2016 July 19

The Calm During the Storm

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International Space Station view of hurricane Ivan and the eye of the storm.

Often throughout my life, I've been told that I «radiate calm» or words to that effect, which is typically a good thing. Given the recent circumstances, though, I think there is a concern I may be taking this conceit too far. More than one person has looked at me as if saying, «Shouldn't you be more distraught?» I know this because one of the first people to think so was me.

At first, I thought maybe it just hadn't sunk in yet—that all too soon I would break down and rage, or weep, or just fall into silent despair over the sheer injustice. And perhaps that is yet to come. I'm not going to pretend that I know how I will feel as time marches on. But for now, the calm remains.

Last time, I ended with the promise of a more introspective post. Come with me, then, as we explore The Mystery of Elliot's Mind(set).

Nature and Nurture

There's no doubt that some of my serenity is simply innate. In that respect, it feels wrong to take credit for inner strength when I cannot help but be who I am.

I was also extremely fortunate to grow up in a stable, nurturing environment with two wonderful parents. From their example, as well as from our friends and other family, I learned that trouble does not always mean tragedy. Hard times can often be endured with the support of a caring network.

This background means that I am not a nervous or worried person. Instead of being paralyzed by problems, I like to find solutions.

The Glass Is Both Half-Full and Half-Empty—But You Can Ask for a Refill

Of course some problems are much larger than others. However, I don't think I am in deep denial or am some kind of rosy-eyed Pollyanna about my cancer. I have never had much use for optimism, the belief that things will get better. I have similar disdain for pessimism, the idea that things will get worse. On the other hand, it's a bit presumptuous to claim that I am some kind of fabulously discerning realist, able to see all things exactly as they are. And that would fall short of my general outlook anyway, as it implies distance from events—a mere view from the sidelines.

There's no existing word for my position on this scale, and I'd like to extend it perpendicularly anyway. I choose to believe that with effort, things can get better. I don't know that they will get better, and certainly nothing will improve all by itself—concerted human intervention is needed to make the world a better place. I like to think of myself as a «hopeist». Despair guarantees failure.

What effect does that have on my expectations? Basically it means that while I hope for a good outcome, I remain open to all the possibilities. I have to acknowledge that my remaining time may be much shorter than I hope so that I am not crushed if that becomes the actual outcome.

If you've been introduced to quantum physics, you may have heard that fundamental entities like photons or electrons can be either a particle or a wave. The accepted interpretation is, in reality, even stranger. Most quantum physicists will tell you the photon or electron is both a particle and a wave at the same time. This means that every electron in every atom of your body is simultaneously a little bundle of matter-energy at a particular place surrounding the atom's nucleus, AND a wave with a particular momentum that stretches across the entire universe. (If you think that sounds insane… you're absolutely correct.)

This ability to exist in mutiple versions at the same time is called superposition, and that's how I view my expectations: a superposition of possible outcomes, with the hope that strong action can force the better future to prevail.

Fortunate Son

Earlier I said that hard times can often be endured. The qualification is necessary since obviously some woes cannot be overcome. I've always had a roof over my head and enough to eat, not to mention the other privileges of being born into a prosperous white family in late 20th-century America. I am acutely aware that so many lives throughout history have been little more than a litany of misery. Complaining about a single stroke of misfortune—no matter how drastic the effect on my life—feels mean-spirited.

I also cannot rail against the injustice of my situation when I do not believe that life offers any promise of fairness. Life is not fair or unfair; that would imply it had some kind of purposeful mind. Life just is. If I somehow felt Life Itself was out to get me, then I really would be upset.

Moreover, I have to conclude that in some respect I have already experienced more than many people would in multiple lifetimes. I can only be grateful for all I have been able to see and do in the 46 years since my birth:

  • I had an idyllic childhood, where two of my best friends (my parents) introduced me to great books, games, movies, theater, and the wonder and beauty of nature.
  • Although basically an introvert, I have never lacked close and deep friendships. I've known my oldest friend, Andrei Belopolski, since 1984. Other friends were willing to found a commune with me.
  • I've won events on two different televised quiz shows (It's Elementary and It's Academic).
  • I have traveled the world and lived in the global metropolises Washington DC, New York City, Moscow, and London.
  • During the tail end of the Cold War, I attended Soviet School 45 for two years.
  • I was John Denver's personal interpreter (for 5 minutes). [Note 1]
  • I know what it is to fall in love, and have been married for more than 20 years to the woman who completes my heart.
  • As a father of more than 15 years, I've watched my sons grow into young adulthood.
  • I attended a world-class center of learning for college.
  • After receiving so much from my family, in recent years I've been able to return the favor by building a trove of genealogical and family history.
  • Throughout grade school, middle school, and high school I had a starring role in numerous theater productions.
  • I wrote, produced, and directed an off-off…-off-off Broadway play for a Manhattan theater festival.
  • My wife and I built our dream home in the woods off Rock Creek Park.
  • I am a Life Master at the tournament level of contract bridge.
  • I have been both a professional artist and a professional programmer.
  • As this domain name (etgdesign.com) indicates, I've run my own freelance business. But I've also built a rewarding career at a firm that is committed to making positive change in people's lives, working there with a superb crew of dedicated and caring professionals.

I'm not saying I'm done yet—there are plenty of things I still want to accomplish. But I don't feel I have a bucket list of unfilfilled experiences taunting me. It's been a fabulous life so far, and if I must, I will leave with a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude.

  1. When I was 15 (back in 1985) John Denver and the Muppets came to Moscow and gave a special performance for a dual Russian-American audience. I was taking guitar lessons from a Russian tutor at the time, and after the show my parents suggested I get him Denver's signature. I tracked down the singer and was explaining the signature request when an enthusiastic Russian gentleman came over and started volubly expressing his admiration. Not comprehending a word, Denver was gracious but understandably perplexed. With two years of Russian school under my belt, I was able to provide some simultaneous translation for the brief encounter. Back