It isn’t the illness I want to write about but rather what it has made me realize about myself (and being human to boot).
For a while now I have been struggling with a health issue. It is not a major one, or a life-threatening one, but it spins my metabolism into a kind of out-of-control washing machine that seems intent on hurling itself into space. It is not comfortable, to say the least.
It isn’t the illness I want to write about but rather what it has made me realize about myself (and being human to boot). I am a firm believer in alternative medicine and have hardly taken more than an aspirin in my life so, naturally, my first response was to turn to homeopathy. The doctors I consulted were honest enough: mine is not a disorder that responds quickly or easily to homeopathic treatment. It was worth a try, though, and try I did. For months, one remedy followed another. With each one I convinced myself that I had found my very own fountain of healing, until the next episode of heart fluttering and racing breath told me otherwise. I am aware of my part in this, and I did try to slow down (as much as my temperament allowed). I also resumed meditating.
My body stubbornly refused to take note of my efforts. Frustration is too light a word for the way this made me feel.
It is a small and unassuming word, “a mistaken and underestimated virtue,” I remembered myself saying; Humility.
Finally, needing to put my life back on track, I resorted to the conventional medication that had been waiting for me all along. I did not want to take it on principle, because I know that it doesn’t so much cure the disease as suppress the symptoms, and also because I believe in providing the means for the body to heal itself. But there it was; I needed help.
It felt like failure. Like giving up. Like an unforgivable frailty. Then, seemingly out of nowhere I remembered a word, one about which I had been teaching a while back in one of my workshops. It is a small and unassuming word, “a mistaken and underestimated virtue,” I remembered myself saying; Humility. Often confused with weakness and even with humiliation, humility is a noble word that shares its root with the name of our species, with humor, and most importantly, with humus, or soil. In other words, it asks that we not raise ourselves too mightily off the ground, lest we tumble and fall; that we think not less of ourselves but less about ourselves. It is the exact opposite of hubris, extreme pride or self-confidence, and I needed a great big dose of it.
Of course, I understand this in theory, and I greatly admire the few truly humble individuals I know. But when it came to my body’s betrayal, all I could do was roar.
True healing, if and when it comes, will involve an open embrace of our strengths and limitations. It will also involve a good deal of surrender – to other people’s help, to whatever good medicine we can find, to what life itself is really asking of us.
As the insanity of this way of thinking dawned on me, I began to think of all the people I know who are undergoing diseases far worse than mine. Perhaps they too halted at this station of heady omnipotence before reaching the other inevitable destination: vulnerability, fright, helplessness. Because, as much as life affords us chances to feel strong and powerful, at some point it also stops us in our tracks. Perhaps there is a bigger lesson here, I thought. Am I not always trying to separate genuine spirituality from wishful thinking? Haven’t I always thought that maturity hinges on the seasoned acceptance of “what is?” What was this crazy battle I was fighting?
To be clear, I am not saying anyone should keep from trying everything in his or her power to get well. I am saying that anger, frustration and, yes, hurt pride are not the best path to healing. True healing, if and when it comes, will involve an open embrace of our strengths and limitations. It will also involve a good deal of surrender – to other people’s help, to whatever good medicine we can find, to what life itself is really asking of us. Are we meant to be invincible and relentless? Or are we meant to be tender, compassionate with ourselves and others, just another fragile link in this beautiful chain of earthlings?
I may or may not succeed in fully restoring my health but I think I am beginning to restore my soul. If I can keep close to the ground, remembering my intimate kinship with worms, beetles and daffodils, I think I’ll be okay.