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It's funny how sometimes snippets of conversation about a very specific topic can be insightful and enlightening on a much broader scale than originally intended.
It's currently major league baseball's playoff season, and the Texas Rangers are taking on the New York Yankees for the championship of the American League. Since I loathe the Yankees with every fiber of my being, and hold firmly to the belief that they are the physical manifestation of evil on Earth, I am fervently rooting for the Rangers to beat into bloody submission that fetid band of Satan's minions who sport pinstriped uniforms with a big NY stitched on them.
I make it a point to try not to hate, as hate is a poisonous emotion that does more damage to the person feeling it than to the person or thing at which it's directed. I make an exception for the Yankees. I hate them. I hate them. I hate them. May they all develop blistering pustules and suffer some hideously painful form of castration. Every Yankee win is a stab to my heart, and their every loss a fleeting confirmation that good can indeed conquer evil. This may sound crazy to some, but it's a feeling shared by most of the population of New England, and the minority of New Yorkers who call themselves Mets fans.
Ah, but I digress. What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, words uttered about one subject that can illuminate another. Anyway, the manager of the Texas Rangers is a man named Ron Washington, who before the season began was embroiled in a scandal about his use of cocaine, a substance to which he has an unnatural predilection. Apparently, he's been battling his substance abuse problem for years, and only managed to save his job by humbling himself, pleading his case before the team's owners, and agreeing to a strict program of oversight and counseling. So Ron Washington is a man who knows a little something about control, or, more precisely, the lack of it.
With his team leading Yankees three games to one in a best-of-seven series, Mr. Washington was asked at a press conference how he keeps his team calm and steady through the anxieties and emotions of such a highly charged series. Washington replied that his message to his players has remained the same throughout the season: that they must stay rooted in the moment, concentrate single-mindedly on controlling those elements of the game within their power, and accepting the circumstances over which they have very little influence. In baseball terms, this means catching the ball, throwing the ball, and running the bases to the best of your ability, each and every time. A player can't control what the other team does. If the opposing pitcher is especially effective on any given day, it may be extremely difficult to hit the ball with any authority. Still, by paying attention to the elements within their control, Washington's players have more often than not found themselves on the winning end even in difficult circumstances.
The basis of the wisdom that Mr. Washington imparted on his players applies not only to baseball, but to life itself, and is especially resonant to those of us suffering from chronic illness. The only person we have any real control over is ourselves; we have very little sway over the actions of others, or the circumstances that life doles out to us. Yet much time and suffering is spent trying to control elements that reside well outside our sphere of influence.
Despite what is often a lifetime of evidence proving the futility of such efforts, many folks make themselves miserable trying to control the actions of those around them. We chase unrequited love, attempting to will the person of our desires into having romantic feelings for us, an exercise that almost without fail ends in emotional disaster. We try to advance our careers or social standing by getting involved in petty games of politics, which can just as often lead to feelings of self degradation as it can to what usually amounts to some temporary form of satisfaction. We cajole, sweet talk, and bully, all in an effort to manipulate other sentient beings who have their own agendas and are likely trying just as hard to work us as we them. One thing I've learned through the years is that you never know what's going on in someone else's mind. Not that we shouldn't open our hearts and souls to others, as doing so is the only way to experience the majesty and grandeur of life, but we must be careful in choosing who we let in.
The only person we do have complete control over is ourselves. We can and should be the masters of our own thoughts, actions, and emotions. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, many people fastidiously avoid taking responsibility for their own happiness and success. Popular culture practically indoctrinates us into the belief that outside influences create inner satisfaction, and that our emotions have lives of their own. Quite frankly, this notion is nothing but a hurtful pile of horse crap. Emotions are complex things that arise from an intricate psychological web unique to each individual. Nevertheless, we create our emotions, we are not their creation.
Nothing irks me more than to hear people utter phrases like "I can't help the way I feel, I'm hardwired that way". Wrong. You can help the way you feel. It may take hard work, lots of practice, and extreme diligence, but if happiness and contentment are truly your goal, it's work that must be done. Letting others man the controls of your own happiness is akin to allowing yourself to be the passenger in a runaway car driven by somebody wearing an impenetrable suit of armor. The car will almost certainly crash, and the only one to suffer injury will be you.
When diagnosed with serious illness, we are confronted with an entirely different level of loss of control. Suddenly, we learn that our bodies have betrayed us, and that the enemy lies within. Despite whatever suspicions of illness we may have harbored, their confirmation is shocking. We are literally forced to separate mind and body, but this separation is often extremely difficult to achieve, especially as the body becomes less and less cooperative. As the meaning of the word "incurable" goes from abstract to concrete, we can arm ourselves for battle, and vow to fight her illness tooth and nail, but know in our hearts that the climb will be steep, and the conflict long.
We live in a body conscious, beauty obsessed culture. We look in the mirror and say,"that is me", not "that is my container". Yet, once serious and chronic illness strikes, we have no choice but to recognize that "me" is not the flesh and blood bag of bones staring back at us through the looking glass, but the spark contained within.
Ten years ago, I was happily swimming about a mile a day, an achievement that I took considerable satisfaction in, and one that was incorporated tightly with my sense of self. Now I can barely stumble 15 feet, and I'd probably need water wings to stay afloat in a pool. I took pride in my appearance, and derived considerable self-worth from my attractiveness to the opposite sex. Body and mind were tightly bound together, but my, how times have changed. Not that I am now some slovenly troglodyte, but if my self-worth were to be measured by physical prowess today, it could easily be paid for on a minimum wage salary.
Instead, the deterioration of my body has forced the evolution of my mind. When healthy, I paid lip service to the idea that happiness comes from within, and was indeed a choice, an aspect of life that in theory was under my control. Although cognizant of this notion, I was never able to live it. Too externally motivated, I all too often allowed myself to ride waves of emotion stirred up by the whims of others. I now understand the futility of such an approach, and as I've written before, can clearly see that happiness is not a single choice, but an infinite amount of choices made each and every day.
Illness has forced me to understand the concept of selective control, and to embody the reality that there is no way to direct the actions of others, the vicissitudes of life, or even the mechanisms of my own body. All that I can directly control is the essence of me; my thoughts, my emotions, and my reactions to the ever-changing world both outside and within. But that is enough. Releasing the external, embracing the internal, and taking it one moment at a time. Kindness to self leads to kindness to others, and then circles back again. Though being sick absolutely sucks, physical distress needn't consign you to a life of mental anguish. In the end, it's all up to you.
And also up to Ron Washington. At least for me. Because if the Texas Rangers don't knock off the New York Yankees, I will indeed know misery once again, and the forces of evil will run rampant through the land…