I have a little ritual as soon as I board the ferry from my island home for the one hour and 40 minute sailing over to the mainland: I make a stop at the magazine rack of the B.C. Ferries gift shop. It has something to do with both the beautifully tactile feel of a new magazine and its clear association in my brain with almost every ferry ride I’ve ever taken through our west coast Gulf Islands.
That, and a pack of Mentos . . .
During last week’s sailing to Vancouver, we had barely settled into our front row seats in the forward lounge with the Mentos and a copy of Psychology Today in hand before I was riveted by editor Kaja Perina‘s third page commentary. She writes about something called the Black Swan, a reference to a 17th century philosophical thought experiment.
Although the PT article by Brooke Lea Foster that Perina is introducing in her opening editorial focuses on famous Black Swan events like plane crashes and shark attacks, a Black Swan event is any that’s considered rare, unpredictable, and has significant repercussions.
This definition immediately – and not surprisingly – reminded me of how a number of us heart patients define our cardiac events:
- rare (for us, at any rate!)
- unpredictable (never saw this coming)
- significant repercussions (both physical and psychosocial)
As Perina writes in her refreshingly insightful editorial, we often spuriously rationalize these occurrences in hindsight:
“One need not be the victim of a headline-grabbing disaster to feel the power of the Black Swan.
“In the course of a lifetime, many people will confront a serious medical diagnosis that was, one second prior, not even a word or phrase in their vocabulary.
“Of course, such moments are not truly “rare”, but they feel like a one-in-a-million punch to the individuals staring them down.”
The former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, once observed that our brains are wired for narrative, not statistical uncertainty. That rings true for those of us diagnosed with a chronic and progressive illness like heart disease. He wrote, for example:
“We tell ourselves simple stories to explain complex thing we don’t – and, most importantly, can’t – know. Trying to extract generalizable stories to explain unpredictable events may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s practically useless.”
Similarly, before you experience a heart attack, you may have clear beliefs, as I did, about what kind of people have them (most likely: not you!). And after you survive a heart attack, you will, I predict, make every effort to try to make sense of your unpredictable event through generalizable stories.
In her Psychology Today article, Foster revisits people who have survived traumatic events. Survivors, she explains, no matter the particular trauma or the wreckage it leaves behind, must cope with the same emotional reality: the unthinkable did happen – to them.
“Some say they think of their lives in two parts – who they were before the event, and who they became after.”
“The unimaginable has the ability to warp or sharpen statistical reasoning, but more important, to tap reserves of empathy, often creating a sudden kinship with strangers who struggle with the same twist of fate.
“Whatever the probability, such events don’t gently usher in enlightenment and perspective taking. They shove you, naked, onto an advanced ski slope.”
Illustration: John Gould, The Birds of Australia, London 1840-1869
♥ NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about becoming a patient in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price when you order).
Q: How have you experienced your own Black Swan event?