NOTIONS: Holidays have you anxious? Keep them in context

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Just before a month of holidays focused on giving and gratitude, I got sucked into one of those proverbial working-world messes. You know the type: A Lemony Snicketish series of unfortunate events that can put good people at odds with other good people.

As I got more and more drawn in, I tensed up, lost sleep, worked late into the night, began anew in the wee hours, and otherwise got distracted from deeds that needed doing, apologies that needed saying and amends that needed making.

Then, on Thanksgiving Day, in a nation in which millions of families suffer from hunger, I heard otherwise calm people fraught with fear that the turkey might emerge too dry, or the potatoes too runny or the pie crust not sufficiently crisp (when, in fact, all of the above were delicious).

And on the cusp of Christmas, in a nation with declining educational achievement and an upsurge in obesity, I saw on television long lines of young folks camped outside electronics stores, hoping to be first on their blocks to own (or sell on eBay) the latest $600 gameplaying, video-driving, sit-on-your-assand-thwart-your-thumbs contraption.

And as the holiday shopping season began in earnest, in a nation where millions live in poverty, I saw images of men and women clawing, scratching and nearly trampling one another in a manic midnight quest to obtain the first and best bargains of Black Friday.

But then, on that same Friday afternoon, I got a jolt of context.

I was pumping petrol when my cell phone rang. The caller ID said it was my friend Ted in Connecticut. The call scared me, because the last few times Ted has called, he’s been in hospitals, frightened for his wife, Jane, who’s been suffering from two kinds of cancer simultaneously.

But Ted’s day-after-Thanksgiving call bore good news. Jane’s much better, he said. In fact, she’s well enough to take care of Ted, who’s now recovering from knee surgery. The knee injury, Ted said, was suffered during a pickup basketball game with a kid young enough to be his grandson.

I had to smile, standing at that gas station in Marion, because Ted-the-tirelesscaregiver sounded downright gleeful-at Jane’s improved health, the chance to play basketball with a kid, and his illfated opportunity to turn the tables and get a little TLC for himself.

A few days later, I walked into the office and found my “message waiting” light flashing. I put down my briefcase, docked my laptop and dialed voice mail.

The call was from my friend Steve. Like Ted and Jane, Steve and Becky are fighting cancer these days. Becky’s got a nasty form of the stuff, and Steve wanted to give me an update.

His message said Becky is undergoing two kinds of chemotherapy (one of them a clinical trial of a new drug), plus radiation. And while it’s been difficult, Steve said, Becky’s spirits are good and she’s a remarkable woman.

Steve also said he’d read the book I recommended-Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”- and had found it helpful. He promised to call with another update soon.

I had breakfast a few weeks ago with Rich Frankel, a medical sociologist at the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Regenstrief Institute. We’d never met, but as we talked, we found considerable common ground: divorce, long-distance parenting and how people cope with illness, death and grief-and how that changes them.

A few days later, Frankel sent me a soon-to-be published introduction he’s written for a new book by his friend-spiritual writer, poet, philosopher and cancer survivor Mark Nepo.

In his introduction, Frankel writes of Nepo’s belief that “the experience of surviving a life-threatening disease is not a return to homeostasis, the way things were, but rather a radical transformation from which there is no turning back. As [Nepo] writes in “Thoracic Surgery,” ‘I’ve had to redefine normal, like putting grit in paint.’ Once you’ve added a new ingredient to the mix, you have something that cannot be transformed back to the way it was.”

I second Nepo’s gritty-paint notion. And raise him one. Because you need not suffer a life-threatening disease yourself to be irreversibly and radically transformed. Rather, like Ted, Steve and me, you need only experience such life-threatening illness as the caregiver for someone you love.

Having done so, one radical transformation-a blessing, if I may-is the acquisition of a deeper, broader vantage point-one in which messes at the office, the perfection of the roast beast and the acquisition of material possessions are weighed in an omnipresent context and quite often found wanting.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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