On Fear, Aging, and What You Can’t Change – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I finally saw Julian Schnabel’s  film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”.  It’s an adaptation of an unbelievable book that was written letter by letter, blink by blink.  Let me explain.

In 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby, the bon vivant editor of French Elle magazine, had an unexpected stroke while driving through the French countryside.  He went into a coma, and awoke 20 days later fully conscious, but physically frozen.  “Locked-In Syndrome”, they called it.  The only part of his body over which he had control was his left eye.  Otherwise, he was a vegetable.

This gets my attention.  This guy had it all.  Career, money, fame, fashion, gorgeous women, family at home, French country houses, flats in Paris, etc.  In a fluke minute or two, for no reason at all, it’s all gone.  Physically, everything’s down the drain.  Socially, everyone (including your children, your mistress) looks at you like you’re a leper.  No one knows how to talk to you anymore.  They can barely stand to look at you.  You’ve worked your whole life to build this ideal existence, and then in an instant, it disappears.  And you’re left to rot away.  And you know it.

Thankfully, Mr. Bauby didn’t just rot away.  Because he was all there mentally (and happened to have patient and beautiful speech therapists), he learned to communicate through blinking his left eye.  Once for Yes and twice for No.  With the help of his therapists and a publishing assistant, he wrote a book about his experience, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  The assistant read him the alphabet in order of the most commonly used letters and Mr. Bauby would blink when they reached the letter he needed.  It took two minutes to write one word and ten months (at four hours a day) to complete the memoir.  His book became a French bestseller and received glowing reviews.  Mr. Bauby died of pneumonia two days after its publication.

This is the dominant fear in my life:  living a rich mental life while locked in a frozen body, until that body gives out.  I just can’t imagine myself growing old.  Even now, approaching 30, I may be in the best physical shape of my life, but I’m getting the hint.  A gray hair here or there, occasional joint pains.  Can’t drink like I used to, or eat pizza at 1am without unpleasant consequences.  It’s coming down.

And I can’t control it.  It’s happening now.  And once again, yoga swoops in and saves the day.  Yoga reminds me that peace and presence comes from not wanting anything to be any different than it is right now.  This moment (this one!) is it.  It’s all you may have.  Mr. Bauby’s experience is possible for every single one of us, and no one is exempt even though we don’t realize that until it’s too late.

I’m reminded to kindle a rich inner life, and be grateful for the work my arms and legs do for me every day.  From my favorite poem by Lama Gendun Rinpoche:

Nothing to do or undo,

nothing to force.

Nothing to want,

and nothing missing.

Everything happens by itself.


2 Comments on “On Fear, Aging, and What You Can’t Change – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

  1. Lovely post.
    I do a lot of stretching, but not so much guided practice. Part of my 2011 resolution to be the best me possible includes a yoga regimen.
    What type of yoga would you recommend as a relatively low-impact, feel-good routine? My joints are already in rough shape– specifically knees and hips. Biggest trouble area is the center of my back toward the base of my spine.
    I’d like to take it up a notch from my current stretching, but I’m not looking for a hot-yoga class or anything quite yet…
    Thanks!! :oD

  2. Michael says:

    Nice start. Now the tough part of acquiring the knack to write something every day or so (or week, or month, or whenever it’s good for you). And how does yoga come to play with this?

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