THE BLOG

Paralyzed And Free

03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA

I saw Julian Schnabel's new film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about Mr. Jean-Dominique Bauby who is paralyzed head to toe with 'locked in' syndrome but who shares his experiences through a yes/no responding by blinking one eye. In the story, Mr. Bauby transcends his frozen body to share our humanity, kindness and compassion, both in his external world of physical therapists, friends, and family and the internal world of his own creation.

His story, blinked out one letter at a time, is painfully slow, forcing us the viewer - the fast-paced observer - to slow to the excruciating new pace of life in Bauby's world. Yet soon the letters flow with greater speed and within the 2 hour film, I found the pace of communication acceptable, I had slowed to Bauby's pace of living, I became content in his world as did he. Schnabel brought Bauby and me to the same place, a place of gratitude for humanity, magnified by the stillness of a body.

Against this still life, the fullness of imagination and memory were evident, gushing out through dreams - day and night - and blinked out to share with others. His story teaches so much, the frailty of life, the power of kindness and compassion, and the capacity within us all to be content. What brings contentment to life is to know the sufficiency of it, to know what is present is enough, even if from another's perspective it seems far from it. As I look around my life and others and see the inequalities of access - to health, to wealth, to life experiences - I also know that contentment arises from within with equal access to all. In painful life experiences, we often learn to become less dependent on external experiences to find contentment.

In those experiences we shift our awareness toward the inner landscape and sift through emotions and thoughts to find a place of peace and tranquility, in the midst of anguish. Bauby discovers that place and shares it with us. As I get up today to do the many 'doing' things of life, I am reminded of Maya Angelou's quote, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Bauby stopped 'doing' when his body became locked in place, but in that new form, he did more than perhaps ever before to help others feel happy, to discover the sufficiency of life, to find contentment.