The word ‘lucky’ has been coming up a lot lately. This is great, because I am a big believer in luck. It seems to me, though, that this is a term that benefits from careful definition. Most of the time, the way I hear it used, what people are referring to is really good fortune rather than luck.
‘Luck’ was me getting COVID-19 the one and only time I went out in six weeks.
Oh, I agree, it was definitely BAD luck! Luck just the same.
There are elements of luck that we can influence, and areas that we can’t. For instance, shortly after my hubby and I moved down here, we saw Jermaine Jackson at the grocery store. That was luck. We had no idea that he was in the area or that he was promoting a charity campaign, which is probably the only reason that a Real Celebrity (TM) would be at a grocery store in person.
The only part of this encounter that we really influenced on our end was renting a house within jogging distance of the Hollywood sign.
This is where the distinction between ‘luck’ and ‘good fortune’ comes in.
Luck has everything to do with timing. It’s the chance encounter, the coincidence, the surprise connection.
Good fortune tends to be something that’s built up over time or the compounding of significant effort.
Think of the Olympics. Nobody ever won a gold medal by luck. I think we can all agree there.
On the other hand, it is great good fortune whenever an Olympian makes it to the podium, because it means they’ve managed to avoid any incidents that would prevent them from training that hard.
The torn ligaments, the bad case of mono, the concussion... Any number of things could happen to keep someone from performing at top level during that one year in four.
Bad luck, right?
One of the differences between Olympians and the rest of us is whether they would let something like a terrible injury put a permanent stop to their sporting career.
I was very surprised to discover, when I suddenly developed an interest in endurance sports in my thirties, that every athlete I met had a history of serious injuries. At the same time, everyone I ever met who was 100 pounds overweight or more would blame it on... an injury. In both cases, there might be a “when I blew out my knee” or “after I hurt my back” or “after my surgery.” But one of them would be telling the story while racking weights.
Part of good fortune, then, is what story we build after something awful happens.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the summer, since this was the year that I “lucked out” and got COVID.
There is an interesting visualization exercise that anyone can do, which is to tell two separate versions of your life story. Make one version as bad as possible, with the worst spin on everything that ever happened to you and emphasis on only the negative. Then do another version with as much Disney spin on it as possible, focusing only on the positive. It will sound like two completely different people - yet both are technically true.
Let’s see, we can do one about... Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Hawking was born during World War II and grew up under austerity in England, where he had to eat British food. When he was in college, he collapsed, and learned that he had motor neuron disease. He was just 21 when he was given only two years to live. His health deteriorated until he was confined to a wheelchair, and he couldn’t even speak anymore.
This would be a great story for a GoFundMe, right?
Of course the other version is that Stephen Hawking was one of the most famous scientists of his age, who outlived his prognosis by decades, had a family and a dazzling career, traveled the world and even went to space, contributed to multiple fields, and of course got to prove doctors wrong over and over again.
Two stories, both true.
Okay, so... was Stephen Hawking lucky, or unlucky? Was his life fortunate, or was it not?
This is a question with no right answer. It’s really a question of temperament. The real question is not what you think about a celebrity’s life; it’s how you answer this question about your own, one true personal life.
I can tell two versions of my 2020, and both of course are true.
Version One: The year started out badly. My husband almost lost his sight in one eye, I missed my big opportunity to teach my first workshop at a big conference, then we both got the flu and had to put our dog down. Then I got COVID-19 and then I had pneumonia on my birthday. My health has never been the same and in fact I’m in the middle of what seems to be a week-long stomach bug as I write this.
Version Two: The year started out great. We didn’t realize how lucky we were when we decided not to book any trips this year. My husband miraculously had no damage to his vision after his eye injury. We had no idea what a blessing it was that we were able to help our dog cross over before COVID, when the clinic was still open. If we were off by even a month... Then I got COVID but all our friends made it through okay, no hospitalizations, and my hubby somehow managed not to get sick at all. Even though I was sick, when my dream job came open I was able to apply for it, and I got the position! We’re both able to work at home and stay safe. Might be a long haul, it’s nice to have something to do to keep busy.
Two stories, both true.
A technique at play in Version Two is the ‘counterfactual’ statement. This is a double-edged sword. It’s easy to use counterfactuals to delude oneself. They are helpful, though, in reconstructing and reframing situations that may not be tolerable, much less feel fortunate in any way.
What’s missing from Version One of my story is any acknowledgement of the good fortune that is still in place. We have a happy marriage, we have health insurance, it was an eye injury and not, say, a sucking chest wound or a rattlesnake bite. Any list of grievances and sorrows is incomplete, not a fully accurate account, if it focuses exclusively on the negative.
Good fortune is good for everyone. It’s not a zero-sum game. Being in a fortunate position allows us to reach out and help others. At minimum, at least we’re not someone else’s crisis. (See, another counterfactual!) Distinguishing between ‘luck’ and ‘good fortune’ allows us to compile a thorough list of our resources and advantages, which is the first step to solving our problems. Ours, and then maybe others’ as well.
Hard work - what is it, exactly?
We’ve been having an extended discussion over the weekend about what ‘hard work’ means, and what it has to do with financial and career success. “We” meaning my husband, a couple of our young mentees, and I.
I think it’s a mistake to tell young people that hard work is everything. It isn’t!
Working hard in the wrong manner won’t really get anyone anywhere. If hard work was the secret to success, there would be a lot of very wealthy ditch diggers and demolition crews, am I right?
I worked much harder as a nanny than I do today. The mom of “my” kids once fell asleep at the table with her face in her mashed potatoes, so I think any parent or caregiver would agree that chasing kids around is quite hard work indeed.
My hubby and I both come from a blue-collar background. We were taught the inherent dignity of busting your butt all day. Sitting around with soft hands and no practical skills is embarrassing where we come from. In fact I know I could never have fallen in love with a man who couldn’t use tools.
My man can design a satellite, sharpen a chainsaw, build a battle bot, change the oil in a semi, debug code, and run a skidder. Which of these skills are ‘hard work’?
I can’t do any of those things - or at least I haven’t tried so far - but I can put on a conference for 200 attendees, carry a sleeping child to bed, cook dinner for 20, type 100 words per minute, sew a Halloween costume, balance quarterly financial reports, build a chair, and fight five dudes with my hands duct-taped together. Some of these things at the same time.
One of the first things you learn as an administrative assistant is that you’re expected to do things that people who earn 3-4x your wage abjectly cannot do.
There is a double bind, because the better you are at your job, the less likely you are to get promoted. If you aren’t great at the detail work and EQ necessary for the position, then it’s assumed you’re more or less useless. On the other hand, the better you are at it, the more people panic at the thought of trying to replace you.
I have felt like I do basically the same work that I did at entry level, other than obvious technological changes like moving toward paperless reports. Yet at one point I earned $7/hour for this stuff, with no benefits, and I was excited to get it.
What I think about ‘hard work’ is that it depends on what is hard for the individual.
It’s hard to work for a low wage and face all the issues that go with that: a long commute, roommates, juggling bills, unreliable transportation, an apartment/house/neighborhood with a lot of issues, no obvious solutions for problems that could easily be solved with more cash than you have. Or may ever have.
It’s hard to put your spirit into tasks that nobody appreciates.
It’s hard to wait on people who are mean and rude, and it’s hard to have a mean boss.
Obviously it’s hard to be on your feet all day and do labor that is physically challenging. It can be fun, too, though. There is a lot to be said for being able to see visual progress on something that you worked on all day, or to be able to drive by and point it out to your friends. “I helped build that.”
Does ‘hard work’ lead to success?
Not alone, though, and not out of context.
If I just do 100 burpees in my living room, I’ll be sweating, but then what?
I think the key isn’t so much ‘hard work’ in terms of exertion. I think it’s a combination of focus, accountability, and persistence. It’s not really ‘hard work,’ it’s emotional commitment and follow-through toward the desired outcome.
That state of being invested in the outcome quickly leads to a strategic perspective. This is where success comes from - in understanding why things are done in a certain way. That is the birth of motivation. Someone who cares that things are done properly is someone who will see ways to streamline the process, guide others, expand into new areas, and all the rest.
The truth is, doing this isn’t usually hard at all.
A master of a field can walk in, take one look at something, say one sentence, and save ten million dollars. That person will be successful, but that contribution wasn’t hard. It was just the product of attention and decades of experience.
We spent a bit of time listing off factors that contribute to career success that don’t have anything to do with hard work. There are probably hundreds, but these were the basic dozen:
Personal work ethic
Choice of field
Who you know
Talent/unusual insight or ability
I happen to know someone who literally ran away to join the circus as a roadie for Cirque du Soleil. She had three items off this list: location, timing, and choice of field. They came to her town, she went, she said “take me with you,” and she went home to get her bag. That’s it. Didn’t see her for a year.
I happen to know someone else who had at least eight items off this list, who got fired and was out of work for a year. What he was missing was work ethic, coachability, strategy, probably talent, and eventually reputation as well. When he started messing up, he Couldn’t Be Told and he blew up his career. Did he work long hours at a difficult job? Sure, until I had to get him a cardboard box to carry his stuff out to his car.
Of the thousands of people I have met over the years, socially or through work or hobbies, the most chill have been 1. Martial arts people and 2. Astronauts. They never blink. Something has changed in their brains and they react with mild intrigue in situations where other people would panic. Hand either of them a wrench and see what they do.
Hard work is valuable for its own sake. When we’re mentoring less experienced people, though, let’s not attack their characters and imply that they are lazy, but rather show them how much more interesting life is when there is something challenging and worthwhile enough to deserve that hard work. If we can’t find it, let’s make it ourselves.
I am Perfectly Confident that this is a book that will influence my future decisions. Don A. Moore has done the enviable job of writing an instant classic, a highly readable book that should set him up well as a thought leader.
Having read this work, though, it makes me wonder whether having read it might convince someone - though surely not me, ho ho - that they are now making wiser decisions than they were before, without actually doing anything differently.
I have reason to question my own judgment after the way this year has gone. I made a series of errors in planning around this pandemic, the worst of which was the stupendously bad risk that ended in my nearly dying of COVID-19. While it can be hard to tell whether something was risky when the outcome is good, it’s easy to tell when the results are terrible. I’d really like to get better at avoiding more bad outcomes, especially since we’re all now facing the kinds of risk that can kill.
“What are you wrong about right now?” This is one of the questions that arose in Perfectly Confident that stopped me in my tracks. There is probably something I’m wrong about at all times. My brother might tell you that it’s my belief in his dog Penny’s ability to speak the word ‘hello’ - but then that’s a zero-sum argument and if I’m not wrong, then he is. I’m willing to be wrong about certain things, like whether a friend will repay a loan or whether a recipe is worth trying. But what am I seriously wrong about, in terms of blind spots and strategy and errors in judgment?
I started keeping a page in my day planner called ‘Decisions.’ In it I write down pending decisions that we haven’t acted on yet (usually things that include my husband, since I don’t tend to get stuck often on purely personal decisions). When the decision is made, I write down what it was and a brief rationale of why. It has been pretty interesting to be able to scan that list over the course of a year. Writing down your decisions and your estimate of how they are likely to turn out is a very intriguing exercise recommended by Moore. I’m going to take him up on it and start estimating my outcomes as well.
Perfectly Confident is a wonderful and compelling read. It’s short enough that it could be shared with a reading buddy, and if you’re married, I definitely advise having a conversation about it with your partner. It’s also an excellent choice for work teams. I liked this book so much that I will read anything Don Moore writes, and I’m perfectly confident that will be just as fun and informative.
Is it wise to believe that you, blessed among the many, will beat the odds and get lucky?
Document your reasoning for making a decision, based on its expected value.
...self-fulfilling expectations of your success are not overconfident. They are accurate and they are wise.
Ask yourself why you might be wrong.
Please do savor the anticipation of a bright future. ...We live in a time of outrageous plenty.
I rearranged our few books today, and what I found shocked and surprised me. We haven’t quite been here a year, but there was a thick layer of dust on the back of each shelf!
Actually this shouldn’t surprise me at all, since we live with a parrot, and African Grays are little whistling dust factories. The shelves in question are only a few feet from where she plays all day, being her dusty self and merrily shredding cardboard.
On the other hand, I go around dusting when I’m on the phone, or listening to an audio book, or tense about something, or generally annoyed that there is visible dust somewhere. I am not a casual housekeeper.
I wish I were sometimes. I wish I could be a bit more casual about my apartment, in the same way I can be casual about going around barefoot, but it just isn’t in me. Even as I’m recovering from pneumonia and my bout with COVID-19, still only a few months ago.
What I noticed while I was wiping up this distressingly thick layer of dust was... just what was getting dusty.
Books I haven’t read, partly because I haven’t read much of anything since I started my new job.
This is another area where I have no chill whatsoever. Not sure why.
I took a job that was well within my abilities because I was looking for something to do. I figure we will be working from home for at least the next two years because I have a solidly pragmatic regard for the pandemic. Our employer acted before the governor did in sending everyone home, and I can tell you as a matter of simple fact that they still have a more clearly defined and carefully followed binder o’ guidelines for this crisis. It makes sense to me to be doing this for the duration, for a place I trust and respect.
Yet I can’t seem to escape this lingering sense that I’m constantly going to “get in trouble” for something.
I’ve talked it over with my husband, my best friend - who has done professional projects with me - and even my work partner. All of them are like, “Yeah, that’s weird. Where is that coming from?”
I’ve been proactively trying to figure it out, to work through my dissonant feelings about my job, and the way I always do that is to clean everything in sight. Sometimes, even things that are not in sight, like the backs of the bookshelves.
I recall that I went through similar paces with my leadership roles in Toastmasters. I won a contested election by the highest margin of any candidate that year, and all I did was beat myself up miserably all weekend. The entire year, I constantly felt behind and scattered and disorganized - and then I won two trophies for my performance in the role.
I’m looking at them right now and they still make me think, “What?!”
Sometimes it feels like the harder I work, the better I do, and the worse I feel about it.
I could have chosen to keep doing what I was doing, which was to work on side projects and writing my book proposal. We were already saving half our income and doing fine. I keep reminding myself that I am not trapped, that I chose something I really wanted, that I fought to get to where I am because it is so interesting.
Which it is!
Sometimes I catch myself thinking, Whoa, I can’t believe I’m actually in this meeting right now.
But then another wave comes up telling me that I’m colossally screwing up and everyone is going to find out.
It isn’t the same as impostor syndrome, I don’t think. The tasks I’m doing are all things I could do just as competently 15 years ago. I don’t really have moments where I do not know what to do or how to approach a task.
I actually wonder if something weird happened to my brain while I was ill?
If there’s some part of the brain that just makes someone feel racked with guilt and shame and dread for no reason?
It’s important to talk about this kind of thing, because I think most people feel very alone and isolated with these types of emotions. “I’m the only one and nobody must know.” I totally know that I’m not the only one.
The last six months have very much been a struggle of putting one foot in front of the other. I keep telling myself, “Just get through this day.” This included our dog dying of terminal cancer, and my husband nearly being blinded, as well as my getting COVID and trying to recover my baseline energy level. Again, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, just being overwhelmed by life and one legit crisis after another.
This is when I remind myself, I would probably feel the same exact types of emotions whether I had this job or not, whether I had a different job or not. It’s not a function of the role, or the company, or the people, or the culture. It’s me and whatever is haunting me.
Working is a million times better than sitting around staring at the walls and feeling this way.
When we internalize these dark feelings, it’s so easy to forget that there are external influences at work too. Probably my emotional waves of “you’re going to get busted” are just my feeble brain’s way of dealing with the foreign, confusing, outlandish reality of life under quarantine. (Yeah, technically my hubby and I are still quarantined - by both medical and business guidelines - because I’m still coughing a little).
Do any of us really know how we’re “supposed” to feel during this strange historical moment?
What I’d like to do is to dust myself off. I’d like to blow off these feelings that are so unhelpful and unnecessary. What should I replace them with? The task is to come up with some unique, interesting, and plausible feelings, like earning someone’s regard, or satisfaction in a job well done.
We can remind ourselves that our mission is simply to live up to our own standards and be consistent with our own values. One day after the next.
I worry that what has happened to me will eventually happen to everybody else. I worry that everyone is going to get COVID-19, and that a significant chunk those of us who didn’t die will just feel cruddy forever.
At least it feels that way. I first got sick four months ago, and as I write this I’m still sitting listlessly bundled up in blankets. Woke up twice from chills last night. Still on an inhaler, still planning my days around the latest alarm to take my pills.
What if this is all there is?
There’s this saying: ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ I used to puzzle over it when I was a kid and try to figure out what it meant.
Basically it means, enough stuff happens every day to worry about. No reason to worry about the past or the future. The problems of today will always be enough to keep us busy.
There’s a balancing effect there, sort of like dollar-cost averaging. On the days when things are truly terrible, we can make a memory that will help to remind us why we can appreciate the easier days a little more. Taking a decent day for granted is a sad mistake.
In one sense, I can remind myself how fortunate I am in almost every respect. At least it’s something to do to occupy my time... I lived, I can call my family, I have health insurance, my doctor is responsive, there is currently a little robot mopping my floor. All pretty great stuff.
I have to keep going through these exercises because the rest of me is getting pretty fed up.
What did I even do to bring this on myself.
I don’t mean getting COVID, because to be fair I was duly warned. I actively debated whether I should go out that day with both my husband and QT. I took an informed risk that blew up my entire life, but it wasn’t like I had no idea it could happen.
What I want to know is where the bacterial pneumonia came from. The antibiotics seem to have done a reasonable job on it. Now I just feel like I have a bad cold, which is a huge improvement over feeling like someone kicked me in the chest several times with a steel-toed boot.
I’ve spent eight weeks so far this year being ill. Now it feels like my rational course of action is to just plan for this to be my default mode.
Get up. Hit inhaler. Get dressed, eat breakfast, take pills. Start work. Clock out and lie down on couch. Drink NyQuil and go to bed. Repeat.
* This is the location of the pivot *
See, I know I can go on like this if I have to. If I don’t get better but if I also don’t get very much worse.
I wouldn’t be able to do it if we had to go in to the facility. I don’t know if I’m contagious. I also think it would be too much for me to get up an hour earlier every day and get myself across town. But for now, it’s possible.
The alternative would be to lie around feeling cruddy every day and watching my husband work.
Whenever I think about that, which is daily, I think of how boring and depressing it would be to feel this way and also to have nothing to do.
Then I think of all the famous historical figures I can remember who fought chronic illnesses. It turns out there are a LOT.
Carson McCullers had lupus and died at age 50. (I have a friend who has lupus who has outlived this sad milestone).
Proust, he... what the actual heck was wrong with him?... he was considered to be a hypochondriac but it turns out he actually had a rare genetic disorder and died aged 51.
Frida Kahlo was in a horrible bus accident as a teenager, suffered chronic pain the rest of her life, and died at 47.
Emily Bronte died of tuberculosis aged 30, although she wasn’t sick yet when she wrote Wuthering Heights so that’s sort of a different point...
(Which is to make the most of the time we have, because we know not the day nor the hour)
Anyway there have been all sorts of artists who made their art in spite of their physical state, level of pain, or mood. Probably about as many as those who had substance abuse challenges. Someone could do a statistical comparison; it might be comforting. Or a PhD topic, or both.
This is exactly what is annoying me so much right now. I had this bright idea that I was going to apply for grad school and get a PhD, but now I feel so low that it seems like it would probably be a fantastic waste of money.
What can I manage on a daily basis, what can I do simply by putting one foot in front of the other and making it through the hours, one hour by one hour by one hour by one hour?
Living, I suppose
I hope that thinking about my state of breathlessness and exhaustion helps someone else. I hope it can help uplift someone who at least feels capable of breathing cleanly. Of course I also hope it helps someone to deal with the boredom of self-isolation, knowing you are saving yourself from something yet more boring and depressing, which is to just be ill all the time. But I hope it helps some of you to feel that you can go on, cook a nice dinner or put fresh clean sheets on your bed or something.
I’ll learn to pace myself, like we all do. Eventually I’ll figure out how much I can expect of myself. Eventually I may find a way to get up to my old hijinks. For now, it’s worth remembering that there are only five months left of this stupid year.
Others have dealt with worse (cite: 536 AD) and made something of it. This is my hope, that I’ll find a way to dab my own drop of paint or scribble my own smear of ink. You as well. Let us all get through this together, breathe our way out of it and try to make it into something worthwhile.
Nobody is really useless, I always say; if nothing else, you can always be a bad example.
I just feel useless since I’ve been sick so much. Maybe even worse than useless, since not only am I not doing much these days, other people have to keep stepping up to do my work on top of their own.
It’s a little melancholy to get pneumonia for your birthday. Honestly I would have preferred a scented candle or some colored pencils. It makes me wistful for all the years I made some big enthusiastic goal, and then eventually got around to completing it a few years later.
This year? I thought I’d make a goalless goal, just give myself a year to do nothing and not feel guilty about it. Or bored.
I made it a few hours, I swear I did!
Then I came up with something, something I actually found inspirational and exciting in spite of my current limitations.
Let’s get to that in a minute. First, I want to say that there are quite a number of goals that are still possible even in the midst of severe pain and illness:
To maintain a streak of never snapping at people, no matter what
To always say ‘thank you’ when appropriate, plus some extra
To track symptoms as accurately as possible - for science!
To set alarms and reminders, and take meds on time
To use a wastebasket rather than leave tissues etc all over the place
Not that anybody needs to do anything, or follow anyone else’s dictates - just that for me personally, it helps to maintain a certain amount of control over my attitude, my behaviors, and the things I say to other people. Until the day my head starts spinning around backwards, I can stop things from coming out of my mouth that I wish I could call back.
(If that happens, go ahead and call a priest, why not).
Even on bad days, I can recall a few particularly rude people, notorious for their constant sarcasm and cutting remarks, and think to myself, at least I’m not nasty like So-and-So. Keep it together, suck it up buttercup.
Kindness, if nothing else. Kindness, or maybe they won’t keep coming back...
It weighs heavily on me that nobody owes me care or nursing. There is not a person on this green earth who was born to be my servant or wait on me or watch over me or bring me things. Those who are willing will say, “I’m doing what anyone would do,” or “you’d do it for me,” the second of which is true and the first of which, alas, is not.
Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum of Taker to Giver, not always where we think we are, but we’re all on there somewhere. I try to keep it dialed to Giver when I’m able, because I know how often there are extended periods when I’m forced over to the ‘receiving’ end.
Personally I don’t mind caregiving. There’s a lot of room for personal time when looking after an ill person, especially when they need a lot of sleep. I can just turn on an audio book and clean and cook and carry a tray, doing what needs doing, while reserving a corner of my mind for myself. This is because I’ve always been able to see a way out, that there is a natural time limit after which my services will no longer be needed.
It’s probably much harder when it’s indefinite, when it’s been going on for years, when it might go on for yet more years, when nobody knows.
That’s what I worry about.
I worry that I’ll never feel well again, that I’ll never get back to what I would consider 100%, that I’ll just have to progressively reset what counts as ‘not unwell.’
That’s why I’ve put aside my goals about going to grad school, or writing a book, or training for an ultramarathon. At least for now, when I’m still on an inhaler and still not over this post-COVID pneumonia.
And that’s where my new goal comes in!
As bad as I feel right now, a day that has included chills, trembling hands, coughing, ears ringing, and the swallowing of 18 pills, I believe that improvement is possible.
Why? Because I’ve done it before.
I realized recently that I have a storyline about this already.
Back in 2004, I had a terrible respiratory infection. At that time in my life, it didn’t occur to me to go to the doctor at times that should have been obvious, because I didn’t have health insurance for most of my 20s. It wasn’t until my friends intervened that I went to the doctor on campus, leaning on every bench and tree and lamp post along the way. The nurse had me breathe into a spirometer, where I rated a 52%. (Oh, maybe that’s why I’ve been coughing up blood...)
Tl;dr, they gave me an inhaler, and I missed three weeks of work, but I quit coughing and got better. Looking back, it really took me about a year to start rebuilding my cardio endurance. There was a day that I tried to go for a bike ride, made it about a mile down a gentle hill, and had to turn around and push my bike home. But?
Exactly ten years later I ran a marathon.
I know it’s possible to regain lung capacity because I’ve done it. I know it’s possible to recover from a really gnarly respiratory infection and go on to feel totally fine.
Is it going to be the same for me after COVID-19? I don’t know, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. If I have data then I’m going to contribute it.
My new goal is to learn everything I can about breath work and respiratory therapy. If there are exercises, I’m going to do them. If there are training tools, I’m going to test and compare them. If there are logbooks or studies or tracking devices, I’m going to find them.
It’s hard sometimes, feeling weak, feeling like a burden on others, feeling disappointed about having to let go of goals that were appealing and personally meaningful. One way to deal with that is to shift focus to something else. Not “what can’t I do anymore” or “what am I losing this time” but:
What CAN I do?
What can I do today?
What will I be able to do tomorrow?
If nothing else, how can I use this particular experience in a way that might help others?
Someday this pain will be useful to me. Or maybe not me, but someone. And if that’s true, then it’s useful to me after all.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine,” we used to sing, back in the early Nineties. Everyone in Generation X knew this was coming, and that’s why we spent so much time cooped up in our rooms.
We had no idea how great things would be when we would find ourselves doing it all over again at some near-future point.
When we were young, we had to pay $16 for an album, or $1.99 for a cassette single, or try to record stuff off the radio. There was none of this free streaming on demand business. We had to go to the video rental store if we wanted to watch a movie or an old TV show - assuming they were available - and if someone else was watching it, we had to wait until next time.
WE HAD NO INTERNET
If we wanted to use the phone, we had to do it in the living room or the kitchen, where the entire family could overhear us and would often chime in on the conversation. Nobody could tell who was calling, so anyone might answer the phone. I recall an old roommate telling me, two days after the fact, that “some lady” had called for me... about a job posting...
Nobody had seen grocery delivery since, like, the Fifties. The only hot food you could really get delivered was pizza. Avocados were fairly expensive. If you ordered any kind of “stuff,” like from the Sears catalogue, everyone knew it took 6-8 weeks for delivery.
Okay, I hope I can get away with saying what I’m going to say next, because I’m a COVID-19 survivor, and I can claim that it seems to have warped my brain a bit.
If this is The End of the World as We Know It, it... isn’t as bad as it could be?
I’ve been comparing notes with some of my friends on what year would be the worst possible year in their life for COVID to happen. For me, it would have been either 1982 or 1999. Both of those were tough years anyway, but adding a pandemic to the scenario would have been devastating.
So far, everyone I’ve talked to has agreed that this is not the worst possible year for their personal timeline that this could have happened. The year of the divorce. The year of the cancer diagnosis. The year one of their parents died. Their brokest year, the year they had their worst roommate. All sorts of times that would have been harder.
Of course this isn’t going to feel true for everyone. A friend of mine lost her dad a couple months ago - he was a COVID doctor - and this is probably always going to be the worst year of her life.
Which brings me to an interesting, though somewhat taboo, point.
If this is the worst year of our lives...?
Does that not imply that if we get past it, at some future point, everything else will be at least a bit of a relief?
We’re at the midpoint of 2020, and this has been a truly rotten and terrible year in my life. I mean, bag it up and haul it out to the curb, right?
Still, I have to acknowledge, I did not die of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in December. My husband did not lose sight in his eye in February. I did not die of COVID-19 - I didn’t even have to check in to the hospital, and what’s more, I didn’t even have to pay for any of my treatment other than $10 for antibiotics.
This is the beginning of strategic adjustment, when we realize that hey, things could be worse.
It wasn’t all that long ago (two months, but who’s counting) when I was still feeling actively surprised each morning. Hey, I woke up! I don’t know how I would know if I didn’t? But I did notice and I did feel a sense of awe and wonder. For at least 45 seconds, before the day’s symptoms kicked into gear.
Nobody likes forced gratitude exercises, so let’s call it something else, something more hard-headed and practical. Let’s call it: inventory.
What is working? What is not a dripping bag of situational trash?
What resources do we have at our disposal? (Internet, literacy, running water and flush toilets, an education, pens with no caps, half a dozen USB cables, etc).
Example: I started saving all our cardboard for my little parrot, and built her a fort to keep her busy while we’re on work calls. She won’t play with a $15 bird toy from the pet store but she will play in her fort all day.
The other thing that is very important to consider is, what if dying is not the most pessimistic possible scenario? People forget to plan for this.
What if we live through all this, and in fact we live to be 90 years old, and because we assumed we’d die tragically young we didn’t save any money? Or wear sunblock or take care of our teeth?
For me, the most pessimistic baseline scenario is that I live to be 110 with no money, no house, no living family, and no friends. Whenever I think about future planning, whenever I’m at a choice point, I think of Very Old Me and what she would like me to do today.
There are two things I’m doing during this TEOTWAWKI-lite scenario. I’m working in my dream field and packing away money like a trembling hamster. I’m also scheming on how I can get paid to go to grad school for free. I figure the young ones are going to be more likely to put their educations on hold, because paying full fare for virtual classes is a giant rip-off. I’ll be 45+, though, and I don’t mind, so there will be less competition for slots. I have all the focus and self-discipline that I never did 20 years ago, and in fact I doubt there are very many young people who could beat me in that department.
This is TEOTWAWKI in lots of ways. A couple of them are probably good ways, and we won’t really have time to think about that until later. As long as I’m going to be cooped up indoors for what I assume will be the next three years, and I accept this depressing situation as my temporary reality, I am free to try to spin it in the most productive way that I can.
Is this the end of my world in its previous phase? Is it then the beginning of a new phase?
The sense of a fresh start can be incredibly motivating and invigorating. It’s important to remember, though, that fresh starts are fake.
What that means is that a fresh start is really a figment of your imagination. As such, it can be created at any time, and if it feels real on an emotional level, then it is real in fact. Just as valid a psychological spur as any other.
In some ways, I have a legit fresh start right now. I’m still not over the novelty of narrowly surviving a deadly, lingering illness. Hey! I can stand up on my first or second try! Watch this, I can roll over without the room spinning!
In other ways, everything else in my life is exactly the same.
Same credit history
Same neighbors insisting on approaching and speaking to me with no masks on
This is the trick: finding the sparkling newness in the midst of the stale, old, boring, annoying, and/or disappointing.
(Not to say that every consistency is disappointing or boring! Just that some of them can be).
I’ve used my physical fresh start to give me a push in physical areas of my life, such as starting to work out again and changing bedtimes. There is a ripple effect whenever a keystone habit is fitted into a routine, so that everything else adjusts around it - which of course can be good, bad, or neutral.
The hardest thing to wrap your mind around, when it comes to habit changes, is that they all fit into specific time slots. Doing one thing displaces another thing. A minute spent in one way cancels spending it in a different way.
This was a bit more obvious when the slow process of recovering from COVID started to feel like non-time, like I would feel just as bad forever and always, that there was no time when I was not ill and that everything would simply go on like this, far into the afterlife.
Every minute that I lounged around being ill was a minute I was not visiting my family, training for an ultramarathon, reorganizing my closet, going to grad school, folding laundry, or anything else at all.
This has actually been great, because even the tiniest little things, like fixing my own bowl of instant oatmeal or unloading the dishwasher, still feel that little bit magical.
‘Magical’ is precisely what we seek when we’re looking for that fresh start feeling. The trouble comes when we believe that magic comes from somewhere outside, rather than realizing that we generate it inside ourselves. It is our act of seizing initiative and creating something out of nothing that makes magic happen. All we have to do to make a fresh start is to snap our fingers... or not even that.
We decide it.
I decided, even in the depths of my illness, that I wanted to get a new job. I kinda meant ‘someday’ but it all happened very quickly. My dream job suddenly opened up when the previous person got a promotion and left the department. They were looking to fill it quickly, and the window for applying was closing at the end of the week. I was far too ill to do it myself, but previous efforts had left me well enough organized that my husband was able to put my application together for me.
These are important factors to notice.
Two straightforward, common, ordinary things happened in my life. I got over a condition that literally millions of other people have had, and I got a new job at a time when dozens of people are being hired by my organization. There is nothing rare or special about either of those things.
Statistically, at any rate!
The events of my personal life are special and rare to me because this is the only life I have.
Likewise, the events of your life should feel magical and fascinating to you, because what else are you going to think about?
You don’t need a change in external events before you create the sensation of a fresh start. You can do it any time you like. Or, you can take advantage of world events such as the pandemic, or the rising tide of justice, and decide that THE TIME IS NOW to make major changes.
The time is always now. That’s another reason that fresh starts are fake, because every minute is a fresh new minute anyway, exactly the same as the last one.
Here’s a little bit of hope for the tired people, the injured, the ill. It can get better. Little by little, it can.
I started recovering from COVID-19 about six weeks ago. I’m back to working out, doing 60 minutes of cardio a day. It feels great!
I just realized today that I couldn’t remember the last time I had vertigo. That was a symptom that lingered for so long, I sort of thought I might just have it for the rest of my life. I figured every time I rolled over in bed, the room would spin, and I’d just have to get used to it.
Then, finally, it went away.
It’s important to notice these small victories, because it’s very easy to start believing in illness and injury as permanent conditions.
The body doesn’t just “get stuck that way.” Sometimes it takes surgical intervention, sometimes it takes prescriptions, sometimes it takes many months of physical therapy. But the body can change and heal. That’s what a body does.
I keep thinking of this as I watch my surgical scar heal. It’s almost completely invisible now, thanks to my obsessive twice-daily slathering with scar cream. What I thought would be a large ugly mark in an unfortunate location is now basically gone six months later. In fact, it looks so good that I’m going to take a picture of it and email it to my surgeon, a nice side-by-side before/after for her records. Satisfaction of a job well done, that is one thing that never goes stale.
Yep, it’s been a rough few months. First the surgery, then COVID. I might also mention that I had quit running several years ago because of an overuse injury to my ankle. Year after year, month after month, there always seems to be a good excuse to roll over and quit.
Legit doctor’s notes!
This isn’t P.E. though. I don’t have a desperate desire to escape gym class any more; now it’s more the opposite. Let me back in!
What do I need to do today to make my body feel at least marginally better?
For me it revolves around quality of sleep. No matter what else is going on, if I’ve slept poorly I feel terrible. I believe that sleep is the main factor for a strong immune system. As a recent COVID survivor, this is understandably high on my list of priorities.
Sleep depends on a few things, which are also very important to me as a person with a parasomnia disorder. (Yeah, I didn’t really appreciate having night terrors WHILE I was sick with the coronavirus, as if I didn’t have enough problems). These things are meal timing, hydration, and cardio.
For night terrors, the absolute most important factor is to stop eating three hours before bedtime. I front-load my calories for the day, making an effort to eat about 3/4 of my fuel by the afternoon. Parents of tiny kids should note this, because night terrors are common in kids and they often get a bedtime snack. I think those things are related.
Hydration is shockingly under-rated for insomniacs. I’ve found that if I’m even a single glass of water short for the day, I just can’t drop off. My sleep quality is dismal. I use an app to track my fluid intake, which is admittedly very boring, but not as boring as lying awake in the middle of the night for hours.
I’ve tried out a bunch of different types of exercise, and they are good for different reasons, but in my experience cardio is the best for mood elevation, pain management, and sleep quality. When I can’t do it for a while, due to schedule, injury, or a cough or whatever, I start to feel the difference within days. There are different types of peace available from other types of workout; for instance, martial arts somehow magically removed my fear of needles and yoga is great for releasing old emotional junk. They just don’t hit the same physiological targets as running, biking, or the elliptical.
It is so good to be back to reconsidering my workout!
In April, I felt like I was dying. Now it’s mid-June and I don’t constantly think about being ill anymore.
I put some effort into small improvements, in a process that is known as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve something by 5-10%, it may be enough to make a disproportionate difference in your results. For instance, 5% of one hour is three minutes. Getting ready three minutes earlier could be enough to start being on time for most things instead of chronically late. Cutting spending by 5%, as another example, could make the difference between being in debt or financial freedom. Little things can add up quickly.
My small improvements in recovery were:
Increasing our intake of cruciferous vegetables
Tracking my fluid intake
Setting a bedtime alarm
Arguably, starting to work out again was not a small improvement but rather a “keystone habit.” It does tend to make the other steps, (drinking more water and going to bed earlier) just that little bit more attractive.
More sleep. Better quality of nutrition. More water. Hard to argue with this strategy, two parts of which are free of charge.
Right now it’s hard to tell whether my mood has improved so much just because I’m getting well, or because I’m something of a cardio junkie. Does it matter, though? Right now, I have everything I wish I did when I thought I was on my deathbed: my new dream job, the ability to do the laundry without tipping over and crying, maybe even the chance to run an ultramarathon in a few years.
It’s so hard to be seriously ill and feel like it will last forever. It’s so depressing and boring and lonely and exhausting and painful. Every day we’re still here to complain, though, is another day we’ve made it through. Every day is one day closer to feeling better. One day, maybe even so much better that it didn’t even seem possible.
I was asked to give an impromptu speech about civic engagement today. This is an awkward kind of question for me, because it’s almost impossible to talk about in a neutral, nonpartisan way. Yet that’s the only way to really get anything accomplished any more.
Right now it seems like a lot of people are more motivated to stop their “opponents” from doing anything than they are to do anything specific themselves.
We have to pull back from that image of “winning” and find a way to frame our projects as non-zero-sum. Meaning, there is more than one winner and there are many ways to win.
I mentioned five things in my speech, which I wish was as organized when it was coming out of my mouth as it is here:
Most people are complainers. Everyone complains about things - I think it is the main driver of all innovation and progress - but most people are *only* willing to complain.
I’m a helper by nature, with many years of training in social services. When someone has an issue, I often know how to get it resolved. I’ll ask someone, what do you want to have happen?
Almost nobody ever has an answer.
If someone I know very well is annoying me with a complaint, I will ask, Do you have a request?
Meaning, if you want me to do something for you, ask me and I will probably do it, but otherwise, shut the heck up.
For example, if I’m late all the time, I probably deserve to be told off in some way, but I’m never going to stop unless you ask me for what you want. What counts as “not late” to you? Get specific. If you want me standing by the door with my coat on by T-minus whatever, believe me, I can’t read your mind. You’re going to need to spell it out.
It’s very much the same thing with local issues. People will go on until they turn purple about “traffic” or “this place sucks” but they don’t usually have an actual, specific plan for what they would rather see instead.
You can show up to town hall meetings, campaign for various candidates, write letters to the editor, vote for every single thing, sign petitions, apply to get propositions on the ballot, host a podcast, march with a sign over your shoulder... but if you aren’t clear about exactly what you want, nothing will happen.
How would you even know that you got what you wanted if you were never sure exactly what it was?
Part of this is an issue of empowerment, the feeling that you can ask for things and get them, the feeling that if you try to make something happen, it probably will happen.
What I’ve learned is that power is not given, it’s taken.
Power can also accrue through various unofficial means. It comes in different forms: charisma, leverage, influence, gravitas, money, job titles, specialized knowledge.
An example would be someone like my husband, who sought out special training as an EMR. I’ve seen him in action several times. He will rush up and identify himself as an emergency medical responder. Then he starts asking questions. No matter where this happened, people would probably react in the same way, by making space for him, watching and listening. At that point, if he called out for someone to call 911, someone would obey, no questions asked.
Most people don’t want to be in power during a crisis. They don’t want to be the one with the fire extinguisher. They don’t want to be the one to get the snake out of the toilet. They don’t want to make decisions, they don’t want responsibility, and they certainly don’t want to be held accountable for the results.
Likewise, most people don’t want to bother learning whether something is handled by their city, their county, or the state. They might be able to get their request granted almost immediately by their district rep, but when it comes down to it, they’d rather complain for eighty-five years than spend twenty minutes typing into a web form.
People have more power than they think they do.
We all have the power to pay attention, to introduce ourselves to others, to ask questions, to learn new things. We have the power to imagine all the ways that things could be better. Not in the abstract of “things” like “the universe” or “land of rainbow unicorns” but *specific* things. Things like potholes or noise ordinances or how fast the traffic flows through a certain intersection.
When we have a more specific idea of how we want the world to look, what we want to see happening around us, then it becomes more obvious that a lot of the time, we can start making it happen, all by ourselves.
My parents taught me this when I was a preschooler. They got together with some other parents in our neighborhood. Each family took a street and a garbage bag. We all picked up trash and empty cans, and we turned in the cans for the deposit and bought popsicles with the money. I was unclear on the concept that other kids were doing this, too, because I couldn’t see them (and I was 4), so of course I thought I deserved all the credit.
There are some policy decisions I’ve made over the years that make it obvious what I should do in certain situations. I always pick up broken glass at the park, even if I have to get a stick and dig it out of the mud. I sleep with my phone by the bed in case I hear someone screaming in the night, so I can call 911 right away. When I find a wallet or an ATM card, I turn it in. I don’t have to ask for permission to do any of these things.
I’ve done what anyone can do to be more involved and engaged. I’ve decided that if I can easily help others, I will do it. Sometimes I will help others even at considerable effort, like writing them a reference letter or revising their resume. I do nice things because it’s fun, and also because it helps me to feel like I am a person who knows how to get things done. I like to be where the action is.
Anyone can make decisions about what they are willing to do and what they refuse to do.
After that, it’s just a question of how many things you think you can do and how many people you think you can help.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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