Recently I read a very interesting book — How we die. Written by a doctor and his experience of treating more than 10,000 patients in his career, it describes the most common causes of death and what happens with the human body with each of them (things like heart failure, cancer, HIV, sudden shocks such as accidents, stabbing, shooting, etc). Overall a very good and moving book, one of the most fascinating chapters for me was on sudden shocks and how the body deals with them. In short (and skipping all the medical terms and jargon, which I have already forgotten), if the body is exposed to a sudden shock and experiences tremendous pain, different chemical reactions immediately take place (perhaps adrenaline, release of morphine), so that the pain is numbed. He was describing a horrific anecdote. A killer went mental in an amusement park and stabbed a few little girls to death, one of them particularly violently and viciously. While he was stabbing her, her mother was watching from some distance, helpless. According to the words of the mother, the little girl did not look like she was in pain or afraid, she looked rather serene and calm.
The story was so heart-breaking and haunting it has stayed with me and will do so for a little while. But the horrific part aside, how remarkable it is that we have this self-preserving mechanism. I don’t know how many of you have been in a near-death experience and whether you felt calm and fearless during it. I myself once was almost in a car accident. It started snowing unexpectedly and with my parents we were driving on some bad roads in the countryside back at home, suddenly the car slipped and started sliding towards the deep valley (and some river) on the right side of the road. My dad somehow managed to swerve and we avoided sliding down in the abyss. We were very lucky and no one got harmed. But somehow, in these moments before he managed to swerve the car and I, sitting on the passenger seat, was seeing the chasm approaching, I did not feel fear, anxiety, panic or anything at all. I felt super calm, thinking “Well, this is it, at least I will have no more worries and problems.” And it’s not like my life at that point had any of the worries and problems I had now (I was still in high school, doing pretty alright by all normal standards).
According to the book, this numbing happens not only for pure physical pain, but also for cases of mental/emotional pain. If you are going through something very traumatic, your world has been falling apart and you have been shattered to dozens of small pieces, there is this brief moment when you do not feel the profound pain. As if, you have run out of tears, run out of sadness, run out of options of how to cope with this pain. Of course, such moments would be quite brief at first but perhaps because of them, we can keep on going, because of this brief relief, we can somehow pull it through the darkest of times. Perhaps.
What does social science say about that? How good are we are coping? I have dug into well-being (happiness, life satisfaction, in some disciplines used interchangeably) and the findings of most studies are quite interesting. Bottom line is, we can cope with a lot, though some events and experiences affect us permanently or for a very long time. For instance, if you get divorced or separated, on average you will get over it in a few months-years, and if you get re-married afterwards, it’d be like it never happened. However, if you lose your spouse to death, this easily takes 5-10 years for people to get over. And good news is, most of us can also adapt to different extent to accidents, even if the harm done to you has been great. Most victims of accidents rate their life satisfaction higher than one might expect, though they are perhaps never likely to return to the same pre-accident level of well-being.
So to answer the question I posed in the title: We can adapt a lot. The bad part is we get accustomed to good shocks the same way we adjust to the bad ones; and with our own expectations, comparisons to others and assessment of life as should be versus life as it is, can make ourselves quite miserable.