Saturday, September 28, 2013

What Makes Life Worth Living?

Father and me as a toddler.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -- Viktor E. Frankel, Man's Search for Meaning

In my first post, I wrote about the decision to move my father to a long-term care facility.  As I mentioned before, it was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.  At the time, some people accused me of being a cold, uncaring daughter.  It was a lonely experience to be shunned by others, but it made me determined that my father would receive the best possible care.  I also decided that I would never judge others, even when their decisions or values differed from mine.

We discussed the meaning of old age in class this week.  There are various theories on aging, and it seems that there is an overarching belief in society that we must age in a certain way (i.e., disease-free, wrinkle-free) to be "successful."  I, too, desire to age with minimal difficulties, and to be active and healthy until the very end.  However, I know that I can have good habits, live mindfully, and still face unforeseen challenges in the course of my life.  

In thinking about my father's physical and cognitive challenges, I reflected on what makes life worth living.  Years ago, a friend had stated that if he should ever develop dementia, or any other debilitating condition, he would choose to kill himself.  Hearing his comment made me uncomfortable because of its violent nature.  Prior to the worsening of his health, my father also hinted that life isn't worth living if he can't have the physical freedom and the ability to do whatever he pleases (my father also had Type II diabetes, was a life-long smoker, and loved lemon pies).  It was devastating for my father to lose his mobility and to develop dementia.  For awhile afterward, he insisted on continuing to do whatever he pleased, such as gorging on sweets.  His actions often led to more suffering, which was difficult for all of us to bear. 

As a young woman, I had a fairly happy-go-lucky existence.  I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.  All that changed when I chose to become a caregiver.  Initially, I was resentful, but this experience made me think deeply about what makes life worth living, and what it means to be free.  As I chanted earnestly (I'm Buddhist) about this matter, I realized that even with my freedom, I was always wanting more and feeling dissatisfied.  Thus, I reached the conclusion that I didn't need life to be "perfect," in order to be happy.  I realized that I have the ability to be happy in any circumstance, and knowing this gave me a sense of freedom and comfort I hadn't experienced before.

Getting back to my father, as his dementia progressed, family friends pitied him.  Some openly stated that they hoped they would never become like my father.  It was hurtful, but it's easy to assume we understand someone else's experience from our own perspectives.  My father's physical and mental conditions changed drastically, but he was able to reframe his life to find things to be joyful about in the present.  Every day I spent with him was an opportunity to share this happiness.  We reminisced about his love of baseball and his life in Japan as a youth, listened to his favorite music, and talked about my cat, Twiggy.  These activities sound simple, but we felt completely satisfied.  I didn't feel the need for anything more.

It's easy to think that certain conditions must be met in order to be happy, but being with my father taught me that happiness is found right now.  It's not in some far-away place in the future where everything is "perfect."  Thank you for taking time to read this post.

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