On Healing 7/23/2007: Misfortune gives life new meaning

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

— Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata

It’s called bradycardia: an abnormally slow or unsteady heart rhythm that can cause dizziness and extreme fatigue. Often, there are no symptoms, and it’s not always a problem; many athletes in great condition have low heart rates. So do quadriplegics (obviously for very different reasons). My slow heart rate caused no problems until a couple of weeks ago, when it slowed down even further. I became lightheaded and extremely tired. The cardiologist said a pacemaker was in order — emergency surgery.

I’ve always felt that every stage of life is a good news/bad news story. First, despite the odds, you are born. (That’s good news.) Your parents, however, have no idea what they are doing and will never tell you that. Plus, the odds are almost 50-50 that they will split up.

Next comes puberty. Anyone who has been through it knows the good and bad news those hormones bring. Marriage? More good and bad, sometimes moment by moment.

Good news can carry bad news, too. You get the dream job and hate the commute. You finally have a baby and feel incredible bliss – and still do even as worry creeps in. Your child gets into the college she wants, then calls to complain about her roommate, while you pay for tuition as well as the cell phone.

Even crises bring good news along with the bad. I have known many people whose devastating diagnoses caused them to live the lives they had always wanted. Inevitably, those changes involve spending more time with people and things they love. Several years ago, I worked with a man whose child was tragically killed. Until that time, his life was extremely busy with a high-powered career. After nearly a year of deep mourning, however, he slowly became involved with an orphanage in Tibet. He feels the agony of his loss every day, and says his life has never felt so relevant.

With bradycardia, the bad news is obvious. There is something wrong with my heart. I am not myself. Surgery, no matter how promising the odds, is always risky.

And the good news? Sometimes, when the fatigue is really bad, all I can do is sit and look out at my backyard. I don’t have the energy to worry about the future, as I usually do; I just watch what’s in front of me. I never really noticed how many shades of green there are on a single tree or how quiet nature seems on a summer day. Or how everything changes when there is a breeze, or a cloud passes over. I notice things about people around me as well – how their eyes look when they’re tired or the tenderness behind their worry. I notice things the way I did when I was little, before my life and I got busy with one another.

As my body slows down, something inside begins to open up. That’s true for all of us.

I finished this column and then e-mailed it to my editor 14 days ago, the night before going in for surgery. “So by the time you read this,” I wrote, “I’ll probably have a pacemaker and my heart will be back to normal” – in hindsight, interesting wording, and timing, that may be worth exploring in a future column.

In any event, the pacemaker was installed, and my heart is back to its normal, slow self. That’s good news. But if I no longer take the time to be quiet enough to notice all the shades of green, that’s bad news.

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