Memento mori – remember that you are mortal. At least I learned something in Latin class back in high school [OK, so Sister Paul also taught us Ubi o ubi est sububi? but I'll leave that to you to figure out.] Tonight I’m reflecting on doctors, stressors, my health and my life. A very long blog post after the jump…
It’s been almost exactly two years since my last cardio checkup and it’s long overdue, so I recently made an appointment to get my periodic cardio checkup before the end of the year. It’s a truism that men hate going to the doctor, and not just because of the single finger anal probe! (Ugh! That’ll start in a couple of years too! ) Truth is, we don’t want to hear that we’re mortal. For me it’s a little more complicated. My heart valve should be fine for at least another 10 years if I take care of it, and I feel that yearly visits to see that yes, nothing has changed noticeably and here’s your bill are a luxury in this time of economic strife and skyrocketing insurance costs. Then there’s the drug aspect: I’ve successfully avoided taking anything regularly beyond a daily low-dose aspirin and multivitamin.
That all said, the last few years have been extraordinarily stressful, both at home and at work. It’s not always stressful of course, and – knowing my significant might read this – it’s not just our relationship issues (though at times they do become overwhelming). I do know that all these stressors have had a powerful effect on my emotional health, my blood pressure and my weight. I really don’t manage stress well, and I’m often in situations where dichotomies rule the day.
I worry about work: in particular, will I still have a job in the next few months, or will my job become a living hell? Things have been good the last two years in my current position, but things can turn on a dime where I am and that has NEVER been more true than it is right now. I’ve been worried about job loss for years, as many people remind me: surely I should believe by now that I’m not really in danger? Unfortunately the endless parade of indiscriminate layoffs and sudden reorgs over the last 10 years serves as a constant reminder that nobody is safe. That’s not to say it hasn’t been profitable: I paid off my credit cards, student loans and a car thanks to my job, but it’s been a very long road and I’ve sacrificed a lot to get where I am. In the process I’ve endured a LOT of stress, and now with the company in upheaval and the economy in the tank it’s gotten just that much more stressful (jobs are few and far between).
I worry about home: where will we be come next May when this current lease is up? We’ve got a lot to work on before then and it’s not at all clear what the outcome will be. I recently touched bases with my therapist and it was worthwhile, but I always come away feeling a little lost and a little more scared. I could buy a house or townhouse (if I have enough cash) but the precarious job market makes that a pretty dumb plan. If I lose my job and get another I’d likely get a very long commute to go along with it (possibly without mass transit to at least soften the blow) or I’d just be stuck with no job and big COBRA and housing payments. If I an stuck in a mortgage in this dead housing market it’d be that much harder to move to wherever the jobs are (if it came down to that… it’s a choice I’ve always wanted to make freely, if and when I choose to move elsewhere). My significant other is also looking into a job that would take her far away for at least two years, and she says she’s sick of living here so I can’t really lean on her for support either (that job may not come to fruition but “maybe” isn’t a comforting backup plan if I end up on hard times – I could end up out of a job and out of a home in that case!) Mind you, the last thing I want to do is lean on her for any sort of financial support – she had a bad experience with that in a previous relationship and I don’t want to repeat that for her.
I worry about my health: thank God I got my heart valve repaired when I did… but I’ve been foolish and haven’t lost the weight I need to in order to be in the best of health. In fact, I’ve gained some weight in the last 3 years or so! I recently found out that super-high stress – the kind that makes your fingers cold and your heart race – is causing my blood pressure to go up. I figured it was the opposite effect: lower blood pressure leading to chills, but no, apparently not. Such stress has been much more frequent this year but I hope the majority of it is behind me now. It’d not good for the heart or anything else. I’ve yet to find a good personal physician but I’ll be working on that in the next couple of weeks. Seeing the cardiologist is the most important thing right now and I’ve taken the (courageous) step of making the appointment. I expect he’ll tell me I need to reduce my stress levels, and I’ll wonder as I always do how the heck I’m supposed to do that.
Something I’ve learned: interpersonal stress is perhaps the worst sort, but it is rooted in a deeper thing: the stress that arises from feeling that one has no hope. Sometimes I get to thinking that things will never get better and that all the options are equally unhappy, be it at work or at home. I know that’s a mental dead-end and that there are other options, and I’m conscious of that fact and I operate as if there is hope even when I can’t see it clearly. But tell that to the subconscious, where the raw and primal fears remain and that stress and anxiety builds up! I have hopes and dreams of a better life, and I finally feel that they are within sight (in that I’m working out my issues and have put myself on a better financial footing). But it’s gong to be a tough year or so ahead (though hopefully not nearly as tough as I fear).
Thinking back, I haven’t written about any of this because, more than anything I’m afraid of rocking the boat at home. But this isn’t my secret journal: There is no subtext here, no coded message to discover, no great change in direction (other than I’m finally going to the doctor). There’s nothing here that should be surprising or worrisome to my significant other or anyone else who reads this and knows me (and I’m sure I’m far from the only person who has such worries and concerns).
I worry about… worrying! One plainly sees the words “scared” and “fear” above: certainly fear has guided me away from some pretty bad decisions in my life, and it’s arguable that I also haven’t taken some potentially profitable chances because of fear. However, I think (and others agree) that I’ve done quite well on my narrow little path to greater financial stability. It’s just been a helluva lonely road because the majority of my life has been spent with that as the main focus. More than anything else work and income have been constants in my life. I want more than that though… as I approach the big 4-0 I realize I have a lot in life I would like to accomplish now that I’ve built a firmer foundation than I started with.
Understand: I find myself up many a night lately, worrying and wondering and fearful and that crosses the line between healthy worries and unhealthy anxieties. I don’t sleep very well either. Some days are better than others and I know it’s mainly situational and that it’s not intractable – I believe things will work out for the better one way or another. However, the part that I can do something about right now is not letting the stress overwhelm me and cause me to “freeze up”. It’s very hard to change myself in the midst of all this uncertainty but I must. So here are some of my personal affirmations, beginning (anew) right now:
- I will stop letting others govern my emotions (and still be emotional, loving and involved in life).
- I will take much better care of my physical and mental health and will get in better shape (whether it’s finding a good doctor and getting a proper physical, getting a personal trainer, or just going to the gym or getting outside more).
- I will start living my life again, despite the uncertainties. That includes seeing family, taking vacations, getting out and doing things instead of just sitting around the house all day and night (working from home notwithstanding, I still need to get out more on the Fridays and the weekends, even if just on day trips).
- I will learn who my friends truly are and hold them close and confide in them when I need to.
- I will find my soul again. It sounds weird but I feel I’ve totally lost touch with that part of myself. Recent events have caused me to pray more than I have in a long time to a God I’m not sure exists (that’s Agnosticism for you)… it made me realize that I need to reconnect with that part of myself that gives me hope and courage in the face of despair.
- Most importantly, I will stop hiding and instead will open up: writing this blog, writing stories from the heart and soul as I used to and speaking my mind in general. I’ve barely written anything in this blog that’s of great import because I’m too afraid that it’ll affect my job prospects or such. However, I believe that’s wrongheaded and to bow to such fear is to perpetuate that suppression of personal freedom and First Amendment rights. I live in one of the greatest countries on earth, and while our current leadership has been terrible, we enjoy great freedom… freedom that is easily squandered by our unwillingness to exercise it.
None of this is going to be easy, and the road will be at very dark and very lonely at times. Memento mori… this all came to a head recently when, for the first time in years I was reminded that I am very much mortal and will not live forever and that it’s high time to put my life back together again while I still can! I realized that I don’t want to die alone (who does?) and that I want more to show for my life than a sequence of interesting but ultimately meaningless encounters and events. I’ve had some exciting times in my life and I’m sure there will be more to come, but it’s time to grow up a little and get back on my path. The Zen koan I learned so very long ago still rings true: the journey is the reward, not the destination. It’s time to make my journey through life more rewarding again.
As I sit here re-reading this I find tears suddenly in my eyes and down my cheeks. I’m feeling relieved to tell you all this (I don’t even know who you are after all). I’m feeling hope again that my life will have some greater meaning (for the first time in a very long time) but I’m so very afraid that it won’t and that I’ll die before it ever does. Will there be an eternal reward someday? A karmic wheel that will turn again? Oblivion? I can only hope there is some point to all this, something more than oblivion at least, something with more purpose than living, eating and dying over and over again.
Such speculation has always been in the back of my mind and always will be: this is nothing new – being agnostic isn’t as easy or trivial as some folks make it out to be. It’s a carefully considered viewpoint of mine, where rational doubt and hope can freely co-mingle without being forced to choose one unprovable absolute (atheism) over another unprovable absolute (theism). But it’s still so very easy to fall into the mental traps of believing that drifting through life is adequate, that life is a zero-sum game, that there’s no proof of a greater purpose and therefore no point to doing better or hoping for more.
I was wrong, several years ago, when I thought that moving away to Seattle would change my life. It would probably have been nice but my problems would’ve followed me too, and they would eventually compel me to move yet again in a few years (that’s what happened when I moved here: though I was taking my first job out of college and it was in that way necessary, I also was running from my old life and those in it!) Truth is, I need to change myself first. I got myself into this mental trap and now I’m extricating myself from it. It will not be easy, but there is no other choice: I mean to get back to living instead of simply existing.
Coda: Something else that got me to thinking about my mortality in the last few months was the following video by Noah Kalina (click his name for more info) entitled Every Day. While we might not agree on the meaning of life (according to MySpace he’s Atheist), I’m reposting it here (I think I posted this before) because the music and the images still haunt me. It’s like watching his life flash before your eyes, and for me it is a powerful reminder of my own mortality. [Note: this is not the only such photography project out there, but it is the most powerful one by far.]