Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Question of Control

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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…

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  1. Hi,
    Please visit my blog and pick up your Prolific Blogger Award.

    Posted Wednesday.


  2. Now that's the Marc Stecker that I know and love. Welcome back my friend.

  3. Artifishual here from "TIMS" Seems we share a common bond in hating the Yankees! Rangers play tonight at home and need to put this one in the bag! Go Rangers! I hope your doing well Marc. God Bless

  4. Wow---what a great post and fabulous timing to read your words, Marc. I've been busy sorting out what's going on for me and finally posted on my blog today. It's such a relief to hear your thoughts about the progression of our body's demise (and brain too, for me) and how to deal with it.

    I need reminders that there's more to me than what I see in the mirror. I'm a Giants fan as I'm in the SF Bay Area and I promise I won't root for the Yankees!


  5. Marc,
    If the energy of the words in your blog are any indication of your physical health, it would appear that you are well on your way to being back to your good old self. I hope so!

    Always a pleasure to read your musings. Welcome back. We missed you!

  6. isn't it amazing as our body wanes our mind comes to life. At times it drive you crazy it's going to her miles an hour but the transmission is a neutral. You think of everything from childhood through present and it's like a flash. II used to walk many miles every day. Now my legs just hang there. There is no hope for the strength they once had. I used to be able to press 780 pounds with my legs and sat with all the machine had. Now I get excited when I see a toe wiggle from a spasm! I look at my big legs, they look like they are ready to go, but they're go up and went. It's the times in the night when you're alone with only your thoughts and you see the future slipping away. Future? We have none, at least not one that we want. Every day they pick me up with my Hoyer lift and set me in my chair, this is life? Yes I guess that's the one I have, I'll just keep that hundred mile an hour brain going.

  7. Oh yeah, way to go Texas Rangers!!!!!

    best, Barry

  8. Well, I don't so much care about baseball, but it sure is nice to see you back in the game :). Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts and inspirations. Hope you continue to feel better!

  9. Hi Marc,
    I really enjoy your blog. I am glad to see you are feeling better and are up to writing again. I have enjoyed writing for years, but I have never blogged before. You have inspired me to blog about my disability. Please come visit my blog at

    I respect your writing abilities and I would love to hear what you thought of mine.
    I look forward to reading you comments on my blog.

  10. The baseball gods have listened. Thanks Marc!
    Perhaps you should throw your name in the hat to replace Omar or Jerry.

    One part Stengel, one part Rinpoche.


  11. so glad you are back and righteously adamant about "the minions"...Trogolytes unite!!!
    glad to hear your voice WK
    loads of hugs from British Columbia eh!

  12. Yay, Marc! Another wonderful post. I've been reflecting on acceptance, myself, lately, and I'm totally done with freaking out about my relatively recent diagnosis (May 2009). My neuro wants me to take a Tysabri break starting in January. He's starting to suggest the "pill" LOL. Gilenya is so freaking expensive and carries it's own risks. I'm starting to think of maybe just saying "screw it" to DMDs and their greedy pharma corps, accept where I am on a day to day basis, and just LIVE, just BE.

    Oh, and, Go Giants!

  13. I believed for years that one of the greatest gifts (and burdens) of being human was that between stimulus and response, there is choice.

    I was tested a couple of years ago for the cognitive impacts of my MS. There were the usual short term memory issues. A big surprise was finding I also have disinhibition, a "reduced capacity to edit or manage immediate impulsive response to a situation". In others words, during the test, I responded to the stimuli before the "governor" has had a chance to "choose" a response. Thank you (possible) frontal lobe lesion(s).

    Loosing my ability to ride a bike, and dance, and walk on the beach was terrible, but I was still me (though diminished). Living with fear of loss of control of bladder (embarrassing) and bowels (mortifying) while in public is stressful and draining, but I was still me (more diminishment). Loosing control of some part of my ability to control my behaviour ? Wrenching.

    Am I still me? Am I still fully human? I guess I must be if I’m thinking about it.

    Marc, I love your columns. Keep on challenging us!

  14. Funny how through great suffering some of rediscover classical philosophy. Didn't much need it when I was able and limitless!

  15. Have you ever read "A Man in Full" by Tom Wolfe? One of the characters who is in prison changes his attitude and his life after reading about the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. What you say is very similar to what this character learns about the importance of being responsible for your own feelings and how you choose to react to situations.

    On a baseball note, I'm thrilled along with you that the Rangers conquered the Yankees -- I was born in Fort Worth and am so excited to see my hometown team go to the World Series!


    YOUR comments and the start of the World Series today inspired my own rant about the Yankees today...

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  18. if you use facebook there is an ad there that often runs in the right-hand border CCSVI Costa Rica. I guess the procedure is becoming a money grab for doctors outside US borders.makes me wonder if that's all it will ever turn out to be.

  19. Hello,

    I am traveling back in time to post an old comment to the subject that I just read after the future articles that I already read, and after some the the past articles that in the future you suggested that I read. Ergo (but not ergot) this post that addresses the non addressable concept of control, which is really just a struggle with the lack there of.

    Dunno if you are aware of it, but all abuse of others is about the issue of control. How's that for the %$&*^$!! Yeah. I don't like it either. It is a smelly ugly fact.

    MS is a non-discriminating disease. MS doesn't care if it's (whatever we are) are good or bad or nice of ugly or skinny or bony or medium sized or lots of IQ points or bi-polar or idiots or athletic or artists. In that respect the nano source of MS is (are was were am be been) like the macro void of space. Indifferent. As things are now, there is no way to know, for sure, who will get this demylinating problem, and which demylenated nerves will fire off what messages that will or will not go who knows where. We have no control over which nerves will heal or scar and which one nerves will be just fine or even which ones will open up as alternative message routes and be even better than the original route.

    Durn, and here I was thinking that I earned a place among the elite, but even that is random. This non-controllable control is certainly a humbling aspect of the MS Tao of Not-Doing. What you never heard of the MS Tao? I made it up, it is what I Do. I Not-Do. That way (The Way of MS Tao) I can pretend to be in control of my doing of Not-Doing. Try it. It helps to counter-control disesthesias. The MS Tao works by not-working. Besides, it's fun. FIGHT STRESS WITH FUN.

    Dunno if anyone will ever read this time-traveling message from the syncopated synapses of Ye Olde' Swamp Granny's wholy brain. I wrote it anyway.

    Thank you for all that you have done
    Ye Olde' Swamp Granny

  20. I lost this post, then found it after reading a bunch more of your posts and then then my post was posted post hast into some unknown cyber-limbo. I am sorry.

    I have been a bit of a hermit for many years, here in the Swamp of my demylinated mind. Just when I start to stick out my terrapin resembling psyche and brag about my own bits of light in the indifferent universe, I immediately am humbled by the new awareness that there is an entire constellation of enlightened thoughts that are far brighter than I ever imagined. I must pause and blink and rub my eyes for a bit while I adjust to the brightness. I feel that I want to run back inside my shell and not take chances of looking foolish again.

    But you know, it is exciting, as well as frightening to find so many persons who have reached such maturity in the last 10 years or so.

    There are even some trains of thought that seem to parallel my own train of thought. However your Tao Paths are Way far down the tracks ahead of my own Way of the MS Tao. Fortunately you have left a Path for me, and whoever else wishes to do so, that we may follow, as we feel up to it, or not.

    Thank you for all that you have done,
    Ye Olde' Swamp Granny

  21. Kamikaze ur perhaps one of the most brilliant writers Ive encountered- I'm curios how you concentrate? I'm talking regarding ur symptoms, for example right now I have a feeling of constriction in my feet its like tight ski boots 2 sizes smaller that weigh a ton each, no mater what I do I still go back to m feet, its so hard to do anything else with this on my do u block stuff like this?