I am not supposed to get sick. Disease happens to other people, not me.
Oh, I know, it’s true what the Buddhists say: “In all lives there is suffering.”
I’ve repeated that mantra a lot over the years. Yet somehow I never really understood that “I” am included in all lives. I missed the “we” of human vulnerability.
Then two weeks ago, flying home after visiting our three sniffly grandchildren, whose adorable picture I see here framed in front of me, I said to my husband, “I think I’m coming down with something. First time in years. Hmm.”
The “hmm” should have been my clue to get humble. But, no. I was out of touch with the fact that being ill is an inescapable fact of life. I had forgotten that sick happens. I pointed the finger to those beloved toddlers and to all those bacteria and viruses at the Portland International Jetport and on our flight.
“Me? Come on! I take a walk every day, eat organic kale, drink green smoothies.” Within minutes, I zoomed from a denying, “How me?” to a defiant, “Why me?” and landed securely in “Poor me” victimhood, each stage punctuated by, “Bad me. I must have done something wrong.”
The unnamed bugs congested my brain before they stuffed up my nose and sinuses, and then filled my chest, cramping any breathing. I spiked a fever for a few days, accompanied by a pinpoint skin rash and several nights of wheezing coughs.
Again overlooking the truth that anything can happen to anyone at any time, and running out of little kids and big public places to blame, I started to chastise myself, as if this malady were the result of some character defect or mistake: “It must have been that cookie dough frozen coconut milk I scarfed down. I ruined my immune system.”
Clearly my judging mind was suffering as much if not more than my tired body. I admit to a tad bit of pride: Do I think I am above contracting infections? Do I think I’m better than people who don’t exercise or eat well?
Accusing others and criticizing myself, it took me awhile to settle into serenity, into no-blame. And I didn’t start kind self-care until I phoned a few friends.
Feeling sorry for myself, I called Barbara. I confessed, “I’m afraid I somehow made myself sick, as if by some weakness of soul, I messed up. I’m worried it’s some weird twist of karma.”
She said, “You’re taking this personally? Sue, mid-winter flu season is pretty impersonal. An epidemic has nothing to do with your supposed religious failings. Don’t you believe in germs? Go to bed, honey. Send yourself love and well-wishes. Breathe in ease. Breathe out fear.”
I reached out to Jules, a holistic healer. I wanted a fix, hoped he would suggest a homeopathic remedy or an herb, something like, “Take ginseng and feel better in two days.” Instead, he said, “I suspect the hardest lesson for you might be the patience required to allow yourself to heal.”
Hmm. Another moment of humility.
Even though I know it’s not unusual to be under the weather in February in Maine, I still believed I should be able to stay well. I turned to my wise pal Jane for empathy.
I said, “Maybe this is due to not enough vegetables in my diet.” She laughed, one of those deep knowing wisdom laughs. “HA! If your sinus headache and croupy cough were caused by nutritional deficiencies, I and most of the population would be in way bigger trouble than you. Compassion, girl. Beating yourself up won’t help. Don’t go there.”
Ever so affectionately Jane said that, although I think I shouldn’t be ailing in the first place, I should be nice to myself. In effect, Barbara and Jules had offered me the same empathic teaching.
And the red cursive lettering on the white wooden frame around that picture of my three grandkids shows me another spiritual message: “PEACE. Let peace begin right here.”
Hmm. Peace. I finally get it. So 14 days into this whatever-it-is, I am trying to let peace begin right here, practicing peace and gentle acceptance of “it’s going around.”
I am also working to cultivate the patience that comes from knowing that in all lives there is suffering. Mine, too. So rest and fluids it is, and maybe a little kale.
Susan Lebel Young, MSEd, MSC, is a retired psychotherapist. Her new book is “Food Fix: Ancient Nourishment for Modern Hungers” (March 2013), email: [email protected]