A friend of mine told me the other day that he avoids saying he has Parkinson’s; and he is certain that his refusal to allow PD a central role in his life has helped him live past the life-expectancy his neurologist gave him two decades ago. Not only live, but live with presence and flair.
I would like to learn from this way of responding to what others often think of as life-limiting adversity. He has found a way to break free from the news that hostile forces have breached the borders. I could benefit from this strategy for treating life as an adventure that no would-be intruder has the power to take away if we don’t allow it to.
We usually think of roofs and rain hats as what keeps us dry from rain that blows into our neighborhood. Like a duck’s back keeping it warm and dry inside, we think we need to protect ourselves from unwelcome occurrences. But then what do we do if the thunderstorm is inside us and is hurling bolts of lightning into our brain?
Then do we need another duck inside to protect us from the gusts of wind blowing through the corridors of our mind? When an unwanted intruder invades our physical or mental apparatus (as with MS, ALS, PD and Alzheimer’s) surely those challenges are less defendable than when the rent is due and our bank account is empty; as when we slip on ice and dislocate our shoulder, as I did a few years ago. Or as happened a few days ago to my son and his girlfriend when a fire in the apartment above sent them back here to the room they moved out of more than a year ago (as they wait for another apartment to become available and they do 25 or so loads of laundry to wash the toxic water and smoke fumes out of all their cloths). With such external assaults on our comfort we can at least look for practical solutions: we can don garments or be grateful for whatever feathers we have evolved to protect us from storms that blow in unexpectedly. But when the invader shares our neurons and cells, how do we stop him from taking over our hopes and dreams?
My own experience of this kind of depth of understanding has mostly been through my admiration of others who have not allowed neuromuscular diseases to prevent them from continuing to bob along on the running stream of life, through fair weather and foul. So far, I have only had to develop a little patience in order to deal with the slips and missteps that my clumsy body and inattentive mind have brought into my days. But there is one situation that has invaded my mind and heart’s inner sanctums: the death of my son last year.
In living with personal loss, there is an opportunity to learn from the strategy that my friend with PD has applied for a quarter of a century, although so far I’ve only had 18 months of practice. I’m slowly discovering that I don’t have to let negative emotions take up permanent residence in my mind and prevent me from living a full life. Guilt and fear have nothing useful to contribute to my own well-being and they just weaken me so that I can’t really be there for others and for the world. It is clearly more helpful to recognize that none of us are in control of the storms that roll in; and it is not within our power to transform all the invaders that show up at our door. Globally it is not possible to wish away all the fires and storms and corrupt systems that withhold their fair share from countless beings. And, tragically, it is no longer within the purview of our lifetimes to leave for future generations a better world than the one into which we were born. That ship has already sailed. Our efforts must now be to nurture however we can greater care in place of the riptide of harm we have allowed to gain the upper hand.
There is another understanding that I hope can reach the ears of my inner duck before my days are gone. I am stuck in the cloudy illusion that everything will remain the same as it is now, including that my life will continue indefinitely being today as it was yesterday. This denial of my mortality keeps me in denial of the precious opportunity that is still available for me to accomplish something of value.
That inner rain of awareness is the source of life itself; and my inner duck has no reason to avoid it or lament the storms that blow in from the East. After all, just as a duck floats on the streams that carry that rain back to the sea, so do I float along on the stream of my life. If I don’t notice the presence of the winds that carry the rains of uncertainty, how can I become aware of my own heart that will one day, perhaps with no notice, flap its wings and rise aloft into currents of light, bound for destinations unknown?