Friday, July 20, 2007

Profoundly shaped by relationships

As we go into a beautiful summer weekend here in New England, I want to share an equally beautiful bit of prose with you. It is by David Brooks and was published as an op-ed in today's New York Times. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Douglas Hofstadter was a happily married man. After dinner parties, his wife Carol and he would wash the dishes together and relive the highlights of the conversation they’d just enjoyed. But then, when Carol was 42 and their children were 5 and 2, Carol died of a brain tumor.

A few months later, Hofstadter was looking at a picture of Carol. He describes what he felt in his recent book, “I Am A Strange Loop”:

“I looked at her face and looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me!’

“And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.”

The Greeks say we suffer our way to wisdom, and Hofstadter’s suffering deepened his understanding of who we are, which he had developed as a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University.

Hofstadter already understood that the mind is not a centralized thing. There are dozens of thoughts, processes and emotions swirling about and competing for attention at any one time. It’s like a quantum mechanics light show.

Carol’s death brought home that when people communicate, they send out little flares into each other’s brains. Friends and lovers create feedback loops of ideas and habits and ways of seeing the world. Even though Carol was dead, her habits and perceptions were still active in the minds of those who knew her.

Carol’s self was still present, Hofstadter sensed, even though it was fading with time. A self, he believes, is a point of view, a way of seeing the world. It emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others. Douglas’s and Carol’s selves overlapped, and that did not stop with her passing.

10 comments:

j said...

Extraordinary…….and nestles in one’s soul……thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

This is beautiful! It emphasizes the amazing power of connections and love. We need to be reminded about what really matters in this life we live and how strong the ties really are.

Anonymous said...

Truly beautiful….thanks for calling our attention to it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for sharing. It is a beautiful thought expressed very movingly.

It reminds me of what my mother told me when she was dying of stomach cancer. My betrothed and I had just married, we moved ahead the wedding so that she would be able to be there. She was too weak to come to the ceremony, but we went to see her after right after, and she said how much she regretted not going to going to be able to meet our future children...but, she explained, ‘they will be able to meet me, just help them see me in your dad, I am in there’. I think she would have agreed with Hofstadter.

Anonymous said...

I will hold on to this for a long time. As my closest friend goes through these awful treatments for her cancer, this will help me keep a perspective.

We really do have to cherish every minute we have with those we love……

Anonymous said...

Really nice. I am reading “Time Traveler’s Wife” which has a similar theme of true love, merger of souls. Have you heard about it?

Richard Wittrup said...

In addition to being a touching story about a man and his deceased wife, the Brooks article also sheds light on why reforming health care is proving to be so difficult

The attitudes we share about health care, including the roles of those involved in it and the relationships among them, were developed at an earlier time and passed on to us by our ancestors. Health care has changed faster than the attitudes have adapted.

Thus, the challenge faced by health care reform has more to do with changing attitudes than with changing health care itself.

Patient Dave said...

Oh what a beautiful thing. Sudden and voluminous tears. I've had plenty of my own reason in recent months to experience my fear of losing such a relationship, and this puts it into words beautifully.

And I'm really, really glad that BIDMC's teams and their newest treatments seem to have pulled me back from the pit, so I can more fully enjoy that "merged soul" condition while we have the chance.

Thanks.

me said...

A truly lovely piece of writing, and very true. Thank you for posting this here.

Alijor said...

Wow. That's such a terrifying thing to think. That's why I've always equated the breakups of friends and lovers with mourning.

Or inspiration, in a sense, the possibility to share yourself leading to transcendence.

Cheers,
Alijor