August 2, 2018

Health : Identity Through Injury & Illness

The last few months have been a succession of physical changes and abnormalities, each one progressively a little more difficult.  For me and for a number of people very close to me, injury and illness have shown up with sudden briskness (we are all relatively and fortunately fine).  Each one has challenged me to embrace the value of having the full spectrum of experience, which includes the stuff that sucks.  I started out pretty positive, have tried hard to sustain a reserve of patience and insight, and recently realized that getting worn out is a real, honest part of what people are. In that fatigue is the opportunity to confront things as they are, to unravel how to remain who we are in our daily routines when these routines are disrupted.  And how to be better.

Up until now, my life challenges have been primarily emotional and abstract.  This year, faced with changes in physical health, I'm learning a lot.  Despite spending the last decade in hospitals and clinics seeing people with acute and chronic illness, it's been shocking to me to confront more personally the fact that our bodies often operate independently of what we want, what we imagine.  I'm grateful for this very humbling reminder that for all our good intentions and wide exposure we never really understand what it is like: what it's like to be given bad news, what it's like to sustain and heal, what it's like to have a surgery, what it's like to live with risk and uncertainty. 

Physicality is something I've relied on as a constant source of strength through emotional difficulty--in my personal life and in work.  So when I stopped being able to push myself in that way, to maintain the movement that's been so crucial to getting unstuck, I didn't want to admit this loss.  I did everything (physical therapy, yoga, acupuncture, sauna, sports massages) so I could will healing into being.  I'm sure all of this is helping to some degree, but the majority of it is really up to my body, not me.  I think that part of why doctors make the worst patients is that we're trained to consider ourselves forces of change.  We acquire these tools and knowledge to make people better, and even though practice has proven to me the smallness of our scale of agency, underneath it all we hope that we have power.

During this whole tug of war with my body, I've thought a lot about what is defining for myself.  While climbing in a cast and then with a stiff foot, I developed a stronger appreciation of what I love about climbing that's independent of the level I'm climbing.  But I realized that even those things could disappear if someday I can't climb at all.  And until recently I couldn't run at all, which is something I've never been great at but has been an integral part of my identity and life.  I do it for pure pleasure and for coping with difficulties.  Without the things that you concretely do, you start to re-consider your conceptual self , and you question if there is anything about you that can remain constant.

This became even more prominent when faced with more permanent, life-altering physical changes in people close to me and in myself. Knowing that the broken ankle was temporary obviously made it much easier.  It was also the outcome (a fall) to an activity I chose to do (climbing). In contrast, when things happen to your body as a result of its own course and not from your direct action, this is another level of our lack of control.

What I've held most close through all this is that there's only so much I can do for myself.  We can want and will, and sometimes our bodies and our environments just say no.  So what is it that can stay true through all the things we might lose, all the aspects of ourselves and our surroundings that might change?

What I've found is that although there are limits on what we can acquire for ourselves, there is always something we can give others.  The degree and depth of gift fluctuate, but the presence is constant.  I love the malleability of this, our ability to adapt what we can offer depending on what we acquire and lose. The most important thing to me before injury and illness remains the most important thing to me now, which is the capacity to share. This isn't to say that I don't frequently forget and fail at that, only to say that it's the primary goal. 

I think that so far in life it's been easy to declare that a goal because I've been so extremely lucky in so many ways.  When things are good, it's easy to see the huge discrepancy between what I have and what others don't, and to strive toward more balance.  But on one particularly rough day, I found myself unable to provide and I was shocked at how quickly I could stop caring.  It's much harder to be giving when you're struggling too, when in moments of shock you feel not just like you're losing something but also that something has been taken from you.  I generally avoid framing things like the latter, because externalizing makes happiness hard.  But I recognize our natural tendency to do this, to feel why is this happening to me.  It's important to me to recognize without judgment our inherent inclinations, to better connect with each other and encourage each other to resist unproductive thought processes even as we know it's human to have them.

It was also hard that a certain number of events happened one after another, making me ask the contrived and real question of why this was happening.  We often talk about whether our lives really have an inherent narrative, or whether we piece the parts together to make sense.  As with many things I think the truth lies somewhere in between. If the former isn't naturally clear, I feel a certain responsibility to do the latter.  Given a set of circumstances, we're bound to move through them with some purpose.

And while at first this all seemed to be bad timing, some re-framing of perspective made me consider how things have aligned for the best.  That these things happen not to cause suffering, but to learn better how to ease it.  In the midst of all this, I received parallel gifts from an old friend and a new friend.  Neither of them knew about all these thoughts I'm just now putting down, couldn't have known that their sentiments came to me at a time I'm most able to absorb them, in most need of thoughts that take me outside my own needs.

I had just written most of the above when an old friend sent me this quote from Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: "His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone, and given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it."

A new friend took me to the East Bay Meditation Center, where they spoke about the concept of a gift economy, where we give based on the fact that we all have something to share, not for trade or for acquisition. I read a little about it afterwards, and it turns out to be a complex topic of debate in economics and anthropology, but practicing the idea of giving without expectation of return resonated with me.

These fresh gifts recall the ever-giving value of the incredibly supportive and loving people in my life, and remind me that it's this sense of giving that I want at the core of my life, through changes in my emotional and physical identity.  So at these times, maybe the best way to maintain my sense of self when experiencing loss is to: bring to the surface what I've been given in the past; stay mindful of how much I have now; search for what even these challenges give me--for the purpose of giving all the above back and around always.

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