My dear friend, the bloggerJon Katz, and I have a continuing disagreement. When I read in his posts that he’s been unwell I email him, “How’s your health, Jon?” Or “How’s that wicked throat infection, Jon?” And he invariably replies: “Don’t ask me about my health, that’s old talk.” Last time, he added, “I bet you don’t ask young people how their health is?”
We had an exchange about this some time ago. I wrote about the many people I know who don’t ever talk about being sick. I wrote that in our culture, not being in good health is often seen as some deficiency on the sick person’s part. If we’re not functioning at 1000%, we should just shut up and not tell anyone.
I know lots of people with chronic illness and pain who tell me of relatives and friends who don’t believe them, think they’re making it all up to get sympathy, to explain why they’ve had to work fewer hours at a job they love, or stop working altogether. Either way, they’re not believed. Almost as if: If it ain’t cancer, what are you complaining about?
I was no different. Long ago I worked with someone suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. When he first told me about it, I looked at him, blinked, and said: “And that’s a disease?” It wasn’t a question to obtain information, it was judgment.
I replied to Jon that I actually ask everyone I see (if I hadn’t seen them in a while) how they’re feeling physically, including young people. Maybe especially young people because they run around more and take little time to check in and feel what’s going on. When I ask them how they’re doing physically they actually take a breath and try to reconnect with their bodies. I have a sense that they’re grateful for the question.
Young or old, physical wellbeing is the basis for wellbeing, foundational to seeing yourself as one holistic piece, body-mind-soul-spirit, all one thing. I actually don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
Like many others, I fall into the trap thinking: This distracts me from what I want or need to do. But is it a distraction? Is it secondary to other things? Or is it this moment itself, asking for attention and care? And who said that my work is more important that moment? It may not be the only thing, but it’s certainly no distraction.
Jon writes beautifully about the possibilities of renewing one’s life at any age, at meeting creative challenges and going into places we haven’t entered before now, when we’re older. But I’m troubled by how we use our will to overcome things such as illness.
Willpower is a big deal in our culture, it’s supposed to overcome everything. The world of work is fueled by willpower, to the exclusion of intuition and perception. It’s fueled by competitiveness rather than community, the objective goal/bottom line rather than the larger view. Don’t even think of bringing the personal dimension into a meeting or sharing what you’re sensing and feeling, you’ll be laughed out of the room.
That’s the outside world. Home serves as the refuge from all that, especially for men. They come home and want to find a woman that’s warm, loving, intuitive, caring—things they themselves have and value but can’t show outside. They leave the house the following morning and the mask comes on: rational, objective, unemotional, data driven.
The same is unfortunately true for many of us women who go into a world of work whose vocabulary and culture was determined by men a long time ago.
Have you ever seen them come home from work? They put their arms out, greet their children enthusiastically, show love and affection unabashedly. The mask has come down and they acknowledge a whole dimension of being that is strongly denied back in the office. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, we all suffer from this dichotomy of having to be effective, efficient, and will-driven outside, while back home we can be loving, caring, and intuitive.
I take this into the world of health. Our body, this blessed vehicle that enables us to live, gets sick, rebels, says NO! to us in so many ways, and what do we do in response? Get back in line. You’re distracting me from what I have to do. I need to help this person and that person—I DON”T WANT HELP FOR MYSELF.
My husband Bernie showed tremendous willpower after his stroke. He exercised every single day with persistence and determination. But now he was also listening to his body in a way he never had before. He’d come to the very edge of things, peered over, and didn’t find much space for will anymore. Something else was beckoning, telling him to surrender, and he did.
I don’t mean when he died, long before that. And I don’t think we have to suffer a major stroke to learn that lesson.