One-eyed bowling

by Brian on January 19, 2020

in Cancer,Health,Science

I’ve never been a great bowler. Now try doing it with only one eye. 

Jody bowls a strike at the bowling birthday party

That’s the situation I found myself in when my wife, Jody, and I were invited to a bowling party to celebrate a good friend’s birthday. 

It was a few days after I underwent cataract eye surgery. In addition to removing my cloudy cataract lens, the operation would have the added benefit of giving me near-perfect vision.

However, unlike LASIK, where both eyes are done on the same day, ophthalmologists generally operate on only one eye at a time for cataracts, with a two-week break between surgeries.

That meant that for a fortnight, my left eye would be able to see distance perfectly, but my right eye would be its old myopic self. 

The result was “clear” the night of the party: the pins at the end of the bowling lane were a blurry mess. Not surprisingly, my bowling form consisted primarily of aim, release … and gutter ball. By the evening’s end, I had the lowest score of the group (although admittedly I had the most creative excuse).

I never had a problem with cataracts until I started chemo for my chronic cancer two years ago. The steroids that are part of many cancer-killing regimes are known to exacerbate cataracts. Cataracts are also a natural part of getting older: by age 65, 90% of adults will have a cataract of some sort.

While I wasn’t particularly worried about the surgery going awry, it was nevertheless distressing on a conceptual level – an unavoidable symbol of my body’s overall decline. 

When I was younger, a cold or a flu would last maybe a couple of weeks. There would then be a long period of health, followed one day by another illness. It was no fun to get sick, but I knew it would most likely be temporary.

Not so much anymore. 

When I get a new ache or pain, I can no longer be sure that it will eventually go away on its own. I wasn’t able to just get a new prescription for glasses this time – I needed surgery. As for my incurable chronic cancer, it will, by definition, be with me for life.

My therapist suggested I read Judith Viorst’s Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. In the book, Viorst – a columnist for Redbook who spent six years training at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute – argues that losses are an inescapable part of life and are, in fact, the way we grow and change.

Put another way, for every growth, there is a necessary loss.

It happens at every age, consciously and unconsciously, Viorst writes. 

We lose our mother’s protection and connection. 

We must give up the impossible expectations we bring to relationships – friendships and marriages alike. 

We lose our youth and eventually our loved ones through separation or death. 

But by confronting – and eventually accepting – these losses, we also gain maturity and wisdom. Losing is the price we pay for living, Viorst says.

Viorst’s thesis is comforting, but it’s not an easy pill to swallow. That may be due to our natural “negativity bias,” an evolutionary necessity that ensured we stayed hyper-alert to potential predators in the savannah.

“Bad events and emotions affect us more strongly than positive ones,” write John Tierney and Roy Baumeister in their new book The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. “We’re devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise. We focus so much on bad news, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world.”

Tierney and Baumeister describe how a negative image (a photograph of a dead animal) stimulates more electrical activity in the brain than a positive image (a bowl of chocolate ice cream) and how “a single bad event can produce lifelong trauma but there is no psychological term for the opposite of trauma because no good event has such a lasting impact.”

The negativity bias can be overcome but it takes work. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Tierney and Baumeister propose a number of techniques. One of them is the rule of four. “A negative event or emotion usually has at least three times the impact of a comparable positive one.” As a result, “it takes four good things to overcome one bad thing.” 

For example, you’ll need at least four compliments to make up for one bit of criticism. “If you’re late for one meeting, you won’t redeem yourself by [simply] being early the next time,” they write. 

Good managers have known about this for a while. They call it the “compliment sandwich.” You start with a word or two of praise before giving some criticism. You then follow it up with another compliment or two. 

Then there’s this helpful personal tip: “If you and your partner are having sex four times more often than you fight, that’s probably a healthy relationship.”

Most of all, “see the big picture,” Tierney and Baumeister write. “Crime has plummeted in the U.S., but most Americans think it has risen because they see so much mayhem on their screens.”

I’m certainly no stranger to mayhem – in my body, that is. But the big picture is I’m still here. And I’m still bowling – as of this writing with two post-surgery (although far from perfect) eyes. 

I suppose I’ll stick around for a while, despite all the necessary losses. There’s still at least four times as much good as there is bad out there to see.

I first went one-eyed bowling for The Jerusalem Post.

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