I call today my “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Everyone has a bad day once in a while. Today is mine.
John Sturgis made a movie based on Howard Breslin’s 1947 short story published in The American Magazine. Millard Kaufman and Don McGiuire wrote the screenplay. MGM released the movie in 1955. It starred Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin. It was nominated for several Academy Awards in 1955, including Best Story and Best Screenplay. It lost to Marty, which also starred Ernest Borgnine. In my opinion, this film is the perfect example of a noir thriller. And it is, coincidentally, also a western of sorts.
Today is my Bad Day at Black Rock because three years ago today my beloved wife of twenty-seven years, Gretta M. Anderson, died of a massive heart attack. I awoke at 5:27 AM on January 31, 2012 to discover Gretta dead on the bathroom floor. She died the same way Elvis did. Gretta had battled both diabetes and heart disease for many years, and she lost the battle and the war when her heart burst like a balloon pumped too full of air.
For more than a year after Gretta died, I awoke every morning at five-fifteen. My subconscious erroneously believed that if only I had awakened a few minutes earlier I might have been able to save Gretta. Although I now know there was nothing I could possibly have done that would have made a difference, I still awaken around the same time each morning. I do manage to go back to sleep most mornings, but not today. Today I had to get up and write.
Writing is what keeps me sane in an insane world. Many of my stories, both those written before Gretta’s death and after, have protagonists that punish themselves because of guilt over something they either did or did not do in their pasts. Perhaps it’s only a projection of my own self, but I discovered most of the clients I helped during twenty years of hypnosis practice also needed to overcome guilt issues that affected their lives in order to become well. If you believe as I do in the Diathesis-Stress theory of disease, you know that most cancers are the result of unresolved guilt. So are all diseases of the heart. Guilt is the insidious driving force that changes lives and often leads to death.
Those hypnosis clients of mine who alleviated their guilt feelings by reframing past events were able to significantly improve both the quality and duration of their lives, some becoming totally cancer-free and pain-free. The mind is a powerful tool that can kill or cure. We cannot consciously control which it will do.
Consciously, I know there was nothing I could do to save Gretta. Unconsciously, however, I still feel guilty.
Gretta knew there was nothing she could have done to help her mother, either. Gretta’s father deliberately made her feel guilty by insisting she had not done enough. I suspect he did that because he felt guilty for abandoning his own mother. Gretta’s diabetes and heart disease both manifested after Gretta’s mother became ill and Gretta’s father laid guilt trips on both of his daughters. Gretta was never able to overcome that guilt nor the anger she felt toward her parents and redirected toward herself. Eventually, it was that pent-up guilt and anger that killed her as surely as if her father put a gun to her head and squeezed the trigger.
Let me say this now as clearly as I can: Each of us is responsible only for our own lives and happiness. Feeling guilty about the past, especially about things one neglected to do, is counterproductive and can be deadly. We must learn to forgive ourselves and others. We can pay our karmic debts in the next life. There is no need to punish ourselves in this life.
If you get the chance, watch the Sturgis Bad Day at Black Rock film. It’s a classic.