entire life to write about my relationship with my brother. I grew up believing he had been kidnapped, and later in life pieced together the fact that there was hardly any truth to it -- at least not in the words that I had learned to use to tell the story. It's an extremely long and complicated story, which is why I struggle to write about it.

For years, I thought it was a "turning point" in my life, this thing that happened that shaped who I was. But I also changed all the while. I wasn't a statically different person because of it. And the meaning of my brother's so-called kidnapping on my own life didn't come to me at once. It changed over time, and it's still changing. How I see the events around that story change all the time, too. The magnitude of them changes. My reaction to them continues to change.

Are we the sum of all our days, or are we only who we are right now in this moment?

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