A couple days ago, I was reading an article on Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement speech to the graduating class of Fredonia College in New York on May 20, 1978 (Brain Pickings). I have never heard of him or read any of his works before but he was a prolific American writer who had delivered nine commencement speeches to undergraduates who were ready to charge ahead in the next stages of their lives.
After starting off his speech with a few old cliches, Vonnegut dived into his message:
“… The only advice my father ever gave me was this: “Never stick anything in your ear.” The tiniest bones in your body are inside our ears, you know – and your sense of balance, too. If you mess around with your ears, you could not only become deaf, but you could also start falling down all the time. So just leave your ears completely alone. They’re fine, just the way they are.”
He addressed that he was being silly because he knew that life is going to be very tough again after the graduation ceremony. The choices that are now opened to us after leaving university are vast; and unlimited possibilities is a very scary thought. So much so that even at the age of 32, I am still trying to narrow things down for myself.
The quote was of course a metaphor. It tells us that we should be mindful of what we do and be aware of our surroundings because the tiniest shift could make us lose our balance in life and tune out important lessons that could eventually bring us back on track.
Why did this particular quote resonate with me so much that it deserves a whole blog post to itself? Because I was diagnosed with Acoustic Neuroma three and a half years ago and have lost my hearing in my left ear after the open-skull surgery (aka craniotomy). What Vonnegut said, I literally experienced. I became deaf and have lost my sense of balance. Physically, I had to learn how to walk again and deal with this aftermath for life – I now only have one good ear left. Thankfully, the human body is a very adaptive machine and it didn’t take long for my right ear to kick into full mode and adjust to my surroundings.
I was waiting for this news to hit me and ball my eyes out. But that day never came. (I was more worried about the aftermath – how to cope with the recovery. The surgery itself was not a scary thing for me). Instead, I found myself consoling all my close friends and family around me. They were the ones who were balling their eyes out because they felt helpless. My Mom tried her best to be strong for me but she was a wreck. This was also the first time that I have ever seen my Dad cried. He felt that my life was in his hands because he was the one who was looking for the best neurosurgeon for me. The pressure and stress were immense for the both of them.
After the surgery, my recovery went very well. Of course I experienced all the post-surgery stuff like massive headaches, constant ringing sound on the left ear, vomiting and so on. I got through all of them as gracefully as I could. I was able to get out of bed on Day 4 and slowly tried to walk again. By Day 8, I was discharged from the hospital, with the world spinning a little faster than I’d want it to. But no complaints there. I was able to comfortably recover at home and train myself every day for 20 minutes so that I could walk normal again without bumping into things. Within 3 month’s time, I was able to take a mini vacation in Phuket with my parents. Life was, and is still, good.
Don’t underestimate your own body and your willpower. They are extremely powerful in getting you through the toughest things in life.
Here are a few lessons/thoughts that I gained from my blubber (i called it blubber because I hate the word turmor):-
1. Don’t let a bad situation dictate how you live your life.
To many people this operation was something massive, something so overwhelming that they don’t think they could have gone through what I’ve been through. Everyone around me thought I was extremely brave and handled the situation very well because I did not breakdown in front of them (or in private). That was because I did not have the victim’s mindset. I didn’t ask the question “Why Me” and mope around refusing the leave the house. I approached this experience in a matter of factly manner. The surgery was something that needed to be done. I weighted the pros and cons of the various options that I had and all I could do was choose what I felt most comfortable with and trust my doctors. There was nothing else I could have done myself to get rid of blubber; so I left it at that and took a neutral stance. I am not going to lie and say that I was staying positive and was all optimistic about the situation. But I wasn’t upset or pessimistic about it either.
2. The myth on what ‘near-death’ experience mean (If I can even called mine a ‘near-death’ experience).
I am not going to go all gung-ho on preaching about how life is short, do what you want to do, seize the day kind of deal. That is not realistic nor practical. A ‘near-death’ experience is supposed to put life in perspective – but this perspective only last 3-4 days, when you were recovering from whatever trauma you went through, you are glad to be alive, you are thankful for the warmth of that beam of sunlight shining through the crack from the curtains. After that, life goes back to the way they were. I am not saying is mundane, but that “I am so grateful that I am alive” feeling does not stick with you forever.
“You’d like to think that nearly getting killed would be a permanently life-altering experience … [but] the illumination didn’t last” (Tim Kreider)
The idea that people having been through traumatic experiences must have epiphanies and turn their lives around is bullsh*t. Yes, you do have a new level of appreciation but it doesn’t mean you now have to realize all your dreams and know exactly which paths you should take. It is ok to still be uncertain. That’s life. One single “out of the ordinary event” does not have the power to show you exactly where you should go or what you should do. Everybody has the potential to turn what they love to do into a job they are passionate about or a meaningful project regardless of what they have been through. They just need to clarify their priorities.
It is important to carve out time in your daily life to do things that you are passionate about. Enjoy the little moments and take a walk everyday. Do whatever it is that will help you clear your mind. Is tough to find balance in life when we are constantly bombarded with so many things. You have to be physically and emotionally well before you tackle big ideas and projects, like turning your hobbies into a lifelong career – or whatever goals and dreams you may have. Don’t over plan your life. 90% of the plans don’t get executed any ways. You need to improvise along the way. Have a rough road map and do little tweaks and things in life that will help you get to your end destination.
“I don’t have a grand master plan, but I try to be thoughtful when I can and also silly. It’s part of the fun.” (Josh Charles)
Keep in mind that everyone in the world is an amateur. When we retain an amateur’s spirit, we embrace the uncertainty and unknown (Show your work, Austin Kleon) and will have an openness to possibility that closes up as we get calcified in expertise.
3. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind and be unapologetic for who you are.
I used to keep my opinions to myself most of the time. I convinced myself that if someone else’s opinions weren’t too out of line with mine, there was no point for me to share my thoughts because I somehow was agreeing with them anyways. The problem with this is that you will eventually feel like you have no say in anything and you start to feel inferior to those around you. You might think it was out of good intention to let other people have their way and to avoid any minor conflicts. But what you don’t realize is that there is a tiny bit of resentment every time you do it. Eventually, you will lash out at some poor soul because your needs are never being met.
Having only one good ear post-crainotomy, I will always have to position myself correctly in social situations in order to hear what people are saying. If you happen to be on my left, I’d have no idea that you have just said something to me. At the beginning, I felt like a burden in these social situations because I didn’t want friends and family (or even strangers) to adjust themselves. I am the one with the disability, so I should be the one to make the changes. This made things difficult as I would always just smile and nod my head when I couldn’t make out what people were saying to me. I pretended to be engaging and knew what they were talking about. I did not want them to go to the trouble in repeating themselves. This led to frustration on my part and people could tell I was not into the conversations at all. Worst of all, I became uninteresting and a girl without any views since I wasn’t able to offer any opinions. For a year, I missed out on a lot of fascinating and important conversations. I cultivated this “I couldn’t be bothered” mentality.
People appreciate honesty and being truthful helps deepens the connections in all your relationships. Telling people about your disabilities can be a difficult thing. You are showing vulnerability and in most people’s eyes, that is a bad thing. (Though we now know that being vulnerable has great power in bring people together, thanks to Dr. Brene Brown’s Ted Talk). Once I started to tell people that I have problem hearing with my left ear and be honest about it when they asked the ‘why’ question, I realized that it was not a big deal at all and that it is okay to ask people to repeat themselves when you ask politely. I was much more at ease in social situations because I no longer have to pretend. I can be myself and it feels wonderful. You are your worst critic in life. If you cannot accept who you are, no one will. Love yourself and be unapologetic for being the real you.