A concentrated mind…

mapThe plans we map out for ourselves rarely follow their set course without detours.

The exploring post i wrote earlier this year commended the courage of those that set out to sea, into the perilous unknown.

Some of us who do not see ourselves as brave, though, are thrust out to sea against our will. And all we can do is make our way to some sort of shore, on an adventure we didn’t choose. In the process (to paraphrase the old saying), facing one’s impending demise wonderfully concentrates the mind.

This is the central idea of a recent article which reviews three books by authors who were navigating their own terminal illnesses (The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs).

In her thought-provoking review, writer Laura Miller notes the differences in tone between the three books — one a pep talk, one a frank testimonial, and one a slice-of-life offered with melancholy humor:

“Pausch and Kalanithi inform us that impending death whets their appreciation of everyday life, but Riggs shows us what that life is, bathed in the incandescence of anticipated loss.”

This brought to mind differences among various bloggers who write about their health challenges. Some focus on the inspirational, others are more plainly narrative, and some highlight a dark humor.

Miller makes an interesting point about inspirational writing:

“Inspirational writing is, even at its best…a tactical lie. It’s made of the stuff we tell ourselves to help us keep going; whether it represents the whole truth matters less than how useful we find it.”

We do need inspiration. Not because every expression of “everything will be alright” or “you can achieve anything you want to” will turn out to be accurate — but because it comes from caring and encourages us to get the most from what we do have.

Most of us won’t “have [our] life knocked savagely off course” to the degree these authors have. But most of us can relate to unanticipated detours — a health setback, a relationship we thought would last and then didn’t, a friendship discarded too easily when differences arose, or suddenly needing to reorient to an entirely new career path.

A few seem to get by without much tumult. To them i paraphrase Cornell West: “If tragedy has not touched your life, it is on its way to you.”

Terrain that at first appears easily navigable may obscure disruptive obstacles. When our map becomes outdated, the most important resource for facing those obstacles is each other.

Here’s a kernel of inspiration: don’t draw back from others, and don’t give up.