Friday, February 15, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Lesson in Perspective

On occasion I am profoundly moved by a film or a movie which actually causes me to look at life differently. These moments are few and far between in actuality, but last night on a Valentine's date, my wife Mary and I experienced the profundity of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in all of its cinematic glory. It is very rare for me to walk out of a movie theatre and feel that what I've just seen has changed me in a dramatic way, and this experience was certainly of that caliber.

For those of you as yet unfamiliar with the story, the film is an adaptation of the book by the same title which was written by Jean Dominique Bauby, a former publisher of Elle Magazine who experienced a massive stroke in the prime of life. Bauby was diagnosed with Locked-In Syndrome, a condition in which the afflicted individual is completely paralyzed---except for eye movement---but is fully cognizant with complete brain function and intellectual capacity. Hence, s/he is considered "locked in". Through the efforts of his caregivers, Bauby was able to dictate his profound insights through blinking his eyes in response to the recitation of the alphabet. Letter by letter, he made his thoughts, wishes, and writings known, and the book was published shortly before his death in 1997.

Visually, the film is almost completely shot from the viewpoint of Mr. Bauby, using soft focus and other techniques to simulate how he might experience his visual field. Dream sequences are used to great effect, as are sequences in which Mr. Bauby consciously chooses to allow his imagination to bring him to beloved places and to relive peak (and less-then-peak) life experiences. Through the film, we understand that Bauby is struggling to come to terms with his maddening physical condition, the challenges of communication with the use of only a single eye, and his desire to make amends with those he has hurt. Unable to hug his children or comfort those around him, his desire to communicate his inner world does battle with his desire to simply relinquish his hold on life and sink into self-pitying despair.

Seeing such a portrayal of an individual's struggle with absolutely debilitating illness puts into perspective my own constellation of infirmities. Taking into account my own collection of diagnoses---which, mind you, is considerable but wholly relative---I am moved to take a fresh look at how much I feel these conditions truly impact my quality of life and whether I can assuage some of that impact by simply shifting my perspective. The powers of the mind can truly help one to rise above the vicissitudes of physicality, and it may be time for me to take further action on that account.

So, what does it mean to experience pain and suffering? And what is suffering when one bears in mind the greater suffering of others? How great is my suffering in relation to that of a Sudanese woman from Darfur who was brutally raped and watched her husband and children be killed? How does my suffering compare to her desolation as she sits alone beneath a plastic tarp in the midst of a refugee camp on the border of Chad? I consider the stress I experience while sitting in traffic, running errands or trying to repair my Internet connection, and I think of that woman sitting under that tarp in the desert, utterly alone. Does this assuage my own suffering? Can I use this as a lesson?

As the sun streams in my picture window and I admire the lush greenness of the rhododendron that peaks through the glass, I also see the richness of my surroundings, the abundance of wealth and comfort in my home, the new cozy couch delivered just days ago. I see the rocking chair, the portable heater, the new computer and speakers, the hundreds of books and CDs, the beautiful art on the walls. All this is mine, and I take it for granted.

Considering that I just quit my job and now have the grace of time to remake my life as I see fit, I remember how large a role the pure power of choice plays in my daily comings and goings. Is it truly a source of stress to decide whether or not to go swim at the pool today? Need I truly allow my mind to worry about whether I forgot to buy cereal or not? How much stress and worry is a broken plate worth? Is a bathroom in need of cleaning or a pile of laundry really that important?

Mr. Bauby's decision to eschew his initial desire for death was born of his realization that he still had something to contribute, and that the power of imagination and memory could take him to the places where he could no longer physically go. Completely paralyzed and dependent, I would say that Bauby had a right to pity himself and to sink into despair, and he surely availed himself of those emotions, especially after first regaining consciousness and realizing his predicament. Still, he did not live in that space for long, and Bauby's greatest achievement is the fact that he shared that journey with the rest of humanity.

For myself, I have a personal goal of purchasing a copy of this profound and life-changing film as soon as it becomes available, and to force myself to watch it at those junctures when I'm losing hope and falling into despair over life's circumstances. Perhaps I'll make it a double feature in which I will also watch Control, a film depicting the life, struggles, and extreme depression of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the post-punk band Joy Division. Diametrically opposed to Bauby's story---but equally superb in its execution---the film depicts how one young man allowed himself to lose perspective and sink into depression and suicidal ideation just as his life was opening into relative fame, fortune, and new horizons.

Perspective is certainly one of the keys to realizing one's relative place in the world and the profundity of one's own suffering. As the bumper sticker slogan says, "suffering is optional". But are we courageous enough to actualize that reality each and every day? We can only try, and when we succeed---if only for a moment---we can celebrate that moment when we did indeed find ourselves in that timeless space of true acceptance and equanimity.
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