Option B and Option Buddha—Sheryl Sandberg and Kisa Gotami
Review of Sheryl Sandberg's new book, and lessons from Buddhism.
Posted Jul 13, 2017
Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy is an example of her tremendous spirit and desire to help. 30 days after her husband Dave Goldberg died in an accident while they were on vacation in 2015, Sandberg wrote a now famous Facebook post recounting a conversation with a friend who reminded her “Option A”—Dave’s presence—was unavailable. She would have to “kick the shit” out of Option B.
Option B is primarily a memoir of Sandberg’s grief, laced with a grab bag of helpful advice, tips, anecdotes, examples of resilience, and wit. Sandberg seems like a wonderful person. I can’t imagine the willpower it takes to team with others to write a book while still in the throes of grief. A teacher once told me that poetry is emotion recollected in calm. So this book isn’t necessarily a poetic reflection on grief, though there are some passages that sing tragically and beautifully. Therapists and many who have experienced grief might find the book either helpful and encouraging, or somewhat thin. We’re given some straightforward advice—reach out, don’t be silent, talk about the elephant in the room, journal, join support groups, date again—along with some important research findings about recovery and resilience. It’s interesting that Sandberg chose not to mention therapy as a means of support. I don’t think there was a single line in her book that said “if you’re feeling intensely depressed, you should seek help from a professional.” Interesting. Perhaps I missed it. She also doesn’t touch much on the existential questions we often ask when facing mortality. Death can bring great meaning to life, or despair. But objections aside, I don’t think anyone has cornered the market on ways to talk about and help with grief.
Instead of recommending professional help, she is forming “Option B support groups” (optionb.org) to foster peer-to-peer support, which is fine and often helpful. She’s also got a website, optionb.org with more information and links to support groups on Facebook and elsewhere… hmmm. I’m not a huge fan of online substitutes for relationships. I found it somewhat liberating that one of the architects and drivers of Facebook seems to be tipping her hat in the direction of real world relationships, though. Indeed, Sandberg’s examples of leadership in face-to-face meetings around the world were inspirational (in China and elsewhere, for example, she’s supported Lean In groups for women). There are already existing efforts in this space, such as The Dinner Party, which seeks to bring together people in their 20s and 30s to talk about loss.
I think the main criticism I have with Sandberg’s methods is that she seems to try a bit too hard to maintain an internal locus of control about everything—when clearly life is out of all our hands. No one has to be the COO of grief. Her book and life story are powerful responses to suffering, true, but there’s a part of me that just wants to sit with grief and the grieving, and through that process, deepen. Life is not all about getting back to work, after all, though in this culture, work seems to trump all other values. Of course, Sandberg writes about recovery because she loves and cares for her children, and wants them to recover. That is commendable. But a tragic sense of life is not necessarily a bad thing. I think all wise people are a little sad, or at least connected to tragedy. It makes us more sensitive to the needs of others. The Japanese call it mono no aware, or awareness of “the wonderful sadness of things.” (See A Noble Sadness: Benefits of Sorrow.) Also, I don’t think it’s about “scaling up” the solution, but trying really to help people find small, human scale environments that support them. At some point, we’re going to get tired of people referring us to websites for all our needs, don’t you think? We need people, not screens. Indeed, Sandberg seems most resentful when describing the awkward silence that surrounded her in the early months of her grief. If it’s true for her, it’s more true for nearly all my patients. It’s not like many of them get bouquets of roses and get well soon cards when they’re on the psychiatric ward. Grief shares with other mental and spiritual health challenges a certain stigma. People fear saying the wrong thing, and even fear the illness itself, that it would somehow infect them if they were to think or talk about it. In my experience, if you express concern in some genuine way, you won’t be saying “the wrong thing.” It’s only when we expect others to “take care of themselves” that our humanity goes wrong.
Grief, like all forms of suffering, is a call for us all to become more connected and compassionate. And I don’t mean just on Facebook. (My book on the psychology of social networks, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, will be out in the fall. Facebuddha.co for details and a newsletter.)
Lessons from the Buddha's life
The Buddha’s mother died shortly after childbirth. Undoubtedly, to my mind, his life must have been infused with a sense of tragedy and suffering. I can find no other explanation for his waiting almost a decade before he and his wife, Yasodhara, became pregnant. I can imagine that he was fearful that childbearing could cause his wife’s death. Maternal mortality must have been high in that era. After his son was born, he went on a six-year journey to uncover the cause of suffering and death itself, I think out of deep responsibility to his son, family, and community. Some say he was successful, and that Buddhist practice can break “the duality of birth and death,” and end rebirth in this world of suffering. Regardless of whether you believe this claim, the Buddha did give important teachings about grieving and death.
Kisa Gotami’s young son died, and she understandably went insane with grief. She heard that the Buddha could bring him back to life, and she went to him, holding her dead son in her arms. He listened to her story, heard her grief, and told her to first bring a mustard seed from the house of a family that has not experienced death.
Round and round she went in the village. She knocked on door after door, asking for a mustard seed, and if there had been a death in the household. As you can imagine, every family had experienced death. Gradually, the Buddha’s message dawned on her. Death was part of life. Part of our common humanity lies in the experience of being mortal and experiencing the death of loved ones. The other implicit message of the Buddha was to connect Kisa Gotami to the entire village. I imagine her going to each house, sharing her story, and hearing the stories of so many families. She would never be alone in her suffering again. Kisa Gotami joined the sangha (the Buddhist community), and later attained enlightenment under the instruction of the Buddha.
This is the basic message of life. We are all connected. We all suffer something in life. By caring about each other and relating to each other, we can help each other through life.
Sheryl Sandberg’s grief has connected her to so many people. I can imagine many people thinking she was already a pretty well-connected person. But I think that those connections no doubt became deeper and more meaningful because of her husband’s tragic death.
Isolation worsens suffering. The opposite of suffering is belonging. Part of belonging is finding meaning and joy in our connectedness. I wish Sheryl Sandberg well, and hope that she does find these, in the real world.
Coda: My Cambodian Group
I’ve written before about the Cambodian group I’ve co-led since 2010. This month, our meeting again provided news of loss, suffering and resilience. There was a new death in the community, an anniversary of death, and worries about heart problems. We shared, offered support, and drew lessons from Buddhism and other spiritual traditions, all of which contend with mortality. Probably my favorite quote about death is from my personal hero, Dr. Lewis Thomas, author of Lives of a Cell, among many others. He once wrote that he imagined death was (I paraphrase) “being drawn like an easy breath, back into the breath of the earth.”
But what felt most gratifying in the group’s sharing was the recognition that suffering and death are parts of life. When we truly realize that, we realize we are never alone, we are always connected, in suffering perhaps even more than in joy, to the human experience and the bigger picture of life. Each meeting that involves really listening to and caring for each other is vital to our well-being as human beings.
My book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens will be published in the fall. Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks is a combination of memoir, cultural analysis, exploration of psychological research, and introduction to Buddhism. Information and a newsletter at www.facebuddha.co.
(c) 2017, Ravi Chandra, M.D. D.F.A.P.A.
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