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Learning to Feel – In Sickness and in Health…

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  Albert Einstein

I was watching the Warriors get killed in game 4 when suddenly I felt a lump develop in my left ear. It was the middle of the 2nd half of the game. I was fine in the first half of the game and then suddenly I wasn’t. Throughout the evening, my ear inflammation exploded despite all of my homeopathic and naturopathic attempts. By mid-afternoon of the following day, my ear was flaming red and so painful I could barely think of anything else. Even the doctor said, “Wow, that looks really painful” as she prescribed antibiotic ear drops. I am recovering slowly, but grateful to be trending in the right direction. There is nothing like sudden illness to wake you up to the power of health, and nothing like the speed and ferocity of a bacterial infection to make you bow down to the miracle and fragility of antibiotics.

Frequently of late, I wonder what would have been the trajectory of this sudden, out-of-nowhere bacterial infection had I not had ready access to medical care and the prescriptive antibiotics? How long would it have taken for this minor ear infection to spread into something dangerous? And most importantly how often is this happening to people who do not have the luxury of available care and medicines? Suddenly, the meaning of healthcare as a human right seems like the only resonant argument if we are intent on a just and civilized society. Most of us don’t remember, but really it wasn’t that long ago that human longevity was seriously compromised by bacterial infections of all kinds. Many scientific researchers now predict that with the speed of bacterial intelligence mutating to defend itself even beyond our strongest antibiotics, it won’t be long before this may again become true.

I also noticed that it is the experience of illness that most profoundly wakes me up to the truth of health. It is beyond my capacity to stay present to other activities when I am unwell. Not only do I feel like a baby in the face of jaw wrenching ear pain, but I wish I could go back in time to feel really grateful about how well I was feeling before all this began. It is too easy to take for granted the state of wellness, how good we feel without an ear ache, how productive we are when our appetite is sated, how creative we are when we slept through the night… Truly, the opposite of any of these conditions is our predominant reality. When I go hungry for any length of time, it becomes crystal clear how hunger itself prevents whole societies from advancing. How can you produce any good ideas of how to get out of hunger when one is consumed by the pain of hunger?

The same is true of earaches, headaches, stomachaches and the millions of other ailments that can manifest in what was once a healthy body. I have been following the dire predictions about how the world will change when we no longer have the assurance of antibiotic treatments. Many in the field believe that this problem will far exceed even our greatest fears of global warming or shortages of fuel or water. And as this bacterial infection took hold of my ear, jaw and sense of balance, I understood in an immediate and visceral way just how profoundly vulnerable we humans are to the whims of illness.

Everything I did, trying to meditate, trying to work, trying to sleep, trying to eat was informed by the swelling in my ear. And as I tried to feel into the pain in my ear, and not try to avoid it, I learned something else about myself and how truly hard it is to let yourself feel pain of any kind. Emotional, psychic, and mental pain debilitates and fills up all the space of hunger, productivity, and even rest. But not feeling what is happening in the body is worse. If I had ignored my ear symptoms (as if I could have) the doctor told me, it would have taken a specialist to even get the medicine in my ear. When I ignore my emotions, they fester and turn into bad moods and inappropriate responses towards innocent people.

Learning to feel our pain and respect our illnesses is not only the critical truth of our personal life, but it might also point our attention to the truly life threatening issues of medicine longevity and how to rethink our approach. I am praying that it does.