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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Carry On

The phrase is a familiar one. While bombs and rockets rained down on the UK, the British government devised a series of posters to bolster morale. Eventually three designs with three different slogans were developed by the Ministry of Information, two of which were widely posted. The third never saw the light of day until 60 years later when a handful that had been stashed away appeared on the widely viewed television program, Antiques Roadshow. That poster simply read “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

The fact that this iconic phrase sticks in our minds as a symbol of resolve in the face of duress is no accident. There is something innately admirable about those who are able to face life’s vicissitudes with calm. I suspect we all hope that we can do the same if we are ever put to the test, but the truth is that few can say with certainty how they will react.

I was put in mind of this today by my neighbor. Her husband had just returned home from the hospital having undergone surgery to replace his aging hip joint. It’s a fairly routine procedure these days and he knew this was coming. I had grown used to seeing him walking his dog with the aid of a walking sick and shots of cortisone that were required with greater frequency of late. We talked about the upcoming eventuality and he seemed to be reconciled to the necessity—even looking forward to the cessation of pain and immobility his condition had imposed upon him.

This is a man unused to being held back. Still young enough to enjoy athletic outlets and vigorous in every other respect, he was a good candidate for the procedure. So, I was taken aback to hear from his wife that on coming home he had retreated to his bed and was refusing to follow any of the recuperative exercises designed to get him back on his feet. In fact, he refused to do much of anything but hunker down and brood. His visiting nurse, his doctor, wife and several friends had interceded and urged him to shake it off, all to no avail.

It would be wrong to dismiss this as a case of someone who turned out to be a wussy patient. There is something more going on here that gets to the subject at hand. One minute we are cruising along in our lives and the next an unexpected event sets us back on our heels, physically, emotionally or both. Conventional wisdom might suggest my neighbor is a bit depressed. That would be quite unlike him. I suspect something more, a confrontation with mortality. Perhaps not in the usual sense, an awareness of the inevitability of death, but rather a sudden and painful awareness that life will never be the same.

I have been here, which is why I harbor this suspicion. This is not something for which one can prepare. The first time it happened to me I did everything in my power to try to forestall what I knew was coming. It did not work. And then once events began to unfold there was no time to dwell, no time to reflect, only the necessity of carrying on. I take nothing away from the courage displayed by those who have endured severe hardship even the death of those they love. I simply observe that when confronted by the unthinkable we have a choice, to fold or to carry on. The war time citizens of the UK could have caved under the strain but they carried on because defeat was not an option they could accept. My own life lesson was in a different way, the same. Carry on or accept the alternative, not something I was prepared to do.

My neighbor on the other hand has yet to make his choice—he is still in denial hoping that by some magic he will awaken tomorrow and be healed. He won’t be and at some point, I am confident he will gather himself and begin the long trudge back to health. The lesson here is that we must first accept that life is never the same. Each day we are granted puts us one step further down a path which we cannot retrace or reclaim. It’s a tough lesson, but acceptance is not capitulation. It is acknowledgement that life is always evolving, changing and leading us to our destiny. We can mourn for the past, but we must accept our future, even when it means letting go of things and people we love.

I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but I’ve experienced this confrontation more than once and each time I faced the same choice, acceptance or denial. So far, I’ve chosen acceptance and indeed my life has changed, in many ways for the good but tinged with sadness at what I have left behind. I don’t know what’s coming and I am ok with that. I’m just going to keep calm and carry on.

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