Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Shock and Awe

Bill Clinton is recovering from his quadruple bypass surgery, and while everyone's experience differs to some degree, I personally can imagine what he's going through.  At this point, he's probably in the step-down unit, a room with few beds and lot's of incredible nurses.  He is feeling a little weak and perhaps experiencing some pain, easily managed, but relieved, even exhilarated, to be alive.  In a few days he'll be walking through his front door in Chappaqua astonished at the speed of his recovery, or at least its first phase.  Bill Clinton has just experienced Shock and Awe.

I was also seemingly in great health when suddenly confronted with unfamiliar discomfort (in my upper back) and shortness of breath.  I too sensed something seriously amiss and after an angiogram revealed considerable blockage was operated two days later – a quadruple bypass also in my 58th year and in the month of September; my Shock and Awe.  I've always admired Bill Clinton, happily voted form him, but now we really have something in common.

I know we're not alone in experiencing the Shock of unexpected life-threatening illness.  If you haven't been there and someone tells you it's not that big a deal, don't believe them.  It is.  We all know that life is finite and that people die, often "before their time".  But most of us function under the "it can't happen to me" assumption.  You can say that it's living in a dream world, but in fact it is much more out of necessity.  Were we to live under other assumptions we might not function as well or, for some people, at all.  If someone tells you that having experienced Shock, life simply goes on as usual, don't believe that either.  With it and the Awe that follows comes a new awareness of life's values and, much as we may be prone to discount it, a reevaluation of how we do things, how we use our time.  Even Bill Clinton, who has accomplished so much, is likely to go through that process.  Certainly he's likely to change his diet – radically I hope.

The difference between Shock and Awe is that the latter is much more long lasting.  It's been years since my surgery and I have never felt better.  The truth is that clogged arteries don't come over night and, while you don't realize the subtle but increasing impact they are having, chances are you haven't felt well for quite a long time.  I'm doing physical things today that I never though possible when I was forty.  There is also the Awe of how far modern medicine has come.  I had an uncle who died early from heart disease whom I am sure would have had a long life had bypass surgery been around in his day.  We know a lot more about the impact of diet and exercise and how to keep those arteries clear – to prevent future Shock.  My bypass was a wake-up call for me as was Bill Clinton's for him.  Speaking with some confidence for us both, there has to be a better way to wake up.

That said, I consider what happened to me among the best of life's experiences.  While certainly never one who took life for granted or avoided deeper thoughts about its meaning, it provided a sharper focus.  Adversary, which I never would recommend as preventative medicine, is nonetheless a powerful propellant for human growth and change.  In these times of stress, of national adversity, much of the discourse focuses on the negative, is mired in the Shock.  We would do well to take counsel from the survivors many of whom have moved on to embrace the wonder of the Awe; focused less on what was and more of what can, and must, be.  Recover well, Bill Clinton, we need to see what you'll do with the Awe.

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