Taking mental time trips back into my own past, I realize that much of what caused the healthy but neurotic me endless fretting, worrying, and anxiety was in retrospect barely more than a collection of relative trivialities, and that most of the issues that consumed me were really just a massive amount of stupid crap. I wish I could be one of those people who claim that they have no regrets and wouldn't change a thing, but looking back on that all too finite time when I was wonderfully free from the stranglehold of progressing disability, I'm dismayed at the amount of precious time I wasted lovelorn over women who simply weren't worth the tears, or caught up in the artificial drama of career and workplace. As the saying goes, I could kick myself, only now I can't kick myself, and therein lies the problem. All that time is gone forever, lost amidst a misguided sea of malcontent.
Living a life cleaved in two by a terrible disease, along a dividing line between healthy and ill, has given me a chance to examine my healthy existence almost as if it were a foreign object, a big snow globe into which I can peer and pick out the intricate entanglement of decisions and twists of fate that defined the path I followed. With head smacking clarity I can see what really mattered most, the important stuff, and that on which I wasted way too much time and energy, the stupid crap. I suppose a less crass way to express this would be to say that, in retrospect, I can separate the wheat from the chaff, but to hell with that, it all boils down to important stuff and stupid crap.
So what wisdom has my staring into the snow globe of my past bestowed upon me? What exactly is and isn't stupid crap? Well, there's so much stupid crap that it's much easier to say what it isn’t. Stupid crap is not anything that profoundly and directly impacts you or the people you love who love you back. By profoundly and directly I mean the really big stuff, like serious illness, utter financial ruin, and other catastrophic events. That's the important stuff. Lesser hindrances should of course attract your attention, but should not be inflated into artificial crises when in fact they are mere bumps in the road. And when I say the people you love who love you back, I mean the people who love you back as much is you love them.
It's been my experience that folks who reciprocate your deepest affections with a flame dimmer than the one you burn for them will only lead you down a path of disappointment and heartache. In my high school yearbook, each graduating senior chose a quote to be included under their picture, a heady task for a 17-year-old. Out of a graduating class of 865, other than my own, I only remember the quote of one other person, a girl I didn't even know. Under her picture were the words, "Loving someone who doesn't love you is like loving death. And wanting to be with them is like wanting to die." Not exactly the most cheerful words with which to bid bon voyage to your high school years, but true words nonetheless. In case you're curious, my yearbook quote was "Blind acceptance is a sign of stupid fools who stand in line", a lyric lifted from a Sex Pistols song (click here).
Looking back, I realize that most of the trials and tribulations that consumed me turned out to be of relatively little significance, and that while I was preoccupied with overcoming what at the time I chose to see as seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I let a multitude of opportunities for potential happiness pass me by. In truth, most of the stupid crap generally works itself out with time, and there's really not much you can do about it but put yourself in the best position to take advantage of fortuitous opportunities when they arise. I don't mean to say that life should be blithely lived with an idiotic smile plastered on your face, as when unfortunate things occur it's important to feel the emotions associated with them, but once felt, it's important to let such feelings go, and leave yourself open to conduits to greener pastures.
I have a dear friend whose mom was a wonderfully eccentric person, filled with a wanderlust and zest for life despite having endured many hardships and tough breaks along the way. She was always bursting with plans and schemes, convinced that her pot of gold was right around the corner. Pamela was a truly gentle soul, who wished harm to no person. One day I learned she had taken a job as a telephone psychic, and though I knew she was into some New Age spirituality, I'd never known her to claim psychic abilities. I asked her if her new job didn't require her to in some way rip people off, something that was definitely not in her nature, by claiming to be something she was not and, in the process, offering desperate people false hope. She had a very interesting answer. Pam told me that the overwhelming majority of the people who called the psychic hotline had recently suffered a loss, either of a romance or a job. In both cases, she could confidently assure them that in time they would see their problems rectified, and they would eventually find a new lover or place of employment, simply because that's how life works.
Given a level of attractiveness just a few clicks above that of Quasimodo, the jilted lover generally stays as lonely as they want to be. As long as they choose to burn a torch for their lost love they remain alone, my friend's mom explained, often forgoing opportunities to nurture new relationships in order to keep that torch burning. Once they let go of their old relationship, and allowed themselves time to heal, a new relationship would almost surely follow, if that's what they truly desired. The same held true for those who had lost a job; as long as they were reasonably competent, presented themselves well, and diligently looked for work, they would eventually find themselves new and maybe even more fulfilling employment, having learned from their past mistakes. Keep in mind, this was in the 90s, when jobs were abundant. Nowadays, in the wake of the Great Recession, it might be significantly more difficult to find employment, but eventually the vast majority of the unemployed will find themselves back at work. The greater truth that my friend’s mom was trying to convey is that there is a natural ebb and flow to life, as one wave recedes another is making its way onto shore. Unless a tsunami hits, in most cases people keep their heads above the water.
Getting hit with a serious diagnosis forced me to confront my own mortality, and realize in a very tangible way that my time here on earth is finite. Surprisingly, rather than cause me pain and consternation, that knowledge helped me separate the important stuff from the stupid crap, the wheat from the chaff. If you were told the world was ending in five days, on who and what would you choose to spend that precious time? The answer to that question represents the important stuff. Everything else, everything, is stupid crap.
The fact of the matter is we all do have just a limited number of days to live, and I, along with everybody reading this essay, could meet our ultimate fate tomorrow. I passionately hope that's not the case for any of us, but the possibility is real, if remote, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
I say acknowledge it, and use that knowledge as a lens to focus on who and what is truly meaningful in your life, and then not waste a precious moment on that which may only be of fleeting and insignificant importance. This holds true for all, sick and healthy alike. For your sake and the sake of those who you love and love you back, make every attempt to maximize that which is central to your life, the people and activities that bring you fundamental joy and contentment. Despite the restrictions illness may impose, all but the most grievously stricken can certainly find some good in their existence, and revel in the love they share with those they hold most precious. When all is said and done, nothing else really matters…