An Unfriendly Reminder

DSC_0408“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.” –Herophilus

Hello friend,

A little over ten years ago, I came to understand suicide more clearly.

Sure, I had spent time thinking about it over the years, but mostly in theoretical terms. I would hear about people killing themselves and always wonder, “Why?” In the tenderness of my youth, I wanted to believe I was so empathetic that I really could understand the depths of despair. When my first love broke my teenage heart, I was a mess inside. I was pretty far gone, but not so far that I wasn’t aware of my thoughts. Among other things, I thought a lot about suicide. Not actually doing it—I never considered it as an option—but about the concept of suicide. Being depressed for that short time really triggered something in me, a deeper intellectualization of suicide. I thought about it regularly: about how people’s emotions can turn an otherwise-clear mind irrational, and about how belief—whether rational or not—that one’s life has no hope for improvement can make ending that life seem like an appealing option. Traps of the heart and mind. That, in a nutshell, is how suicide appeared to me until about the age of thirty. And then, it all changed.

I herniated a disc in my lower back. I won’t go into the complete nightmare sequence of events led by the HMO-directed thinking of doctors who were way out of their expertise, but suffice it to say that in the end, I was literally stuck in a sideways-bent position for days on end as they continued to multiply the doses of narcotics but failed to get me the right tests and specialists to provide any relief. I distinctly recall sitting—if you could call it that—alone in my basement one afternoon, sobbing and wailing because it hurt so badly. It was in that moment, and in the ensuing days of agony that led up—finally—to my surgery, that I arrived at a new understanding of suicide. It wasn’t only about mental and emotional pain and despair, as I had previously believed. No, the ending of one’s own life could be deemed a desirable outcome if enough physical pain was involved for a long enough time. Again, much like when I was suffering from a broken heart, I didn’t actually consider killing myself during the episode with my back, but I surely thought about the concept often. My mind just gravitated to the topic. I put myself in the position of people who are suffering from some types of terminal cancer or other chronic, severe, and debilitating pain, and believe me, I completely understood their desire to end their lives “prematurely”. In that much pain and with no end in sight, it became easy to understand the “This isn’t living” rationale. If I weren’t being careful with my words, I would describe the kind of pain I was in as “unbearable”. However, at least I knew that a solution would come eventually, and with it relief. I knew I could lay down my burden; others are not so lucky.

Even though I have some lingering nerve damage in my leg from the blundering of those doctors that did not get me the proper care in time—yes, I am a little bitter still if you couldn’t tell–my essential health was restored eventually. There is a scar on my spine that will stay with me, but otherwise my body moved on. After a year, I had pretty well put behind me my medical nightmare and the horrific pain I was in for those dark days. One lesson I kept with me was to always try to maintain strength in my core muscles and overall fitness. The other lesson that I was sure that I would hold onto forever was to be grateful for my health every day that I have it. The incident had made me keenly aware of how precious and fleeting good health is—much like life itself—and thus how aware and grateful I should be each day to be alive and relatively pain-free. I vowed to never forget. How could I?

Well, I did forget. I got complacent. I did the right things physically to try to avoid another disaster, but I got sloppy with the gratitude part. I stopped reminding myself what a magnificent gift it is to wake up and breathe easily in the morning, to be able to wrestle with my kids and give them shoulder rides, to run around and hit tennis balls, to survive a hot yoga class, and to simply walk the earth without the distraction of pain. Sure, I have had pretty regular injuries to remind myself what a hassle they are, but mostly I have been able to press on and continue an active life. And, I am sad to admit, a blindly ungrateful one, too.

It seems that the better my health has been, the less grateful for it I have been. For me at least, it is the biggest one I let slip through the cracks when it comes to prayers of gratitude. I feel like I am pretty self-aware when it comes to how lucky I am to have such wonderful people in my life. My parents and siblings are the best ever, and I wouldn’t trade any of them in. I can hardly imagine my luck in finding someone who actually chose to have me around for life, so, needless to say, I am grateful for my amazing wife. And of course, my kids are the greatest things that have ever happened to me. I feel like I know that every day, too. I am so aware of how they make my heart overflow, so I pretty much ooze gratitude when it comes to them. I know, too, how lucky I am to be allowed a schedule that matches my priorities, offering me tons of quality time with the family, as well as some stolen moments to pursue my passions, such as writing this letter to you. I am well aware of how spoiled I am in this regard, so I am deeply grateful.

I always tell people that one of the biggest benefits of keeping a daily journal is that it makes me intensely self-aware, and that the main benefit of this self-awareness is gratitude for my beautiful existence. As I said, I feel like this is very true in all of the other areas of my life. So, why do I do so poorly in acknowledging the blessings of good health? Being a sports lover, the analogy that comes to my mind is of the referee (or the ballkids in tennis). The goal of the referee—or the ballkid—is to NOT be noticed. If you notice them, it is probably because they are doing a bad job. Health seems to be, for me, like that. If I don’t notice my health, that means the job is being done well. If I do notice it—like this past week, when my spine has again gone awry and left me agonizing—something is wrong. I can see now—pain sometimes has a way of clarifying things—that this is not fair to my health. I am hereby vowing to do a better job of acknowledging—DAILY–the wonderful fortune it is to be in good health. I love Herophilus’s quote at the top of the page; it really is true that without health, our other gifts cannot shine through. I am so driven to maximize my potential, so I would be a fool not to honor the instrument through which all things flow. Like with so many people around us, a simple show of gratitude and respect can do wonders. It is time I started to set things right. I am only sorry that it required this week’s unfriendly reminder from my spine to help me see the light.

How about you? How is your relationship with your health? Open up your journal and start writing. Make a list of the aspects of your health that you appreciate. Can you make it through the day without pain? Do you require any medications or devices to function normally? Do you like a good fitness challenge? Do you sleep comfortably? Are you able to “act like a kid” sometimes, full of energy and freedom? Can you run? Could you still climb a sledding hill? Jump in the pool or lake for a swim? Run through the sprinkler? Ride a bike? Chase a kid around all day? Do you set goals for your health and fitness? Do you go to a gym or have a regular workout routine? How is your diet? If you could change your weight any amount in either direction, what would you choose? Do you know of people who are less healthy than you? Perhaps they have cancer, cardiovascular disease, an autoimmune disorder, arthritis, or obesity. In thinking about them, does it make you more grateful for the health that you have? Does it motivate you to take action to improve your health? How grateful are you about your status? Are you like me and take it for granted when it is going well, only to be reminded of your ingratitude when you are stricken down with something? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do you appreciate your health, or does it require an unfriendly reminder? 

Start your day with “Thank you”,

William

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