Rebuilding the house

I was moved recently when listening to a radio interview with a man who was rebuilding his house in the flattened city of Tacloban in the Philippines. He was amazingly upbeat, saying that he’d get his house back up in a few months, and was not going to be downcast by what had happened. I started to wonder what it is that can give some people such reserves of resilience in such a situation. The evidence is that many societies in a similar state of ruination have rebuilt themselves with remarkable speed, and even gone on to be more successful than they would otherwise because of the way that they have been forced to confront horrific conditions. Germany and Japan after the Second World War offer some remarkable examples.Sailors_rebuild_house_damaged_by_Hurricane_Katrina

The ability to not just remain unaffected, but actually benefit in the long run from unexpected disasters is one of the key themes of ‘Antifragile’, the book I’ve been reading by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s basic explanation of antifragility is that it comes from ‘having options’ – that is, being free (and able) to adopt a variety of strategies in changing conditions. The people who will be most badly hit by a disaster will be those without options. There will be some who do not have the physical capacity to reconstruct, not just their houses, but their lives. However, there will be others who are not able to do so because they are mentally stuck in an old model, and cannot adapt to a new one.

How would I fare in such a disaster? I really cannot know without experiencing it. My sister and her family were caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, so I know a bit from her about how difficult post-traumatic stress can be, and how unexpected and long-lasting its effects. It is possible that some of those effects just depend on our ‘hard-wired’ physical reactions in ways that would be little affected by attitude. However, I can’t help thinking that at least some of our response to such scenarios must depend on how attached we are to fixed models of our environment, and beneath that to a sense of meaning that depends on things being a certain way. I would imagine that we can’t really believe that such a calamity has happened until we find it meaningful, and to find it fully meaningful we will have to detach ourselves from our previous models of our lives as secure. To detach ourselves in that way, we need a more basic sense of what is meaningful that does not depend on our beliefs about our situation.

That’s why, oddly enough, I suspect that it is things that many may regard as inessential pleasures that help to sustain us in these circumstances. I’m talking about the arts, and more widely about meaning as embodied in culture. If our basic sense of meaning is based in our bodies, and extends from these using metaphor to take in more abstract concepts, that sense of meaning is surely more likely to remain with us even during severe stresses. Perhaps your piano has been swept away by the typhoon and turned into matchwood, but the sense of meaning you got from playing it can still offer sustenance. If, on the other hand, your sense of meaning is based on beliefs about the success of a business that has now been ruined, or about a highly dependent relationship with one person who is now dead, it is much more vulnerable.

I’m sure that many people in the Philippines, a Catholic country, will also be turning to God to sustain them. Where God is a basic part of their experience connected to physicality, I expect he will, but where he is just a belief, there will be a like vulnerability. After the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, many educated people across Europe with highly rationalised beliefs in God lost their faith. Metaphysical beliefs of all kinds are distinguished for their fragility, and it is extreme events like these that can break them.

Probably the most ruinous event that I can imagine happening to me personally would be the destruction, not of my house (tough though that would undoubtedly be), but of Middle Way Philosophy. If my view of the world suddenly proved to be wholly wrong, despite my best efforts to make it provisional and antifragile, that would be the real test. However, if I could overcome such trauma (which is of course always in doubt), I suspect it would be because of a basic confidence and sense of meaning which would not leave me because it would be a recognised part of my basic physical experience. Just as when one’s house is blown down, one still has the land and perhaps the materials salvaged from the wreckage with which to reconstruct it, so if one’s cognitive model is destroyed, one still has one’s bodily experience to provide the foundations, and the ability to create new metaphors as the material with which to build anew. Each time one rebuilds, perhaps, the metaphors will get a little better, a little sturdier and able to weather the next storm.

Picture: House being rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina (public domain)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

6 thoughts on “Rebuilding the house

  1. Hi Robert, I saw – if not the same guy – another Philippino fellow who expressed the same attitude, as he swept filthy liquid mud from the floor of his ruined house with an improvised shovel. There was something of a glint in his eye, and his movements were brisk, his tone of voice brisker.

    Now I’m only conjecturing here, but my hospice experience of bereavement makes me aware that – after a sudden and calamitous loss, it is a normal reaction for some people to evidence a ‘business-as-usual’, ‘life-must-go-on’ attitude, so that they invest the period after the loss with much activity designed to quickly restore the situation to what it was before the loss occurred, ‘as if’ with as little room for the implications of that loss, or its immediate emotional significance, to manifest.

    This is generally understood as a normal emotional reaction to loss, and it’s also understood to operate in situations other than the death of a loved one. Any significant loss can set it off: loss of a job, loss of a sensory faculty (blindness) or a limb, or even loss of face.

    It’s conceivable, you may agree, that this might be the case with the survivors of that hurricane out East. What sometimes happens is that after an initial period of effort to maintain the accustomed rhythms and features of pre-loss life, reality ‘kicks in’, and a ‘felt sense’ of loss prevails, leading (eventually but not uniformly) to a re-organisation of meaning that integrates the loss, and may lead to a major reconfiguration of beliefs.

    As to how you might respond to the loss of your own ‘felt sense’ of ‘all that’ – from which your expressions of the Middle Way proceed, or seem to, including your relationships with us……..well, it would be presumptuous to speculate, but I would put my money on your confidence to find your way back into the ‘felt sense’, and allow that entelechy of meaning and belief to emerge in its own time, and in whatever direction it moved.

    I’ve looked after people with profound dementia, people who can’t speak coherently, are doubly incontinent, and are almost incapable of holding a cup to their lips because ‘they don’t recognise what a cup is for’; and it’s often said that they are ’emptied’ out of all mental characteristics, their brains are gone. My experience of some of them is that this is untrue, because my ‘felt sense’ of them has been of an immense ocean of ‘felt sense’ in which – with practice – it is possible for us both to feel immersed, borne up, and moving together, not separate but one. I can draw on that ‘felt sense’ at dark and lonely times, and be at peace.

    1. Hi Robert and Peter,
      I also admire the resilience of people under stress, in conditions such as these, they discover strengths and a determination not to be defeated by powerful forces, beyond human control. This particular man owns the land on which his house was built, others may be homeless for longer and depend on charity, for those people, such cheerful resilience may not be present, but the desire to survive and care for their family will give them energy to carry on. Metaphysical beliefs may be questioned at such times, as you say, for some they will be reinforced, for others not, that shows how fragile such beliefs are, certainty may be shaken.
      I also see the photograph as a metaphor for loss, do I have metaphors on my mind too much I wonder! The devastation shown here, could reflect the inner knowledge, that life – long hopes and dreams can be crushed in an instant, by outside causes or mental doubt or, will the phoenix rise, bringing with it new beliefs, explained in new ways or changed radically?
      I recognise what you say Peter, about getting on with life as well as possible, after such a devastating event. Some people go into auto pilot and perform duties which keep them busy, ( I’ve done this, contacting friends, banks etc.) so preventing emotions to kick in – until later.
      Peter, I like to think of the ‘felt sense’ you feel for those who outwardly seem ‘gone’ for ever, but with whom you have a shared ‘something’.

    2. Hi Peter, Yes, I’m sure you’re right that a lot of what may appear to be resilience in the immediate aftermath of a crisis is the result of a state of denial rather than of genuine adaptation. To be better justified in concluding that it was a matter of resilience or antifragility, we’d have to come back after six months or a year and see if the positive response had been sustained. Perhaps, also, some of those who appear most prostrate in the immediate aftermath will actually be the ones who pick themselves up better in the longer term – would that fit your experience of bereavement?

      It’s also encouraging to think that a sense of meaning may persist in people with dementia. I don’t think I can say I experienced this with my mother, who died of Alzheimer’s a few years ago, but then she was often far from at ease with herself before the dementia really took hold. Are people who had a meditation practice, for example, or people who were very creatively engaged, noticeably different from others in a state of dementia because their ‘felt sense’ continues better? Given the high genetic probability that I will face Alzheimer’s myself in the future, it would be slightly reassuring to know that one could face it in better or worse ways according to one’s previous practice. That would also perhaps be an argument against those who believe that euthanasia would be preferable to such a state.

      1. Robert, I’ll respond to your last question about dementia, which was:

        “Are people who had a meditation practice, for example, or people who were very creatively engaged, noticeably different from others in a state of dementia because their ‘felt sense’ continues better? ”

        It’s not really possible to answer the question in the way it was put. This is because I’ve not had enough experience of people who were suffering dementia and had a known history of meditation practice (or who were very creatively engaged) for me to comment on that notional relationship, or to do so with much confidence.

        As a nurse one gets a very patchy and often partial picture of a patient’s life, usually from family and friends. Patients with dementia often get moved around, displaced, and they may become disorientated by being uprooted, and ‘depersonalised’ by being seen and treated as a dementia patient. It’s not easy to see them ‘as a person’, despite the policy injunctions to do so. They tend to become caricatures, almost like ‘line-drawings’, rough two-dimensional sketches of themselves, and fixed, with no movement in them.

        What I expressed about their retaining a ‘felt sense’ is purely subjective, and inferred by me. I’m aware of my tendency to sometimes sentimentalise experience, or to describe events for dramatic effect. But I’m reasonably confident that it is possible to identify those patients (a few) who show low levels of emotional distress in dementia, almost a kind of protracted meditative calm, even when they are almost helpless or unable, or unwilling, to speak or respond to the words of others. And to ascribe to the these patients an awareness of their ‘felt sense’ of – perhaps – safety, of being loved, or of being known, or something impossible to describe, but only to know and abide in.

        When I’ve been with these patients, and not distracted by ‘busy-ness’ myself, I’ve sensed something like a meeting of ‘big mind’, or an encounter ‘in the ground of being’ with them. The encounter is a two-way thing, or (closer to the experience) a no-boundary thing. On a few occasions, during such an encounter, the patient has spoken a few words that suggested that they too experienced the encounter. I offer an example below.

        W was a very old woman, unmarried and reclusive. She had profound dementia and almost never spoke. She was incontinent, withdrawn, ‘chairbound’, and almost avolitional. W did nothing for herself (one couldn’t know if this was incapacity or unwillingness), she had to be dressed and undressed, had to be fed by hand etc. One day, for some reason, and during a rare idle moment, I sat on the floor at her feet for several minutes and held W’s hand. Suddenly, she said very clearly but quietly, “Why are you being kind to me?”.

        W’s speaking , and the fact that she asked a question, was unexpected and unprecedented: she had never addressed me personally in almost two years, although I had looked after her that long, and had spoken to her (mainly instrumentally).

        The question also penetrated my heart like an arrow. It was so fundamental to my experience of myself, and my work, but it was also a question I didn’t ask myself – ever. It was as if she had seen into my depths with compassion, and shone a light there, to challenge me to awareness. I also believe that it was my own brief openness to her that made the encounter possible. But it was never repeated.

        There have been other incidents like this, but they aren’t frequent. I haven’t said much about them professionally. They’re too fragile and impossible to evidence. But amongst nurses the shared sense of a ‘unitary field’ of experience with patients is not uncommon. It’s always interested me that it’s almost never mentioned in the nursing literature, and hardly figures in nurse training either.

        My posts tend to be rather long and prolix. I’ll end here, hoping that it adds something to the discussions going on amongst the migglers. I’m very enlivened and encouraged by what’s growing up here, and I’m feeling myself learning lots and the Middle Way and how to miggle; feeling emboldened to look in new directions and take on more rigour, outside my ‘comfort zone’ etc.

      2. Robert, here I’ll respond to your question to me about how people respond to bereavement , and what initial reaction to loss is predictive of the best long-term outcomes (drawing on my personal experience).

        The answer has to be that I’ve no reliable data from which to draw a conclusion. My general impression is that people do what they do, and there’s generally no mileage in second-guessing that. I’ve found that, once an individual sets out on a pattern of behaviours that suggest denial (as Norma outlined, a pattern of keeping busy, sorting out affairs, ‘keeping on top of things’ etc.) then it may lead to a state of mental and physical exhaustion.

        In such cases, it can be helpful to lay alternative strategies tactfully and tentatively where they may be picked up: how this is to be done, and when, and how, and what those strategies may be, is best left to the uncontrived impulse of upaya.

        The same applies to those who get stuck in feelings of “what if?” and “if only!” and “Why didn’t I?” or “Why didn’t they?” etc

        But – lest this be read as a set of psychological techniques to be applied – I’d recommend just feeling one’s way into that ‘felt sense’ with the other, where the shift is as likely/more likely to occur as when trying to push things around, to ‘achieve results’ etc.

        And a modicum of patience or equanimity is called for. So one can recognise and acknowledge one’s internal pressure to change a situation, and let it be/let it go.

        It might seem a bit cold-blooded to collect data (as you seem to suggest) by going back to the scene of the the tragedy after six-twelve months to see who had ‘made the best recovery’, the ‘cocky-busy’ one with the confident smirk and the row of medals, or the ‘droopy-weepy’ one wringing his hands in a muddy puddle. I’m not decrying that approach, although it may not be very feasible: without objective scrutiny of events we’d still be in the dark ages. You’re a valuable role model yourself, an antidote to wooly thinking.

        Norma, if you’re reading this, I’ll get round to your comment shortly, it also commands a reply from me…….:)

  2. Many thanks for both these posts, Peter. They provide a valuable grounding in practical experience in contrast to my more theoretical approach. I hope you might consider writing some blog posts of your own about your experiences with dying patients and bereavement, and the insights this has given you. I always find what you have to say about this extremely engaging, as you write so directly from your experience. Also don’t worry about being ‘prolix’ if you are giving us details that help us to appreciate your experience.

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