In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes about that special sense of community, of altruism, of love, even of joy that can arise out of disaster. We’re all familiar it. It’s quite obvious in major disasters but happens here in Washington even when we get a big snowstorm that locks down the city. People are friendlier on the street, young people shovel off the sidewalks of older people, people with four-wheel drive vehicles make them available for emergency transportation, and so on. We who can wander by each other in the neighborhood without even saying “Hello” suddenly recognize a sense of community with each other; we pause and marvel with each other at the beauty. Time can stop. Our day-to-day concerns drop away; our schedules are put on hold. We can move into the present moment, and life is, for the time being, different, richer, more joyful.
It can happen when someone dies even, when someone is very sick, when any tragedy strikes, really. Not always, of course, but out of tragedy can come joy.
I wonder if that isn’t part of the explanation for this joy I’ve felt since my diagnosis with Alzheimer’s last September. It’s felt bizarre to write about these last months as one of the happiest times in my life, but that’s been the truth. Perhaps it’s the tragedy itself that has created the joy.
Certainly when I received my diagnosis last September, normal life stopped. Suddenly I found myself in a tragedy that had previously invoked terror. Many of the concerns of routine life, of my schedules, of my responsibilities became suddenly of secondary importance. I moved into the present, which can be a place of richness. From the responses of other people, too, I could tell that something was different; many sought deeper relationships, richer than before. My children and I experienced (and still experience) a closeness (here and here) we had not previously known. Marja and I moved closer to one another … and have remained there. My relationships with people from my faith community are stronger.
Perhaps, as Solnit suggests, Hell can birth paradise, when suddenly community deepens and the humanity of both others and ourselves is revealed.
Alzheimer’s could never be called good. Like Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11, or a tornado, or an earthquake, Alzheimer’s could not be wished on anyone. Yet out of it can come a joy that has taken me by surprise.
In the last month or two, some of that special feeling—my ability to live in the present, my sense that my life is worthwhile even if I can’t accomplish that much, my sense of joy in living—has been diluted, and I’ve wondered why. Had I slipped back into old patterns, lost the new sense of emotional richness? I wonder now if much of that loss comes from my recognition that the course of my disease will be slower than I’d anticipated. My symptoms don’t interfere much with everyday life. I’m getting used to having Alzheimer’s. It doesn’t shock me into the present. I’ve become again more emotionally invested in day-to-day events and responsibilities. Some of the usual pressures return. It’s a normal response, I guess: my day-to-day life now contains Alzheimer’s.
Some of that special feeling has declined but not all of it. Life is more precious. I still have closer relationships with my family, my friends and my community. Solnit suggests that tragedies can change who we are, give us more compassion, bring us into the present, make our experience of life deeper. I am very grateful.