Is there a purpose in personal tragedy?


Eric Van Fossen PA-C, CH

After an event that negatively impacts our life, many of us seek out the “why.” We suffer. We want our suffering to have meaning. We struggle to find the big purpose, the reason, why this horrible thing has happened. In any personal tragedy, we often desire comfort in knowing that there was a reason, a purpose to our loss. Often, we do not find it. We do not gain insight to the universe’s template; that design which would show us the reason why and provide us a hint of comfort.

Perhaps it is our modern culture that drives a wedge of narcissism into all of us. “Something horrible has happened to me, I have suffered great loss; so there must be a higher purpose.” We are often left wondering what future path we are to now choose based on past events. We yearn to find a future path that will help the past events to suddenly make sense. It may never make sense; anymore than driving a new route to work tomorrow won’t change the fact that you experienced a flat tire yesterday.

The bad news is that we may never to get to see the big purpose of our tragedy. The good news…well the good news is, that maybe the tragedy we experienced is the just the very first step in a bigger miracle - which we never get to see. The first flap of a butterfly’s wings that changes the world.  I suspect the new purpose and the grace that will come from it, operate on a different level; a microscopic level that we are blind to; due to our self-centered ways and the noise of our modern world.

So, I propose this; that most of the time, the new grand higher purpose which we seek, is hidden amongst the trees and the litter of our lives. Perhaps we are blind to them, our vision limited by too much internal awareness and too little time on this earth. Big purposeful changes can take a long time. What if the purpose behind a tragedy takes a hundred years or multiple generations to play out? Maybe a tragic event in our lifetime is only the initializing event in what ends up being a large miracle 100 years from now. Yes, it hurts, and maybe we suffer even more if we never get to see the reason why; the miracle beyond that suffering. The bigger purpose, the miracle behind the suffering, may require many more events before coming to fruition.

I also suspect that we can adjust our own filter to discover some of these little steps. Minor events, which fall together to create the bigger purpose. I think we are so lost in our desire for immediate insight and relief, that we don’t look for the little miracles surrounding us. I think we need to prime ourselves to see them. We need to change our filter, so it captures all the crap, while letting the thousands of minor miracles drip through into our awareness.

So maybe we should look for all the minor miracles that happen every day. We need to search them out after we are beset by a tragedy. Maybe your suffering now grants you true empathy to assist another. Then, that other person goes on to touch yet another life, all because you learned in your suffering just how intently someone might need to be comforted. What if their new ability to comfort others, which they learned from you, changes yet another life? Then that life proceeds to give birth to a child that saves a thousand people from some disaster fifty years from now?

What if a teenage boy, usually full of angst, learns to comfort an aunt that has suffered loss? Is it not a miracle that some new neurological pathway has been opened to him which will enable him to become a loving father? Years later his child may bring love to the world and change things forever.

Or perhaps a person that is suffering, forces themselves to smile at a stranger.  What if that one smile is that exact thing needed by that stranger to change her life in one miniscule way?  One forced smile and two years from now, who knows all the minor miracles that may have bloomed?

You see, we are naïve to think that we get to see the big purpose behind our own tragedies. We are self-centered to hope that it completely and solely involves just us. We are blind to the thousands of minor miracles that occur along our path. The little things we miss and can’t begin to understand, can shape a better world. Maybe not for us and quite possibly for someone we will never know.

So, create your filter. Every morning ask yourself,

“How many minor miracles will I see today and how will I be even more aware of their presence in my life?”

Then start writing down every conceivable minor miracle you can find. It is best to write them out by hand in a journal. Review them at the end of the day.

I am curious, but you know for sure, that there are a certain number of minor miracles that make up one bigger purpose. The answer lies in looking for the minor miracles.

Bigger purpose = (minor miracles) Y

Solve for why.





The Unsettled Season


Eric Van Fossen PA-C, CH

I always feel unsettled this time of year. I do not fully understand why and it happens every year.

In late August to early September I always sense some kind of a shift. It is subtle and if I choose to ignore it, I can. For some reason it seems stronger this year.

It probably starts soon after the summer solstice when the days begin to shorten. When I used to play golf, it was always more obvious to me out there on the golf course. I always imagined it was because I knew it was the end of the season for me and there seemed to be less self-induced pressure to play well. My competitive mind would move to the next year. Next year I could practice more and be better but for this year, I had gotten as good as I was going to get. I enjoyed golf more in the fall season. Sure the days were cooler but I think it was because I put less pressure on myself and could enjoy the beautiful day and whatever company I had.

 I also always notice the difference in the sun and the shadows. The sun seems lower on the horizon these days and it makes the shadows grow longer. I begin to have a sense of detachment as if the world has shifted and things will never be the same. That’s not to say they won’t be just as good or even better next summer; but they will be different.

Beyond the sun’s position and the longer shadows are the gathering clouds. I start to realize that the type of cloud cover we have in autumn has a different nature than the clouds of the summer months. Autumn clouds seem to have more of a confluence with gentle rolling hills of varying dirty white to grays. On some level I actually like these clouds. Just like I enjoy a good thunderstorm in the summer, with all of its power; these fall clouds seem to have a certain moodiness to them. They are indicative of winter’s more powerful emotions and it mirrors what I am feeling inside.

Perhaps then, it is the sense of the coming winter. There is a sense of needing to prepare for something unknown. Every fall season I go through a ritual of “batten down the hatches.” The garden hose is put away and the mowers winterized. The garage is given one last good cleaning and de-cluttering. The car maintenance is checked and interiors cleaned. I start having the sense of an upcoming hibernation. My desire to go to the gym lessens while my desire to live in sweatpants and eat Cheezits increases.

Maybe it is a connection to our ancestors or the ancients; some archetype of the collective unconscious. When outside this time of year, I have a flittering curiosity of what those ancient peoples sensed and worried about with the coming winter. Surely, they felt trepidation. Did they have enough food and firewood and shelter for what was to come?

Or maybe this unsettling is an unconscious acknowledgement of the cycle of our lives. If winter represents the deep sleep of our inevitable death, do we even realize when we are in the autumn of our lives? Are we unsettled by it? Or is that unsettled feeling just a misinterpreted sense of curiosity? Is it really a seeking out of what comes next; when the clouds will again become fluffy, the sun is more overhead and the shadows which surround us are shorter and less surreal?  Curiosity displaces fear. I choose to be curious and seek out what is on the other side of this year’s winter season. Maybe I will take up golf again. Maybe I just don’t like winter.

Submarine Dreams


EM1(SS) Eric Van Fossen PA-C, CH

It was thirty years ago but in my dreams it could have been just last year. In the mid 1980’s I was stationed on a nuclear powered submarine. I operated the nuclear power plant as an electrician. Submarining is a young man’s game. I have a clear memory of helping one of the senior chiefs, a man approaching retirement, lift and install a heavy metal component of one of the escape hatches. We were both huffing and puffing, but he was hurting. He looked thin and frail and had gray hair. I distinctly remember looking at him and thinking he was so very old. Only years later did I realize that he was probably only about thirty-eight years old. But through my twenty-three year old eyes and in the submarine world; he was old. Yes, submarining is a young man’s game.

However, it can also be the fortunate man’s game. For those four years I was surrounded by some of the best friends I would ever have. Cramped quarters, hard work and pride create quite the cement. There were a few people I despised and one guy I even hated with a passion; but such is life. I suspect that one of the most formative times in our lives are our twenties. The experiences we have, the challenges we face, and how we either conquer or lose to them determine the type of adult we will be.

It was a surreal experience, going to sea the very first time. I had only just reported to the boat and did not know anyone. Climbing down into the steel tube, amongst 120 strangers and submerging a few hundred feet below the surface for the next two weeks left me unsettled.

There were only a few times that I was truly scared for my safety or my life. The first of these happened my very first day out at sea. At my rank, I had to serve thirty days in the galley before I got to go work on the nuclear power plant. I was told that there were not enough cooks to clean cook and serve in the kitchen. They said it was a time period that also served as some form of indoctrination.  It sure felt more like hazing.

I was a “crank,” the lowest form of life on a submarine. For about fifteen hours a day I did all the dirty work of the kitchen. I scrubbed floors, did the dishes and served food to the crew. After my work daywas completed I was expected to then work on my submarine qualifications as well as my nuclear power plant qualifications. My first day out to sea, I was trying to figure out how to operate the dish sprayer when an urgent voice came over the loud speakers and cried out, “Torpedo in the water!” Suddenly the boat took an angle and sped up trying to get away from the incoming torpedo. This was during lunch and I was amazed how calm all of the other sailors were. They went about their meal and talked and joked. As I looked around, I realized that none of them were concerned. Then I realized that it was hopefully, probably, a drill. A training exercise for the helmsmen and a lesson learned for me. But it did scare the crap out of me.

There were a few other times that I felt endangered. The submarine service is known as the “Silent Service.” I will not discuss them further but to say that they frightened me. Maybe no one else felt the way I did. We never talked about it. My entire four years on that boat were outside of what I would consider the normal human experience.

 If we were not out at sea, then we were in port working ten hour days and still sleeping on the boat every third night to stand watch on the reactor plant. There was really no family life. There was very little sleep. I often reminded myself that even if I was going out and partying all the time, I still would not choose to get that little amount of sleep. The food was good. The company was good. The hours we kept and the time away from loved ones were horrible. It was a perfect Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” scenario. I was doing an interesting job in a unique setting, alongside mostly likeable guys. There were good and there were bad experiences.  But good or bad, it was always an intense experience to me. The whole experience had an underlying intensity that I only experienced again when I did a tour in Afghanistan with the army. After all is said and done, I suspect that it is the intensity of the experience that keeps it so fresh in my dreams.

My submarine days were 30 year ago. When I dream about them, it feels like it was maybe last year. The dreams are still fresh, crisp and sharp like a high definition movie that was watched yesterday. The dreams always have a bittersweet aftertaste to them.

Human Givens theory states that dreams are the way our brain deactivates any undischarged emotional arousal from the preceeding day that would take up too much energy and space. The theory states that dreams are metaphorical representations of what we experienced that day, being discharged and that we basically need to put them to bed; so we can move forward the next day. A lot of my non submarine dreams fit with that construct. If I carefully go back and think about the events of the prior day, I can usually understand the dream metaphors and what they are telling me.

This process doesn’t seem to apply to my submarine dreams. Submarine dreams are content heavy on interactions between my shipmates and I. We are in our glory days; young and vibrant and smart and brave. There are no metaphorical castles and dragons to slay. Just me and the guys-doing submarine stuff.

I am happy with this. Maybe there are no issues from that experience to resolve after 30 years. Or perhaps, dreams that are purely taking place on a submarine are the entire metaphor. The environment is rich with human interactions. There was no going home at the end of the day, drinking a beer and complaining to your spouse about what happened at work. We were in a way, prisoners to our human interactions. We had to either put up with or solve any conflicts. So maybe the stage setting of a submarine is the perfect foundation for dreams to occur within. The emotional charges we gather daily, which need to be discharged in our REM sleep, are purely human interaction based. Maybe the dream interactions with my shipmates are what I really need. Perhaps the sea stories we tell each other are full of metaphors and the stories healing.

For those moments I dream, I am back to being the twenty something electrician, operating the nuclear power plant on a submarine. The guys are all there. At least the ones that made a big impression on me are visually clear. The other guys are more of just a back drop for the story. But what always gets me is that we are still so young. Even that senior chief that seemed so old back then, now seems to be a young man. They are alive and vibrant. We are laughing, complaining and teasing each other. They are in essence, alive.

Immortal; at least in my dreams.

I always awaken a bit confused due to the crispiness of these submarine dreams. In my head I know they are older like me. Some of them have even died. But they live on in my dreams, joyfully stuck in those moments of youth.

At times, I worry that maybe the reality is, that our submarine sank. Maybe we all died in the instant painless compression of the deep, deep sea and are living in some kind of purgatory for submariners. Perhaps all of my current life and daily consciousness is really the dream.

Either way, they are immortal. At least until I die and can no longer dream them. But then the next question is this. Are there some of my navy buddies out there that have dreams with me in it? Am I forever young inside of their dreams? That is, until their dreams fade away or they die.

They are young and vibrant in my dreams. Am I young and vibrant in their dreams?  A sure disadvantage of Facebook is the fact that I can see and talk to some of these guys. I know how old and fat we all have become on this plain of reality. But on a different level, that comes to me a few times a month, they are young and laughing and bright and clear.

Does this energy, this immortality of sorts continue on? After my passing, do the mental energy and images still exist somewhere?  Or like luminaries in the night, will we all fade away when the last of my shipmates goes to sea for the last time?

Thirty years ago I understood nuclear physics. Maybe back then I could have further explored these difficult questions. But that knowledge has left me; forgotten and replaced by things I need to know for my life now. What I do remember, several nights per month…is that I miss those guys.

Come, my friends,

'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.






Eric Van Fossen

I was less than sixteen years old when one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me occurred.

I got a job.

Not just any job, but a job working for my dad. Dad was the manager of a small shop that made industrial nameplates. Some of these were thin metal plates that would be attached to a piece of equipment to mark its brand.  Other types of name plates would be fitted around the controls of machinery to label buttons and switches.

At the time I started the job there were maybe twelve men working there. These guys had accepted my older brother that preceded me; as well as my younger sister that followed. I typically worked after school for a few hours, Saturday mornings and during all school breaks. This included stints on second shift during the summer months. As the boss’s kid I never felt that I received any different treatment than any other employee. It was a wonderful exposure to the adult working world. I remember it as a generally joyful place, full of hard work, camaraderie and practical jokes.

In hindsight, the best part was the opportunity to enter my Dad’s world from a perspective not typically given to a teenage son. It was obvious that dad was immensely liked and respected by the employees. As I became just another employee, it became obvious to me why this was.

My boss was a man without a college education. He had been in the trenches and worked hard. The benefits of his hard work had paid off. Eventually, this small division of a company grew larger and this man without a college education became its vice-president.

Dad never hesitated to come out of his office and get his hands dirty. He also never hesitated to come out to the shop floor, toss some cash at the supervisor and ask him to go buy a couple of buckets of chicken for everybody’s lunch. I have been told stories of how he always looked after his employees. I believe that one guy with an alcohol problem was dealt with patiently and probably bailed out a few times. Many years later I ran into this man.  With a tear in his eye he told me how good my dad had been to him. He had been not only sober for many years, but had gone to college and become a drug and alcohol counselor.  I have no doubt there are many more similar stories that have been un-told.

Entering dad’s world carried over to home as well. I have fond memories of supper time discussions and debates about work. At a time when a father and teenage son typically have difficulty communicating, dad and I were able to stay more fully immersed in each other’s lives. Like many teenage boys, I likely went through the stages of declaring more independence and teenage angst. My parents may not agree with me, but I think that working for dad prevented me from becoming overly angst ridden. Working for dad and being directly exposed to the men that worked with him, provided me a layer of understanding and respect for my father that most teenage boys never have the opportunity to experience.

I learned so very much in that shop. I learned how to make nameplates. I learned how to interact in the adult world before I was fully forced into it. I learned that my dad had many wonderful layers which I had been previously ignorant of. I watched how to be a good boss and friend. I understood how everyone you encounter in your life deserves respect. I like to think I became a good worker. I walked away knowing that we are all capable of touching people’s lives in positive ways; especially when they weren’t expecting it.

I worked for dad for a few years then went off to college and the Navy. I stopped working for dad. Those days in the shop and all of the lessons learned were over thirty years ago. Dad never stopped working for me.

The incessant march of time has changed us all. Dad is still a wonderful and hardworking man. But no matter how gracefully we age comes the need for some assistance. If needed I will be happy to work for dad again. It served me quite well the first time.