A heart attack, an election, and a call to clarity

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My dad and me.

There’s something about a crisis that brings clarity like nothing else can.

In April 2012, my dad had a massive heart attack. It was the kind of heart attack you’re not actually supposed to survive.

As he lay in a medically induced coma for ten or more days, doctors told the family it’d be a miracle if he survived. That we should be prepared for serious brain damage if he did.

Trying to process what might lie ahead, I got real clear in my thinking. How much do I love this dear man? What’s his real essence, that I couldn’t do without? What isn’t? What would I be willing to do without, if I could just have him back again?

I decided I didn’t need my dad to be “just the same.” It would be okay if he were confined in a wheelchair, needing to be fed, drooling just a bit, if I could just see his cute little eyes open again. His innate capacity for joy—for life—could survive even serious disability. He’d still be my dad, he’d still have that “essence of Dadness,” even if he wasn’t the same. And that would be okay.

This November 8, many of us experienced what felt like a national heart attack. One day, we thought things were basically okay, and the next … we were devastated, shocked, grieving. How was a Trump victory even possible? Where did this come from? Is this the beginning of the end? Will we survive? Do we want to?

I was already physically and emotionally drained before the election—skinny, teary and sleep-deprived after several weeks of tough personal and business decisions. When I woke up on the morning of the 9th to a headline about “President Trump” on my phone, I imploded. I somehow got my son off to school, then closed the curtains and crawled back in bed to sob and indulge in deep denial. I only got out of bed that day because I had to give a talk that afternoon. (Creating an onstage illusion of semi-togetherness when you’re in a very dark and hollow place is officially the opposite of fun. But that’s show biz.)

Later that night, after purposefully exhausting myself with running, frenzied yard work and an evening dance class, I lit candles, summoned my cuddliest cat and my darkest chocolate and (at long last) my wits. Things finally all came together—despair came full circle and turned into determination. The confusion and indecision of weeks turned into utter, almost merciless clarity.

Here’s what I got. Personally, professionally and politically:

This is a time when big and important things are happening in our country and our world, when we really have to get things right. It’s nasty and scary and awful, yes. But we don’t have room for doubt, despair, second-guessing or playing small. We no longer have the luxury for panic, hate or any form of negativity that drains and distracts us. It’s time for us all to grow up, focused and fierce.

But this doesn’t mean being cruel or shrill. This clarity means summoning compassion, forging connections, truly listening to people and perspectives that you haven’t before. It means conceding that you’re not always right, that your needs and opinions don’t always come first, that other valid perspectives actually exist. It means ceasing to treat your Facebook page like your own Jackson Pollock canvas, spattered with freeform insults to impress your “friends.”

Because, guess what? No matter your politics, it turns out that roughly half the people in this country have ideas that are markedly different from yours. They have power, they have rights, and they’re not going anywhere. Welcome to the glorious mess that is democracy.

In other words, it’s time for that tough, sitting-in-the-ICU-with-a-country-in-critical-condition conversation. Things are scary—none of us really knows what lies ahead. So, what’s most important? What do you love most about this country? What’s its essence? What isn’t? What are you willing to sacrifice? What part will you play in our national recovery?

Because we will keep going, in one way or another—and if we’re clear-headed and careful about it, we can shape what this back-from-the-brink-of-death patient looks like.

By the way, that medical miracle did happen with my dad. We took the selfie above last spring, three years after his heart attack. He not only survived—he healed almost completely. Same silly sense of humor, same tender loving-ness, same cute little eyes. He’s not quite the same as before his heart attack—he’s a bit slower and frailer, and he gets tired easily—but he’s still him. And I’ve never taken him for granted since.

For more on how to heal ourselves and our nation, watch this TED Talk by sociologist Jonathan Haidt, recorded just days before the election that rocked the world:

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4 Comments

  1. Kevin Learned says:

    Thanks Nancy. You helped me make a bit more sense of the world. Kevin

  2. Nadine Veibell says:

    Beautifully written!! I laughted, I cried, I got to be human and feel connected!! Thank you!!

  3. Cymry Reed says:

    I am moving slow in accepting all of this, some days are better than others. Thank you Nancy.

  4. Malcolm says:

    Thanks for sharing the information

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