I walked to the Harriet Irving Library, autumn wind dry against my ears, heels clacking against pavement and lemon-yellow leaves. I pulled the door open and a gust of subtly warm air greeted me. My ID card triggered a friendly trill, and I ventured deeper into the warmth to seat myself at a table for two. Ten minutes later, I was joined by Aliya Boake, a third-year student at UNB pursuing a bachelor of science in psychology. I learned of a GoFundMe page that she had founded via Linkedln; she is seeking donations for her mother, who endured a very sudden spinal injury that paralyzed her from the neck down which inevitably impacted the entire family.
Perspective is a slippery thing for first-world societies; we are shrouded in relative material luxury excessive enough that it is not only equated with normalcy, but inherently conducive to insensitivity for others. I wanted to deliver a story that might instill a sense of long-lasting perspective.
In the shade of a tall green houseplant, Boake told me about openness, emotional rawness, processing trauma, intuitiveness, and resilience.
“After something like that happens, you see someone’s raw emotions, their deepest fears, and that makes it a lot easier to just talk about anything else,” she said. “When I do get to speak with someone… I feel like I am more aware and more present in the conversation, and I’m being more real, more me, communicating more openly with people.”
Though I resonated with this, I asked her to clarify what she meant by “raw.” My mind went immediately to the fundamental, stark truth of a person that precurses all their traits and different sides. I was curious to know whether she used it similarly.
She spoke of intuitiveness.
“I’ve learned a lot more about the importance of not only developing your mind but developing your heart, and the emotional side of you, the intuitive side of you. That’s something that we don’t focus on,” she said. “[Traumatic] experiences make you realize that… we are also just a mammal, a creature, and we are really quite insignificant, and we are mortal, and it’s not necessarily going to benefit you to want to be [self-centred] all the time. You realize that the [intuitive] part of you is really important…. We put on different faces, we act a certain way, but when something so traumatic happens, it breaks down all those walls and it makes you see more truly what a person is when really difficult things happen. I don’t know if the person wants to, or [if] it’s just a natural thing that happens. That experience opens it up… to see the raw emotional parts of people that [are being hidden] from other people. We all have things that we block away…. It comes out in those situations.”
I had pondered extensively whether suffering was necessary to truly regain intuitiveness. Could a solely conceptual understanding of suffering peel back our self-centredness enough to rekindle generalized intuitiveness for others?
“Maybe it is possible for a select few people but I don’t know if you can truly understand it until something like that happens, until you have something that [creates] perspective…. Some people might just be born with a talent for just being able to do that. [But] seeing what someone else goes through, that can kind of help put things in perspective. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that happened to you or someone close to you, but something in the community,” she shared. “COVID for a lot of people has put things into perspective. [You have to] live in the moment and try not to think of the future and the past… to deal with [things]… that’s what life is. You get faced with obstacles and you have to deal with them.”
Boake’s mother had suffered the injury when she fell from a hammock onto the back of her neck. As she lay on the ground and the paralysis spread to her lungs, she had said: “I don’t know if I’ll make it through this and if I don’t just know I love you guys.” The ambulances rushed her to the hospital and there was momentary relief. But then the family learned that her condition required extremely high risk surgery that could kill her, and to come to the hospital to support her before she entered the surgery ward. But by the time they made the drive from Bathurst to the Moncton hospital, she had already been sent to the ward.
“It was a scary experience,” Boake said. “It all just happened so fast…. I was so tired, not even feeling like I could eat. I was going to throw up…. Months later we’re still trying to process it.”
I came to the personal conclusion this summer that there is no end to processing things like futility, mortality, and death. It’s been months since my grandmother’s passing; my mother still has sudden grief attacks, and the most honest way I can console her is by validating her thoughts rather than to somehow help resolve them. I asked Boake whether she felt that peace in the form of resolution was possible.
“I think the peace comes with knowing that you will never really fully understand,” she said. “Or the peace comes with not ever really having full peace, knowing that you might not ever… fully process or understand it and you need to just come to peace with the fact that it happened. Just acknowledge that it happened.”
We returned to the concept of resilience, and the necessity of perspective in order to live deeply and vividly in our everyday lives. So often I find that our cyclical routines are so familiar to us that it is easy to become desensitized to the beauty of simply being alive.
“My mom is [better at] dealing with [what happened] than any of us. The amount of positivity my mother has…. She said, ‘The reason I’m still alive and fighting so hard is because I still have my kids and I want to be here for my kids’…. That’s what has kept her going…. Seeing how resilient [my mother] has been through this experience has shown me that when I am stressed out about a test it is nothing in comparison to what could happen. There’s always somebody who is going through something worse. It doesn’t mean that [what you’re going through] doesn’t matter. But it has shown me that if she can get through this, I can get through anything. We can all get through things and be okay. I’ve learned the importance of every moment and how fast things can change. In one moment you can go from having everything to having nothing,” she said. “Going to school is important to me… but sometimes I think that… you can try your hardest and do everything you can, but what helps me deal with my anxiety is [the idea] that even if you fail this test, it’s not the end of the world. You still have a roof over your head, a mother who is alive, a family who loves you. You have what is important. That helps me… accept the anxiety.”
Reflecting on the impact of a traumatic experience on familiar school stresses brought our conversation back to the ideas of openness and self-centeredness.
“I think people are scared of [being open] and [of] how someone else is going to view them. Because of that individualism and being so stuck in ourselves we… subconsciously know that other people are like that as well…so I think we repress a lot because of that…. We’re all [so] self-centred [that] we have this inherent sense that everyone is.”
In all the reflections I’d had in attempting to bound and rationalize self-centredness, I had never considered the idea of mutual awareness of one another’s self-centredness as a barrier to compassion. I asked for Boake’s insight into how this could be punctured to give way to generalized kindness. Our conversation ended on an extremely uplifting idea.
“There’s an element of… accepting that you might be anxious to have these types of [open] conversations. If you’ve come to the realization that it’s important, even if you try to have an open conversation, [others] might not be ready for it and most people aren’t. But there needs to be someone who starts the discussion. It takes some people going through some kind of ‘enlightening experience’ that starts a domino effect: one person teaches [another] about it. [And] eventually if we try hard enough we can make people become more open and accepting in general [this way].”