IN 1995, French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke that resulted in what they call the “locked-in syndrome.” His condition left his whole body paralyzed, leaving only his left eye and mental faculty working. But despite his grave condition, Bauby lived to tell the tale of his plight in a memoir—thanks to his speech therapist who devised a partner-assisted scanning by arranging the French alphabet according to its frequency of use. All that the person who wanted to talk to Bauby had to do was to recite every letter in the alphabet and wait for him to blink until he would form a word. You can just imagine the tedium!

In his memoir, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which was made into a movie by artist and Oscar Best Director nominee Julian Schnabel, Bauby described his condition as being imprisoned by a diving bell and that only his mind was left to flutter like a butterfly. He said that his paralysis didn’t stop him from exploring the world and breaking boundaries through his imagination. He recounted his days as the editor of the famous magazine, the time spent with his children, his trysts with the mistress, and the struggle he had to put up with his condition. He weighed what that had happened in his life and tried to open up to the world that he had very well ignored.

With the help of a transcriber from a publishing house, Bauby wrote—or should I say blinked—the book that took 10 months to create, or an average of four hours a day.

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But what really struck me was that three days after the book was published, Bauby succumbed to the inevitable and died of pneumonia. It could have been the worst for someone who had very high hopes of recovering, but at the least, he fulfilled his life’s mission, so to speak. You could say that he could have done a lot of things in his life had it not only been for his paralysis, but what he had done between his stroke in 1995 and his death two years later was a feat worthy of commendation; it was something only others with great resolve could do. This only goes to show that life does not stop just because you are pinned down by a circumstance.

People may think that it is the end for them if they have to suffer Bauby’s adversity; they would consider a grave sickness as stripping them of their happiness. But in the grand scheme of things, it may be the very thing that could open a lot of possibilities for them.

In the book, Bauby asked whether “it takes the harsh light of disaster to show a person’s true nature.” This got me to mull over our existence, which is masked by our pretense and apathy that we have become too blind to see the world beyond the horizon.

For Bauby, he only started to realize what life is really about when he had to hit rock bottom, something others who are being consumed with the temptation of mundane possibilities would just shrug about.

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People—even without any paralysis to constrain them—are being held back by a diving bell of their couldn’t-care-less attitude and their superficial love affair with anything tangible. They just have this thinking that the end-all and be-all of life is to attain the riches in the world, but only to realize this creates a huge void in their life. They just have this nature to dwell in their own made-up melancholy, that when placed in the wider context of the world, this problem is nothing but a speck of dust floating in the air. Just imagine the struggle Bauby had to reckon with, yet he was able to defy the odds.

I may not have the empirical evidence and philosophy to support my conviction, but I do believe that we can find happiness even in misery, in a life devoid of material things and human abilities.

As the saying goes: We can only feel the smoothness of the road once we have tramped the unforgiving terrain.

Bauby may not have lived a long life, but just like how Albert Camus would put it in his philosophical essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the “struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

I rue the day I should suffer such a condition, but if I do (God forbid), I will try to take control of my wheel of fate.


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