RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Good news for all of us who are fans of NPR's Invisibilia - the show about human behavior returns today with a new season of stories about the invisible forces that shape our lives. Today, co-host Hanna Rosin explores what skydiving and death have in common, and it's not what you think.
HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: A few months ago, my mom started talking to me about jumping out of an airplane, my 74-year-old mom. The whole thing started with a loss, the kind of loss that subtracts from your life something so central that you no longer really know who you are. About a year earlier, her husband, my father, was diagnosed with a rare stomach cancer and died within a few weeks. They'd been married for 51 years, and they did everything together. He drove her to the subway every morning. He picked her up in the evening. He made her tea every night. And my mother had no way of understanding her life story without him.
Do you feel - what thoughts about Eli's death were going through your head over and over?
MIRIAM ROSIN: Could I do more? Did we miss anything? Why didn't I just take him and went to another hospital?
H. ROSIN: Month after month, she went on like this, scratching circles into her brain, unable to make her way out.
M. ROSIN: Don't want to eat, I don't want to cook. I don't want to - completely stuck.
H. ROSIN: So when the thing that holds your world together disappears, how do you find your way out of your old story and into a new one? Naturally, I did what you do when you're a journalist and you're looking for answers to tough questions like this one. I called lots of people, and there was this one guy whose answer really clicked. His name is James Pennebaker - he goes by Jamie - and he's a professor of psychology at UT Austin. He studies words and language...
JAMES PENNEBAKER: And how we can use words to influence our ability to cope with upsetting experiences.
H. ROSIN: The way he thinks about life is we all walk around with a story about ourselves and we're always shifting and editing that story, but then sometimes something happens that knocks out such a big chunk of the story that it just doesn't hold together anymore.
PENNEBAKER: But the ability to get on with it is the ability to put this experience into a simpler, perhaps more coherent story.
H. ROSIN: Now, some people can do that with relative ease. They can tell themselves loss is a natural part of life. But then there are the harder cases where people reach this cliff.
PENNEBAKER: Do I change my story about my life, or do I continue persevering with the old story even though the facts don't fit very well?
H. ROSIN: Jamie wanted to know if he could find clues to the differences between the two groups, the ones who shifted and the ones who circled in place. So several years ago, he came up with a computer program that could measure when people are doing a good job coping with loss, exactly what words are they using and how many times are they using them? In a few different studies, Jamie had people come in and write about what they'd been through, usually for 15 minutes a day, for three or four consecutive days. And then the computer divided up the words into different categories and catalogued them.
PENNEBAKER: What really jumped out were there were huge differences in pronouns.
H. ROSIN: You know...
PENNEBAKER: He, she, they, we.
H. ROSIN: The most important pronouns to track were I words - I, me, my. A person who uses I words at a higher than average rate...
PENNEBAKER: Tends to be more honest, more self-aware.
H. ROSIN: But, according to Jamie, a person who stays in the I mode all the time and never shifts, you need to worry about.
PENNEBAKER: Depressed or depression prone.
M. ROSIN: Why didn't I just - don't want to eat, I don't want to cook. I don't want to - why didn't I pay attention more? I don't know.
H. ROSIN: The pattern the computer picked up was the people who benefited the most were people who switched from I to he, she, we, back to I again, not because this meant they were selfless or deeply invested in others, but because perspective switching...
PENNEBAKER: Implies detachment.
H. ROSIN: If you're having trouble coping, you have to step outside at some point and actively construct a new story. The moment my mom was able to step outside happened while she was home alone during the holidays.
M. ROSIN: I reversed the feeling.
H. ROSIN: Meaning she switched places with my dad, switched from I to he and him.
M. ROSIN: That I said, if I would be the one who died, would I like him to enjoy life, to continue normal? And the answer was immediate, on the spot, a hundred percent yes.
H. ROSIN: She was fully able to step outside herself and see the same story from another perspective, my dad's. And this is how my mother came to the conclusion that what she needed most in the world to move forward in her life was to jump out of an airplane, how she decided the jump would help her close one chapter of her story and let the next chapter begin. The story begins in 1967 with a knock.
M. ROSIN: Knock on the door, and we were all shaken.
H. ROSIN: At the time, my mom was in a bomb shelter at her aunt's house. This was in Tel Aviv, in Israel, during a war.
M. ROSIN: And the entire country was in complete blackout. I mean, you couldn't see even 1 inch in front of you.
H. ROSIN: My dad had already been gone for 60 days. You see, he was a paratrooper trained by the military to jump out of an airplane and parachute into war zones. And when the knock came, my mom did not get up.
M. ROSIN: We didn't want to open the door. That means that they're coming to give us bad news. And, finally, when we opened the door...
H. ROSIN: It was my dad. The truck that was transporting his unit had broken down and wouldn't be ready for 24 hours. He had hitchhiked to Tel Aviv just to sneak in a kiss.
M. ROSIN: Just said, I'm here, I'm alive, I'm fine, gave us a kiss, and he left.
H. ROSIN: I've heard this story over the years, but this time she built on it a whole new way.
All right. Can you just read what you texted to me?
M. ROSIN: OK. Up there, we'll say hello, and we'll meet someday.
H. ROSIN: That was her idea. Up there, 10,000 feet above ground, she would catch a glimpse of her husband, deliver a message.
So it's like completing a story.
M. ROSIN: And not even thinking about the danger - just doing it because I want share everything that you did that I missed.
H. ROSIN: On the day of the jump, I sat in the back of the tiny plane as we climbed on high. I stared at my mom, who was just in front of me. Her lips were moving.
M. ROSIN: I love you, Eli. I love you Eli. I miss you, and I'll be doing it for you.
H. ROSIN: She took her position at the edge of the open door.
M. ROSIN: I love you, Eli. I love you, Eli. I will do it for you.
H. ROSIN: The wind was freezing and brutal, and I desperately wanted to pull her back in. She raised her chin, arranged her arms like wings.
M. ROSIN: I feel you. I really do.
H. ROSIN: She didn't look back.
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H. ROSIN: Hanna Rosin, NPR News.
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MARTIN: Invisibilia just launched its fourth season, and you can hear it on a whole lot of member stations or on NPR One or wherever you hear podcasts.
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