Monday, July 9, 2012

On Being Sick - The Limits of Human Limitations

For the most part, getting sick as an adult retains none of the adventurous advantages of being sick as a child. As a child a small-time illness, a cold, a virus, the flu, strep throat offered a free vacation day from school, the high of which negated any of the pain from the actual illness. Not only did a sick day provide an unplanned day off, but a day off without any sort of parental supervision. I could walk around in my underwear, eat everything I wanted, use the stove without causing my mother to worry intensely, and blast a movie to eardrum shattering levels (sometimes a rated R movie, shhhh, don't tell,) and the best, watch someone come to the door and just not answer it. For the most part, as children, we associate sickness with freedom so we feign sickness, or celebrate when the thermometer (ok, just noticed that word has mom in it...) or our mother’s hand, which seems preternaturally capable of telling real fever from our whining, announces real fever. We feel accomplished, oddly so, in our illness as if we helped contract whatever we contracted.
Kids are either ridiculously smart or absurdly stupid.
    Then we, without our permission, turn into adults and sickness equals not freedom but a sort of slavery. Adulthood for the most part and rightfully so, entails the freedom of responsibility: to our partners, to our children, our friends, our work, our own ambition, the standards we set for ourselves. Consequently, sickness, even the small cold is less a gift from the gods and more a punishment, a hindrance, an annoyance of a forced day off from our important lives as we rush ourselves through the pain - piling on medicine after medicine or prophylactic upon prophylactic. We try to work from bed, we answer emails, keep our smartphones on and just simply try to continue as if our bodies aren’t signalling to us to stop. None of the allure of sickness during childhood remains simply because it provides none of the ostensible freedoms. We don’t, for the most part, live under the tyrannical reign of our parents who force us to go to bed at a normal hour, we don’t live in fear or dread of school, in fact, we hate to miss school because it just creates more obligations on the backend, and we generally can enjoy ourselves much more when it doesn’t hurt to swallow. So, instead, we lose days of our schedule, we wait till these annoyances end so we can return to functioning.
    In a sense, the disparity obviously stems from the different life situations. We cannot wish for a return to a more naive, free situation of our childhood any more than we can wish away the common cold or debilitating flu as adults. Yet, perhaps nostalgia distorts my memory, but somehow, regardless of the illness, I cared less about pain as a child than I do as an adult. Our reaction to pain, so preconditioned by the purpose of pain and the societal associations, lies fully in our minds, in our thoughts. Past that first almost blinding sensation of pain, so much of its power lies in it ability to affect our thoughts about pain. Mainly, we associate pain with debilitation, with incapacitation, with death, with demise, so much of the pain of pain comes from worrying about the effects of pain on our larger lives. Ok, fair, I regurgitated the mindfulness approach to pain, but to what end? To me, sitting here on my couch, congested, sinuses flaring up, both ravenously hungry but nauseous, sweaty but cold, and obsessing over the fact that I cannot, for this day, live up to my potential, I ultimately find myself laughing at this conceit. Life's pain often boils down to a widening and sickening gap between what we want/what we think we deserve and what life, fate, destiny or god actually provides. Sometimes, I think, if we embraced our mediocrity more than our somewhat illusory belief in our singularity I think we all might live better lives.
However, can you imagine a parent telling their child some wisdom from positive psychology? “Look, son, I know we often tell you how smart and talented you are, but now that you are about to begin high school, well, it's time you realize that the odds you achieve what you actually think you can achieve are slim to none. In fact, you might actually be happier at a lower tier school in which you will definitely succeed then in a higher tier school in which you might just be another number…it's just the numbers. Think about it. You're pretty good at math. Imagine how many other people are as smart and talented as you, if not more, now realize that the work force depends on so many factors outside of your control, some fair, some not, that the odds of you, personally, becoming an astronaut or a huge writer, or a politician, well, son, it doesn't look pretty. You need to realize that success rarely equals happiness and that most people, statistically, find happiness in their relationships, regardless of their job. So aim with more realistic accuracy."
    Still, something about sickness as adults clarifies. In the more serious, threatening situations, illness allows us to clarify our priorities in life. We think of our personal goals, we rank them, and we realize that intimacy, family, friends tops of charts, while personal ambition withers away. The specter of death rarely pushes us towards personal accomplishment, but guides us back home. Yet, the smaller illnesses of everyday life, not necessarily, but can clarify to some extent. As enforced vacations, they promise us a day of nothing but survival, of living. We take an hour to drink tea, to eat toast, to get out of bed. It reminds us either that sometimes we need to live just as flesh, as physicality, as a pure piece of meat that needs some tender care. While other times we realize the complete ethereal nature of pain. It gains more strength the more we focus on it, the more we acknowledge it, like a child and their temper-tantrums. Regardless, what emerges is that every situation, when seen from a stoic more detached sensibility provides an opportunity for exploration of any kind.
    All of these straddles the line between rationalization of my laziness as I sit in bed and stew in my own germs, medicating myself, trying to feel useful while at the same time I am trying to accept my limitations. Sickness, of any sort, provides an hyper-realized situation we face everyday of our lives: living comfortably within our boundaries at the same time that we discover the true borders of our limitations. Life, defined as such, is a constant battle between true self-awareness and the gumption to constantly push our abilities past our known boundaries. Knowing when to pull back, when to draw in, to hide within ourselves and knowing when to push forward, to argue, to engage in conflict, to not accept easy limitations, mediocrity, feels oddly so, like the real nagging question of life. When our true limitations present themselves, will we summon enough courage and bravery to limit ourselves, and when we cage ourselves out of fear, fear of success, of failure, will we be able to challenge our beliefs about our limitations?
   Who knows?
Right now, G.I. Joe is on, and right now the clouds in my head allow me to not think about this question and just enjoy the insouciant charm of one Channing Tatum.

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