Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Shock of the New 

More pages from last week’s journal:
Saturday 6 August 2005

Years ago, I saw a TV programme about a man who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His symptoms were quite bad – continual severe muscle tremors - and although he lived with his family he chose to look after himself as much as possible, getting up early to make his own breakfast so that the rest of his family didn’t have to watch him struggling and making a mess. It may sound a cop-out, but I guess both sides found it easier that way. In the course of making the TV programme, someone came up with the idea of him trying out swimming again and being filmed. Clearly, he’d swum before he had the disease, and equally clearly it would be risky – would you jump into a swimming pool knowing that you didn’t have full control of your limbs, that they have a mind of their own sometimes and you have less than a 50/50 chance of getting them to obey your commands?

Early one morning, before the pool was open to the public, he stood on the side, hesitated just a moment, and dived. Straight in, head first, into the deep end.

It seemed like a miracle: he swam a full length easily and with style, without a hint of a twitch or spasm. When he reached the far end, he was so desperate to tell the crew how wonderful it felt, the words came tumbling out of him, a huge smile across his face, talking nineteen to the dozen like a seven year old kid who’s just won a race at the school sports day.

He came out of the pool and dried off to talk to the camera, but was so excited he was determined to do it again, to repeat the thrill. Who can tell what it must have felt like, to be free of that monkey on his back? He dived again, but this time was different. The element of shock had gone, he knew what was coming and this time the sudden grip of the cold water failed to jolt his system sufficiently to force the Parkinson’s disease to release its grasp on his nervous system. He floundered and had to be rescued by a pair of lifeguards – not an easy task as by then the Parkinson’s symptoms had returned with a vengeance and his whole body was shaking in violent, uncontrolled jerks. Out of the pool, a look of utter dejection supplanted his previous euphoric excitement.

The Shock of the New: that was the title given to a TV series I also remember from that same era. The phrase was coined to describe responses to modern art, but seems equally apt to describe the way in which the sudden shock, the jolt to his system, had for a while freed his nervous system from the tyranny of the disease.

Something a little like that happened last night. There may have been no violent shock, but the utter novelty of coming away by ourselves together, just the two of us, for the first time in twenty five years, created a shock of a kind that eased the grip of the old way of being, the way tied to history and habit and old mental models and all manner of limiting beliefs, just enough to create an almost tangible sense of release. No shock as such, but the effect was similar: an immediate change on a sufficient number of fronts to create a fresh perspective; enough cords were cut to allow the possibility of movement in a way that previously seemed denied, even if the cords had been tied by my own hands.

Of course, whether I now choose to exercise that freedom and explore the space that in reality has always been open to me is entirely up to me.

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