Five Death Bed Wishes, Part 1

By Irene Ogrizek

I’ve been watching some online talks given by Jane McGonigal, a gamer from California. A gamer, for those of you who don’t know, is someone who develops online games. McGonigal specializes in those that create alternate realities.

McGonigal describes a game she developed while recovering from a poorly mended concussion. She had been ordered to follow an austere regime of bed rest – for three months she was not allowed to read, play games, or do anything requiring concentration. By day 34, she had become suicidal.

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In a truly do or die moment, she used her skills to come up with a game – SuperBetter – to help herself. SuperBetter has all the elements of a game – there is a superhero (the person recovering), an enemy (the illness), a set of strategies to conquer the enemy (finding allies being the primary one) and what McGonigal refers to as “power ups,” strategies to boost the superhero’s morale.

So why am I talking about a game like SuperBetter? Well the devil, as they say, is in the details.

McGonigal used information from a Guardian article that was published earlier this year. In it, research from hospice workers was recorded and collated to produce a list of the five biggest deathbed regrets:

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish I had let myself be happier.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self.

I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.

McGonigal’s thoughts were that games, especially online games one can play with others, could satisfy these wishes. Numbers 3 and 4 really got my attention, and that’s because they are less concrete than the others. When we really look at them, they raise further questions like: What does happiness mean for each of us? What are our true selves?

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McGonigal mentions an interesting and (relatively) new field of study: post-traumatic growth. This is, of course, related to post-traumatic stress, except that instead of experiencing a negative and momentous event in a wholly pessimistic way, one uses the event and the trauma associated with it to change one’s life for the better. Here’s a definition:

Post-traumatic growth refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.These sets of circumstances represent significant challenges to the adaptive resources of the individual, and pose significant challenges to individuals’ way of understanding the world and their place in it. Post-traumatic growth is not simply a return to baseline from a period of suffering; instead it is an experience of improvement that for some persons is deeply meaningful. (Wikipedia)

I’d like to think post-traumatic growth is always part of post-traumatic stress, but that some people – the kind of people marketers often refer to as “fast adopters” — are just more emotionally agile when it comes to harnessing misfortune in useful ways. These are individuals who can see the utility of suffering, something I suspect requires a spiritual bent, or at the very least, a comprehensive understanding of the cyclical nature of life.

These are people who can say to themselves, “Well, things are bad now, but they’ll get better eventually.” One thinks of the Harriet Tubmans and Victor Frankls of this world, those individuals who overcame the unimaginable because they had the capacity, while in the midst of profound degradation, to imagine a better life.

So how do we grow from our negative experiences? And what can we learn from McGonigal’s choices? I visited the SuperBetter website and was impressed by the thinking that went into the design of the game. I was also impressed by McGonigal’s very realistic approach to healing: as she came to realize, helping yourself heal is not complicated

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