Just Monday: A Meditation
I wrote on Friday about gratitude, and also about the company of fire ants living in my throat.
I was in denial. I knew that the fire ants (which had first made themselves known on Tuesday) were probably the opening salvo in the battle with another respiratory infection, but for various reasons, I didn’t want them to be.
I didn’t want to acknowledge the nature of my fire ants because, frankly, it’s frustrating to be sick.
Health-wise, for me, this has been a phenomenally good year. I have gone months at a stretch without getting seriously ill. I have recovered from things more quickly than I expected to. I have actually had a couple minor viral illnesses that didn’t lead to secondary infections.
When I put it like that, though, it feels like a pretty low bar.
I’m a bit of an anomaly — or, rather, I’m something that America’s approach to health, which remains firmly rooted in Puritan ideals, doesn’t know how to place. On paper, when I’m not ill, I seem pretty robust. Tons of exercise, good basic diet, excellent vital stats. Allergies and asthma, of course, but I live in the Ohio River Valley. I have even mostly learned to listen to my body, my wonderful and obedient body that will allow me to push it ludicrously, when it asks me to rest.
According to the American ideal, I should be and stay as healthy as a horse (which, frankly, is an idiom that can’t have been coined by a horse person). But I’m not, and I don’t.
I am still someone whose immune system, for reasons nobody understands, just isn’t that great. I catch things that are, for other people, innocent little colds, and they go rogue. I am terribly prone to secondary infections. I get sicker than other people and I take longer to get well.
It’s worse when I don’t take care of myself or acknowledge the limitations that circumscribe my choices (I can ride my bike hard in cold weather if I’m willing to pay the price in terms of respiratory problems that inevitably lead to infections; I can adopt a schedule that approaches typical American busy-ness if I’m willing to acknowledge that my immune system will respond by going on strike).
But it is what it is even when I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself. This is my reality.
This weekend I talked with Denis about some of the ways in which I’ve historically felt conflicted about my body, and how I’m beginning to understand that I need to stop looking at it from a dualistic, one-or-the-other point of view.
Maybe the same can be said for my health.
Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of it as either-or, and start thinking of it as and.
Like, maybe I should take care of myself as best I can, enjoy the periods in which I stay well for an unusually long time, and gracefully accept that I’m still going to be prone to infections that will, from time to time, knock me flat for longer than they should. Maybe I should try to accept that one does not invalidate the other, and to be kinder to myself about all of this.
As a dancer, it’s hard to accept any of these conditions. As a dancer, and as a human being, I find it easy to accept my gifts and hard to accept my handicaps.
One set of conditions propels me forward; another holds me back. I am inclined to forget that this trade-off is universal — everyone’s tally sheet has entries in both columns. Maybe my peers in the studio don’t have immunity challenges that can keep them from dancing for weeks at a time, but they have other struggles. Maybe those struggles don’t affect their lives as dancers, but they hit somewhere.
I feel like there’s a profound lesson in not clinging to phenomena here — both in the sense of not clinging to the phenomena of health or illness and in that of not clinging to the phenomenon of dancerness. I’m not sure how how to put those thoughts into words, though.
We live in a culture that treats illness like it treats fatness — which is to say, as a question of moral failure.
People who rarely or never get sick tend to announce that status with a kind of prideful tone that suggests that they are somehow morally superior, even if in the same breath they say, “…and i don’t do any of that health-nut BS,” and scarf down a Whopper and half a bag of Cheetos. People like me, on the other hand, and regarded with a degree of suspicion, even (maybe especially) if our lifestyles should produce unequivocal good health.
When I find myself forced to explain that I get sick easily and that my immune system just kinda doesn’t do its job very well, I almost always receive a bunch of advice about what I “should” be doing to fix it. I get get tired of explaining that I’ve basically tried everything; that, yes, it’s worse when I don’t take care of myself but it’s never going to be normal; and that much of what people suggest is complete crap founded in pseudoscience (I do try to be polite about that).
I get tired of explaining why n=1 makes a great basis for an anecdote but a poor basis for an axiom. I get tired of re-asserting the fact that neither goji berries nor a strict Mediterranean diet will “cure” me.
I get tired of the implicit and usually-unexamined assumption that anyone who isn’t a shining paragon of good health probably just just isn’t trying hard enough, or isn’t trying the right things. Sometimes that may be true, but often it’s not.
My crappy immune system isn’t the result of poor habits or poor morals. It’s the result of poor genes — with the caveat that the same set of genes that saddled me with this burden has also given me the gifts of talent, strength, flexibility, coordination, off-the-chart spatial processing, a powerful musical sense, and the intelligence to use all of those things to make art.
This, by the way, keeps me humble.
I know that my crappy immune system is not a question of effort or a measure of moral turpitude. By that same stick, I can see that the things that make a good dancer are, likewise, random gifts. Morally speaking, they do not make me a better person. In fact, morally speaking, they have sometimes made me a worse person — a less compassionate person; a more self-aggrandizing person. Thank G-d for crappy immune systems and for ballet, both of which are really good at teaching us humility when nothing else will.
I try to make the most I can out of the gifts I’ve been given, but sometimes the things in the “debit” column get in the way. I suspect this is true for most of us.
Most of us are just muddling by ,trying to do the best we can, fairly often saying to ourselves about about many things, “There, but for the grace of G-d, go I…”
On which note, I’ll close, because I’m hoping to go back to sleep for an hour or two.
I’m still working my way through this particular thicket, though. More later, perhaps.