I’ve been feeling rather anxious and down in the dumps lately – not all the time, but more often than I’d prefer – and couldn’t quite figure out what to do about it. It’s been quite a while since I’ve felt so bummed out, and taking action to address it requires knowing what to address and formulating some kind of plan.
Well, today I think I may have figured it out.
Little things were bothering me that really shouldn’t have felt like such a big deal… evidence of capabilities that aren’t at their peak at the moment (obviously), lack of motivation to achieve things I’d like to achieve on any given day, and just a general anxiety about what to do going forward. I’ve been chewing unhappily on that stuff for weeks.
I just realized, though, that the whole thing may come down to how I’ve always defined my value as a human being. Since learning about the tumor, I’ve joked around that no sooner do I finally get my brain working properly than this happens… but that wasn’t completely a joke. For years, I’ve measured a substantial percentage of my worth based on degree of intellectual capability, and worked very hard to improve it. There are other ways to measure your value in life – we all have them – this just happened to be one of the big ones for me. Improving those capabilities weren’t easy and took quite a bit of time, as they required working around some solid shortcomings. I was proud of finally being in a place where, with tons of help from family and friends, all that work had helped me achieve a lovely life in the Seattle area working at a fascinating, challenging job, surrounded by people I like and care about, doing work for an awesome company and a great boss, and putting a roof over our head and food on the table. Keeping things humming relatively smoothly was taking every bit of energy I had, even before the whole tumor thing.
So now, every demonstration that my intellectual horsepower isn’t at its peak was scaring the hell out of me. Oh, sure – I know… my brain is still healing and there will be no way to know for 6-12 months where things will land. By that point, I’ll almost certainly be in much better shape. It didn’t matter, though, because this morning I figured out the problem wasn’t really about how things are now – it was the big question mark about the future. What if my ability to recall things doesn’t return, and I’m stuck with it? What will that mean? Which shortcomings will cause problems when I return to work and days are filled with way more things that are important to remember? What if I never have the sustainable energy to go after that PhD that’s been beckoning enticingly for years? Which other memories won’t stick anymore, which other inquiries will I lack the focus to pursue? What if my light is permanently dimmed? This list of “what ifs” could go on indefinitely, and starts to represent bald paranoia. Ultimately, it comes down to this: what if I’ve permanently lost part of what I’d worked so hard to gain – what does that mean about my life and value and future promise?
To be fair, it’s not that I’ve been actively wrestling with these specific questions – it’s just that their unspoken shadows were filling me with dread when there was nothing else to provide distractions, and I couldn’t pin down what was causing it.
Today, after picking this stuff apart, I revisited the values that were at the root of the thing, since they clearly aren’t serving me as well as in the past. The fact is, I’ve been focusing by default on the value of outcomes when what I really should be focusing on is exploration. After all, the beauty and wonder of the scientific process isn’t a collection of the positive results that generations of dedicated scientists have gathered… those are great and beneficial, but the most important beauty and wonder of science is that it provides the greatest tool ever invented for human beings to pursue new knowledge. The outcomes, positive or negative, only hold as much value as their ability to provide you with fodder for progress – do they help you ask new and better questions?
At their best, our brains are like that, too. It’s not the knowledge we acquire that’s most valuable. It’s the ongoing effort to discover and learn about new things – to keep growing – that really counts.
A brain injury may or may not reduce my knowledge and even abilities to some extent, but if I’m living a life that holds science as the brilliant light of inspiration, it really doesn’t matter. As long as I don’t become intellectually lazy and give up on exploring new ideas with whatever capability I have at any given moment, I haven’t lost that defining value. In a world filled with intimidating questions, it’s relentless determination to pursue answers, regardless of failures or defeats along the way, that takes the win.
There are other values I hold closely, but that one was especially troubling, and it’s nice to put troubling things away whenever possible. Now I can focus more on the fun, cheerful stuff and get back to living happily ever after.
Also, I really like this picture, even though it has nothing to do with the post: