Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Extended Present of Survival

A couple of days ago I read a New York Times essay by Harriet Brown that quite simply knocked me over. The link to the article is the title here. She was talking about how after having gotten her two daughters through life-threatening illnesses, she was having trouble adapting to a more relaxed life. In some respects, all of us have been through the same situation. I have a daughter who flies home from her high stress university life and promptly comes down ill the moment she walks in the door. It seems to be that becoming a "daughter" with a mother who is available to care for her is the trigger that allows her to let it all out. She usually recovers in a day or so after her arrival and is fine again.

What really struck me about Ms. Brown's article was the comment that "In times of crisis, the brain goes into protective mode, a kind of extended present tense intended to get you through danger without wasting energy or emotional resources. After all, there is no evolutionary advantage to worrying about the future when the future may never come." I'm not a stranger to this extended present tense, but I've always thought of it as the response to an immediate emergency, that icy calmness that allows one to bundle a bleeding kid into the car to get to the emergency room for stitches. As I was reading about the extended illnesses of her daughters, I realised that I'd also relied on that extended present tense to get me through the Bad Years of reorganising my late husband's businesses to take care of the needs and desires of the banking community in Cairo. Friends and family wondered at my ability to simply deal with the multitude of blows, setbacks and complex problems that were my lot for those years. I'd get up in the morning, dress for whatever corporate duty lay in wait for me, and get on with my day. I was in a sort of emotional shock.

My kids, bless them, would turn me around at the kitchen door many evenings sending me out to my horses with a change of clothes and tell me to go ride. I would ride, sometimes for hours, silently through the countryside night listening to the sounds of families resting in front of their homes, chatting, watching television, playing...the sounds of normality that would heal the wounds of each day. But all that time, I couldn't think ahead clearly to plan anything, I couldn't think of who/what I had lost, memories were fuzzy and not useful to me. It took years to reach a point when I suddenly began writing poetry quietly during board(bored) meetings, tugging out tiny bits of feeling from the numbness within. Poetry was the only way I could access my feelings at that point. Everything had to be in bite-sized pieces because I seemed to be incapable of dealing with anything larger than a moment.

This idea of extended present tense has given me pause to think as well about the people around me. I wonder how many people that I deal with on a daily basis get into the habit of this extended present tense in defense against the difficulties of life. I live among people for whom the only guarantee is that they and their families will someday die...the old "death and taxes" as sureties but they are too poor to pay taxes. Visitors here look at the villagers and ask how do they live with.... a million things that might occur to someone, but I'll bet that much of their life is spent in that present tense where the future has no meaning and the past has no bearing. I'm sure that when your life is a mess in general, survival mode becomes normality.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani


Cairogal said...

A brilliant post, ma.

Dina said...

Thank you for putting all this into words.

sara said...

Can I come someday & ride with you?

How I wish!

Mary said...

Well said. An extended present tense - very descriptive.

Lalla said...

Thank you for this article I can relate to it. I also read the essay in the New York Times and it was brilliant and spot on.
I have been reading your blogspot for some months now and allways come back for more

April said...

Wow, is all I can say about your blog! You are an inspiring person, I have read many blogs, especially of western women married to Egyptian men like myself. I have lived in Egypt with my husband for one year, and we just returned to the US until we can figure out how to support our older two children (who speak very little arabic) in a private school system there, or until I educate myself more on homeschooling them, our baby (2) is very bilingual, after we saw how difficut it was for our older two, since we waited too long to introduce the language.

What a great source of knowledge you are!!!