Get out the measuring tape

Remember in the movie Dead Poet’s Society when the text book asked students to draw a graph to measure poems by? Remember how the professor told them to rip the page out?

It is time once again to do some damage to cultural expectation.

It amazes me how many of our common phrases are set up to measure feelings. We want to compare one person’s experience to another, or past experience to present. We want a linear chart so that we can know how everything fits within.

But feelings aren’t linear, are they.

You can see an example of this in another Robin Williams film, What Dreams May Come. He is the father of two children who die in a car accident. He manages to find equilibrium afterwards, learns to live with his grief. His wife ends up in a mental institution. Was his love not as strong? Was she so selfish that she couldn’t see beyond her own pain?

Or was it something entirely different?

I believe it’s time to get rid of the measuring sticks in our language. When it comes to feelings, there is what we have and what we don’t have. Or even more specific… what we have right now and what we may or may not have later.

Measuring sticks lead to shoulda, coulda, woulda’s. Measuring sticks allow passers-by to judge a person for their actions or inactions.

It leads to phrases like “you should get over it” and “you should move on”. There is truth to these phrases. If YOU would just stop suffering so much, you wouldn’t make ME feel so damn uncomfortable. This is the perspective of a person on the shore of the ocean watching another person drowning in the surf. To the person standing on solid ground the reality is simple. Just swim to the surface and breath. But see it from the perspective of the person trapped with the churning waves and rip currents. Their choices are not so clear. The person drowning in sorrow has to learn how to live without enough oxygen. They learn to wait for that chance moment when their heads lift above the water. They gasp for breath until they get pulled under again.

Some of us manage to find the shore, and we commend our actions that got us there. But once on solid ground we are no longer seeing the world from the perspective of a drowning victim. We must be careful how we speak to those still struggling for their lives.

Some of us learn to ride the waves. But again, how can we expect another to do the same? It is not the same body we all use, and it is not the same waves we all struggle with.

Grief cannot be taught. Grief is being tossed into deep water without any knowledge of how to swim.

It is so unmeasurable, that we cannot even compare our grief from one death to the next. I lost my mom to cancer and lost years to sorrow, pain, and anguish. I lost my son to cancer and discovered a new ME within a few months. I was speaking to my dad the other day and he mentioned in passing that he was waiting for the prognosis of whether or not his melanoma had metastasized before they removed it. He hadn’t told anyone before the surgery. We both laughed and joked about his possible imminent death. When he found out that the surgeon had gotten it all and he would be just fine, he was disappointed. Every death and grief experienced is unique. You will have more surprises along the way than expectations met.

So how in hell do we think we could ever possible measure this? Why would we want to?

To measure it is to dismiss it. We find a niche to place someone’s grief into, and that relieves us of the duty of having to witness their flailing attempts to swim in the rip tide.

The same goes for measuring length of life. My son lived six years outside the womb. I can’t tell you how often I hear from others that his life was cut short. And maybe I’m insane, but nothing I have ever experienced has confirmed this statement. Look at the biological world. Most creature’s children are food for other creatures. I used to watch those nature programs and cringe and look away whenever the lion caught the baby wildebeest. I was always a cheerleader for the poor victim. But then they would show a baby lion starving because mommy was injured and couldn’t kill anymore. It would twist me up inside. The biological world desperately needs death. The measuring tape that says that humans need to live to a ripe old age, and that they should never witness their children’s death, would be paradise… but is not  the reality we actually face. And because we refuse to give permission for children to die, for parents and sibling to die young, we are forced to view death from only two perspectives… the perspective of the person on the shore who cannot fathom how anyone could drown when there is so much land to walk on. And the perspective of the person drowning, who cannot imagine what it must be like to not feel panic and pain at all times.

But what about everything in between?

What about taking your time to wonder if there is something else in the world to experience?

And what would a language that realizes that there are more questions than answers, sound like?

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2 Responses

  1. Karen Huntowski

    I have always loved reading your words. My mom has had a couple of strokes now (she is doing ok) but I don’t know how much time we have left. I am not looking forward to dealing with grief, but I know it is part of the process. Thank you for explaining that the process is different for everyone. I am sorry that I tried to force my views on you instead of just listening to you more. Love you!

  2. I get it…your dad’s ambivalence.
    This is a perfect post…I could pull any number of lines from it, but what strikes me in the moment is “you will have more surprises along the way than expectations met”. yes, that, always.
    Thank you….I will be reading more of our blog.