Great Expectations…OK Zero Expectations

Something funny happens when you become chronically ill. Ready? You become totally shitty at fulfilling the roles that probably came easy and natural to you before The Grand Interruption. Parent, kid, sibling, husband, wife, friend–all of those roles are going to suffer, because you’re simply unable to do the things you could before. Your capabilities become limited, your time becomes precious and cornered, and your ability to meet your and other peoples expectations will fall short, again and again. I admit it fully, I’m in general an unreliable source of help, or maybe just unreliable period. And if you don’t think that stabs me straight in the ego, then try saying out loud “I’m a human wasteland” and see how it feels. Because that’s about how it feels.

But we have to be fair, to ourselves and others. We can’t hold ourselves to the same standards as before, especially when we don’t have the same working parts. And we have to remember that the adjustments we make are not adaptations that we alone have to get used to. All those people for whom we provided some kind of role, they’re going to be affected too. They’re going to get exhausted, be disappointed, feel the pain of you not being who you used to be, just as you, the sick person will. I don’t know what it’s like to be a friend or a family member of Mary Gelpi, but I know that I begin 90% of my texts, emails, and conversations with an apology–because I couldn’t make it, I’m responding so late, I won’t be able to attend (insert anything important) I’m sure they become as tired of hearing it as I become of saying it. It’s exhaustive, saying sorry all the time. It’s probably tiresome to be on the other end of it too. But you are sorry, you don’t want to be this crappy of a friend or sister or girlfriend–and while being sick is nobody’s fault, it is the reality and it’s going to be painful. Learning to redefine our roles must be a lifelong process, I’m not sure. I just know I’m still learning.

Maybe a part of being proactive in that transition is becoming more honest and realistic with myself about what I’m able to do. I don’t deny that I suffer from wishful thinking, and probably make commitments I shouldn’t. Letting people know that I can’t be counted on, which is still hard to say, would probably let fewer people down less often. They have to know what to expect, which is unfortunately very little, but it’s up to us to fill them in.  Sometimes you get so busy being sick, you forget to communicate. You forget that people don’t know, or remember. Or you give up on telling them because it can feel repetitive and pointless, but I don’t think that’s true in reality. If I’m not honest about what I can do, out of fear or pride or whatever it is, I will let people down because they won’t know where the line is

I’ve had to face the reality in the last few years that there is no such thing as “solid plans” for me, or relying on myself 100% to be able to follow through with them. Every plan basically has an invisible “tentatively” written behind it. Last month I rescheduled 3 doctors appointments because I was too sick to make it. I have no idea how I’ll feel one day to the next, and that takes constant adjustment. I remember my whole family coming to visit last summer, they were sitting around my living room trying to figure out who could babysit the kids while they went to the French Quarter for the day. I remember sitting in the room saying Guys, I’m right here, I’ll watch them. I was actually, momentarily, offended that they didn’t consider me. Then someone said Mary, you can’t even do your dishes right now. Oh yeah, whoops. I forgot my own unreliability! As Louis C. K. would put it, I’m a non-contributing zero. Hah, yes. That sounds right. I had to laugh that even I couldn’t remember that I just can’t be counted on right now, and as much as that can be a kick in the gut to admit, it’s sort of silly to take it personally. If you’re sick, you’re sick–just admit it and keep moving.

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“Sweetie, can you do the dishes?” “No dad, I’m a non-contributing zero.” “Oh, right. Well, we love you anyway!” “Thanks guys.” “OK now get out of the way so we can do the dishes.”

 

I said in the beginning that being sick makes us crappy at fulfilling our roles, and in the traditional sense that may be true. But it also remains that when you’re sick, you just can’t do what you can’t do. If you don’t have legs, you can’t walk. It’s toxic to compare yourself to an old life where all your faculties were in place, to a new one where half your parts aren’t working. But being sick forces you to redefine your role, and I think there are ways to use your new way of “being” in the world and still be functioning in your respective roles. It’s not as is being sick effects your ability to love. If anything it’s made me love deeper, made me more grateful, and made the friendships that have lasted grow in certain ways. Still, I fail a lot, and many times it’s because I’m a flawed human being, not a chronically sick person. So I try to be extra cautious of both. Like most things being sick teaches, awareness seems to be key.

I’m always asking the questions that I think everyone is asking; am I doing the right thing, am I good person, what am I meant to do with my life? My circumstances? We all have our different sets of assets and vices, and it’s a balancing act trying to find the middle part where your feet are solid on the ground. Becoming chronically sick picks up your lifeless body and throws it upside down and backwards so that when you land you hardly know which way “up” is. It’s a puzzle, a maze, finding your way, but not impossible. The guru’s are always asking “How are you going to use what’s been given to you?” I always looked at that question as asking how I’d use the gifts I was given–the positive things in my life. Now I realize the question is far deeper than that…I think more often they mean, What will you do with your pain? How will you use this Extreme Disturbance to do better? Well hell, I don’t know. I just know that all we can do is try. Many times that means living with the mystery and not the answer. Also not easy to do.

I think it’s possible to use the condition of being sick in positive ways and to also maintain your roles by newly defining them. It seems to require incredible creativity and ingenuity, and I’ve certainly suffered from a lack of those many times. But I know there are ways to transform your old ways into new ones that are equally rewarding but not costly or impossible. I wouldn’t have confronted these conundrums if I hadn’t become sick and lost control of all the things I used to think of as mine. It has at least opened me up to the possibility of higher consciousness, and compared to who I was, I know the Mary without control has a better grasp on reality, is more compassionate, a better listener, less proud and more forgiving. I hope that doesn’t sound like bragging, I just think it’s good to examine the gifts that our so-called shitty circumstances can uncover. I obviously have a long way to go, but I know being sick has opened up deeper channels for me, and transformed the way I see the world and being in it.  Maybe it’s selfish, but I learned forgiveness by having to forgive myself first–for being where I was, for the things I could not do, for always thinking I should be doing better or further along. I had to let the unrealistic expectations go, and forgive myself for not reaching them.

I remember in my first serious relationship, which wasn’t until college, he frequently complained that I never apologized. My response was always “But that’s because I’m not the one who did anything wrong.” Holy cow, I’m the worst! It took years of learning humility and grace that being and saying sorry is a virtuous thing. It means recognizing your wrongdoing and at least becoming temporarily conscious of things you can do better. When you have a fight with someone, sometimes it’s because one person flat-out messed up. But many times, it takes two to tango, and talking things out, forgiving, letting go…all of it is stuff that moves both people forward. I don’t say this pretending as though I’ve mastered the art–I only know it’s there, it’s a choice. And it’s a good thing to know. I don’t know what or who I’d be like, were I still in my structured world, independent, living my life. But I know I enjoy the view from where I am now much more. I almost don’t look at life as mine anymore–I’m not sure whose it is. I’m still the driver, but it’s definitely a borrowed car.

Anyway, I guess this is your healthy reminder to keep those expectations low! And be grateful for the people who love you despite your human-wastelandednesss. They obviously see that you’re still cool despite being sick. And when people ask you to do something you’re incapable of, remind them with a smile: “I’m a non-contributing zero!” Then find new ways to contribute. :)

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“Son, you’re a non-contributing zero, and that’s OK.”     “…Thanks Dad.”

Health, Happiness, New Expectations

 

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How to Write About Pain

For a few days now, I’ve been writing about the experience of chronic pain, in a descriptive way that might convey the experience to someone who’s never lived with it before, and also as a comparison against acute/short-term pain, beyond their obvious difference in duration. I think I finally came up with a good analogy to depict the experience of daily pain, the internal battle it becomes, the consuming and exhaustive nature it takes on. But I’m not going to write about that yet. Because also for the last few days, I’ve been questioning why I’ve taken the time to try and get this very unique experience across anyway. I’ve wondered whether it’s futile in the first place, but more I’ve been reflecting on whether the point in it is genuine; if I’m doing a service of any kind, or if my ego has found a formal way to complain. Like Tolle says, that is the ego’s favorite thing to do.

As an FYI, I’ll post about chronic pain next time, because I do actually think it’s important to explore for many reasons, especially if you’ve not been through it. And I’ll write more about why when I come there. But first I had to type out loud, because I question the morality of what I do—writing about my broken body and the battles that accompany it—or if there is any in it, all the time. I constantly ask whether I’m evolving, learning anything, or passing good things along, important things. Or if I’ve sunk to the lowest common denominator of the human experience, something literally everyone goes through in his life, and if it’s just too easy to make that a goal and have it blinded by ego.

I always worry about going too far into how “bad” things can feel. Sometimes, there is truly no point in bemoaning something you can’t control, and it doesn’t help anyone to go on and on about any matter of it. In fact it can easily make things worse, redirecting the mind to focus on negative aspects and intensifying the size of something that you are trying to keep small, in check. Not to mention, you’ll bore everyone to tears. No one likes a whiner, and I try to be cautious about keeping the line drawn, bold and underlined between the two pathways the narrative can take:

One describes an experience so that people on the outside might have a better idea of what his fellow humans are dealing with. It can help expand “common ground”, I think. If it’s done a very good job, it might help replace judgment with compassion, or prevent misunderstanding or a lack of empathy due to disbelief that it’s even real. It helps close the gap between the experiences of two people who have not lived in the others world.

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Guilty
The other path, takes pain and gives it too much of a stage. It exploits something that all humans go through in some capacity and disguises itself as some kind of cursed reward. It gains momentum by reliving the same woes with new words, and by getting others indulge in their own without reflection. It’s not adding anything new or valuable to the conversation. If it isn’t honest or asking for help, if it isn’t uplifting people, but just reinforcing old wounds, it’s fair to say it’s gone south. Ever notice how someone complaining can rub off on you and lead you to do the same, or simply leave you feeling depressed? I’ve experienced it in person, and I know writing and reading accounts can be just as powerful.

Similarly, a positive person, who still acknowledges reality but seems to see through their moment of pain, can leave you feeling hopeful and inspired. The difference is not that these people haven’t endured pain, but what they’ve done with it. How they chose to let it shape them.

I know I’ve crossed over into the negative side way more than I’d like to admit, and probably even fooled myself into thinking it was necessary. Talking about hardship will always draw people in, because we’re all being challenged in our own ways, carrying our unique burdens. But that’s why I scratch half these posts or become too afraid to write about things. It’s a necessary and good thing to talk about the realities we face, because so often it provides people reinforcement, encouragement, reminders they are not alone and the vital belief that they can endure their hardship, just as many before them have, and emerge on the other side. Reading other peoples stories has always inspired and comforted me. Sometimes I distrust myself and skip out on telling certain stories or of certain experiences, but I think maybe it takes practice in reading enough good stories, and knowing the difference between which one will do good, and which one is the ego getting his fill.

I pray constantly to be a source of optimism through honesty, not to exploit a reality that’s in comparison to some, very very lucky. I think you write about pain the same way you live with it, which is to keep in checked moderation and right sized, and attempt to keep eternity in view, somehow. I don’t know how to do this, but I know some good ways not to. So what can I do but try and hope that I’m on the right side of sharing a personal account. Usually if I become too whiny, my mother hits me. Kidding– but you have a big enough family and they don’t let you complain too long or past a certain point, so I’ve relied on them often to keep me in check. A good friend will do the same.

What I’ve learned so far is how easy it can be to start expecting things to go bad, because so many things go bad. But we do ourselves a disservice in becoming convinced the world has conspired against us and we’re doomed to draw the short end of the stick for the rest of our lives. The trouble with that kind of thinking, besides it having no intrinsic value, is that it assumes the rest of the world is riding the easy train to party-town, never confronting a hardship, enduring pain, or drawing their own crappy short sticks. No one has a monopoly on pain. It’s part of all our respective contracts here. So having the idea that your life is hard and everyone else is clueless and has it easy will only make your own pain worse by punctuating it with something that isn’t true, first. And second, that idea undermines the lives of others who do know pain good and well, but whose experience you are now denying, because you can’t see past your own. I cringe to consider how many times I’ve done this, being stuck in my own dark hole.

Pain can be blinding or clarifying, depending on how well it’s kept in check. It can be overwhelming in the moment but when held against the larger backdrop of our lives, it usually highlights what is good, it makes gratitude grow and can help you see with new eyes. If pain is held up only in its moment in the dark, and seen as punishment, bad luck, or some kind of payment you got stuck with and others are getting for free as though its some kind of tax, then you will pay continually, and your relief will be rare. Pain shouldn’t make us proud, it should show us humility. Acting well and grateful and good in the face of pain is what should make us proud.

Sometimes I think of my life from a birds eye view, looking at it plotted out on paper like a map, where I can trace with my finger through the course, beginning to end. When I get discouraged, I think that what I fear is living a life I can’t say that I’m proud of in the end, when I’m tracing my line and seeing how I behaved. I know what will make me proud is having loved fiercely, being steadfast, humble, trying, listening well, finding humor in every stupid day, and being grateful for the lucky life I was given, the family of love I was born into. In the meantime, it feels good to put your head down and work. Sometimes you endure the pain quietly, and know that you’ll be OK whether you tell someone about it or not. I think moderation plays a role, and a discernment in what is worth sharing and what will only exhaust us to speak about. In some way it comes down to self-awareness and restraint.

I’ll end with this passage I read in The Road to Character this morning, a book I’d highly recommend by David Brooks. The first quote is Brooks summarizing George Marshalls training at VMI, followed by a quote from Cicero, which Brooks used to explain the composed, revered manner of Marshall throughout his life.

“The whole object of VMI training was to teach Marshall how to exercise controlled power. The idea was that power exaggerates the dispositions–making a rude person ruder and controlling person more controlling. The higher you go in life, the fewer people there are to offer honest feedback or restrain your unpleasant traits. So it is best to learn those habits of self-restraint, including emotional self-restraint, at an early age…

That person then, whoever it may be, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fight, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person in the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.” -Cicero

Health, Happiness, Restraint

P.S. This is dedicated to Varney Prejean, the eternal optimist in the face of pain and such a happy, loving, groovy person. If you’ve got an extra prayer, send one out for him. Hang tough Varn-dog, we’re rooting for you!