In the recovery community there is a story about two men trying to get across a small bay in separate canoes. The day is dark and windy and there are white caps. One man is paddling furiously and making little headway. The other man seems to be barely trying and has nearly made the other side.
The explanation that is offered is that the man who has nearly made it has been watching the currents and the wind observantly and instead of trying to use the power of his stroke uses his patience and presence to follow the flow; he is present. He has surrendered to his circumstances and possibly even enjoyed the trip, perhaps using effort only at moments of moving from one current to another.
The lesson for people in recovery is that fighting addictions won’t get you where you want to go; trying harder only digs the hole a little deeper. Only an act of surrender and letting go will carry you over to the other side.
Don’t we often hear news reports of a person dying “after a long battle” with their illness? I’ve never liked that image. Losing a long battle doesn’t sound like the way I want to go out. But what is the alternative? Michael died after finally making peace with his demons? Michael finally died after attaining enlightenment (I personally like this one)? Michael passed over after giving up the ghost? Michael finally died when he said his last goodbye? When he admitted his last secret? When he reached a place of complete acceptance?
I have the honored opportunity to get to get to know quite intimately many people coping with chronic illness. I have the advantage of seeing a wide spectrum of ways to handle living with pain or impairment. There are an increasing number of us who spend hours on the internet searching for answers. Often this is done with good judgment and insight. But sometimes it is done with a kind of desperation that follows every promise without caution and reckless spending. There are others who find a good counselor and settle in. Others go from doctor to doctor hoping for different answers.
I spent time recently with one woman unquestionably in pain who seemed obsessed with visiting doctors to frustrate them. She had become an expert in every facet of the differential diagnosis for her condition. She had had every test run and she knew the results and their nuanced meaning. She was clearly angry with her physicians, with good reason, and liked to show off her knowledge and revel in recounting the mistakes her physicians had made. She didn’t wear her illness well. She seemed lost and obsessed in her illness.
Depression is common and this should tell us something about more than loss. In Chinese medicine pain is the most depleting of all energies, robbing our creativity, our ability to discriminate and our capacity to digest and absorb nutrition. It robs our capacity to cycle and restore. Chronic pain can knock us down and never let us up. However there are those with chronic illness who find answers in unexpected places and discover a way out of their stuck ness. There are others yet who find comfort and even grace in acceptance.
Is there a middle ground? A place of both acceptance and hope? These emotions don’t coexist naturally, like fire and ice.
Another possibly helpful image for those of us with chronic illness that comes from the recovery community is that everything is exactly as it is supposed to be. With so much pain and injustice in the world this is a hard place to go. The image gets its power from the belief that we are released from our addictions as soon as we accept them. We are released from fear of the clouds and wind as soon as we go into them to discover what the storm is all about. We are released to look for meaning when we stop fighting and try to understand.
A common and unexpected quality I find in all the people who wear their illness with equanimity is a kind of humility. I don’t understand this. Like the trait itself – this is elusive to me. I think it comes from a spiritual place of putting ourselves into the proper scale.
My heroes are the ones that find this balance of both fire and ice. Where hope for discovery lives right next to acceptance and peace. In this place I think we can find a presence that allows us to notice the currents and feel the wind and keep our eyes on our purposes and do our part when it is time to cross over into a new current.