I'll warn you now that I will be writing about death. But my intent is to write about life. Actually, I intend to write about maximizing my experience of life. And the best way to maximize our experiences is to live them healthy. And the healthiest way to live is with humility.
I have learned at least twice now in my life how vitally important humility actually is.
When I was young, I had bad sinus allergies. During allergy season, my sinuses were running all the time. There was constant sneezing. One sinus or the other was plugged up most of the time. And of course, I was miserable. This lasted for a few weeks out of the year, every year, since about the time my brother died.
I hadn't really thought about this until I just wrote that…
My bother's death was a tragedy.
Tragedy results in fear. Fear leads to overreaction.
The classic coyote story conundrum... I wanted to control the uncontrollable.
I wasn't religious. So, I couldn't just pray and wait. I had to do something. And that something was to be prepared for any circumstance. I wasn't a gun nut or anything. But I was always on alert. Always trying to be aware. Always a little afraid.
I wasn't paranoid. Actually, I thought I was doing just fine. In the eyes of society; was. Good at school. Never got into trouble. I was afraid to even hang out with the bad kids. (Of course, that might have turned out to have been a good decision.)
My point is that I wanted to control the uncontrollable – my life. And I was smart enough to think that maybe I could.
But it would take a lot of effort. Emotionally, I never rested. I was over-stressed (quite a common condition, I hear.) And, of course, I had sinus allergies, which added to my stress.
But one day, when I was about 14 years old, the stress and the illness were just too much for me. I wasn't about to put up with the sinus problems any more. I had to mow the lawn that day. I was expecting a sinus event and I was not looking forward to it. So, I was desperate enough to try something different.
I accepted my vulnerability, summoned my inner peace, and confronted my issues without fear… and instantly I no longer had allergies any more.
It was amazing. It was as if I had just decided not to have allergies – and it worked.
But I never documented what I did. And since there wasn't a problem any more, I ceased to think about it.
At least, I ceased to think about it until my late 40's – when my sinus allergies came back… and I couldn't repeat what I achieved back when I was 14.
I guess watching my parents getting old was freaking me out.
I dread the anguish of them passing. I dread the loneliness.
There it was again – that urge to control the uncontrollable. There I was again – wishing I could do something to prevent death and dying – rather than accepting death as a part of life.
As I look back at it – it seems silly. We might be able to extend our lives – but we all will eventually die. Nonetheless, somewhere deep down inside of me; I did not want to accept that. I wanted to believe I could avoid the pain. So, I constantly worried about it. And I suspect that because of that; my stress levels rose. And because that, I wasn't living at optimum level. And I suspect because of that; my sinus allergies came back.
I tried for years, every Fall; to repeat what I had achieved back when I was young. It helped. But I couldn't quite go back to that mental state I had had for decades. It was so frustrating – which, of course, made it worse.
Last Fall, my allergies got bad enough that I ended up with an ear infection. Fortunately, antibiotics took care of it – but there's something very scary about having an infection so close to my brain.
As I write this, it is mid-July – just about the time my allergies come back. I wasn't looking forward to it. But I thought at least I could go outside for a while before things got bad again. So, I decided to go backpacking.
I love the mountains. I love to spend time in them. I love the feeling of being away from it all – while at the same time being right in the middle of what really matters.
My plan was simple – four days, out and back, alone.
This would be the first time I'd ever been backpacking alone.
I'd camped alone, and it felt a little lonely. So, I haven't really gone out often alone.
(Good news: I never felt lonely. But more on that later…)
As I said earlier; I healed myself when I was young simply with an epiphany. I don't believe it's necessary to go out on some kind of walkabout alone in the wilderness to rid yourself of an allergy – but it worked for me. I needed time away from the distractions.
I now know why I wanted to be away for a while – alone.
I was holding onto irrational fear.
I needed to let it go.
I needed time to myself to learn about me.
As I look back; I've always been a little edgy outdoors – almost to the point of being jumpy. I've always tried to be alert – maybe a little too alert. If a bug touched my skin, I'd immediately jump. If a leaf touched my skin, I'd immediately jump. If I saw flowers, I'd be worried that maybe they would stir up my allergies.
Of course, none of this kept me indoors.
But I could have had a better time outdoors. I could have been happier.
On the first two days of my hike, my nose ran and ran. I was too late. It was allergy season already. I did what it seemed like I always did, I put up with it – hoping it would go away. Which, of course, it didn't. (Probiotics have helped. My favorites are Natures Plus ear, nose, & throat lozenges and kimchi. Of course, I didn't have any kimchi with me.)
By the morning of the third day; I was beginning to feel good with sleeping on the ground, exposed and vulnerable. It was then that I noticed that my sinuses weren't quite as bad as they had been. I had slept in a meadow... and I wasn't a wreck.
This inspired me to take the next step:
I was siting on the branch of a fallen tree under the shade of another tree at the edge of a meadow. I didn't have my shirt on and the tall grass was rubbing lightly up against my bare back. I could see there was no risk, but up until then being touched by these grasses made me feel uncomfortable. But it was my choice to sit there. And for the past two days I had been reminding myself that these plants were my friends (and that I just didn't know it yet). So, I decided to treat them like friends. I let them rub lightly against my back until I felt truly comfortable with it.
And almost instantly I was healed.
This experience reminds me of the Christian “Serenity” prayer.
Actually, this prayer is not from the Bible. It was written in the 1930's by an American theologian. Which means these common sense words were not written in stone. So I created my own version:
I grant myself the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
...Because, for the most part; I'm the one who decides whether to be serene, courageous, or wise.
And now I know: I've tried being too courageous, and it's cost me serenity. That's wisdom learned the hard way.
I had found my “happy place” and I had been right there all along.
When I learned to feel at peace with the world, I suddenly learned how to stop fighting it unnecessarily.
It felt like I was home out in the wilderness.
And now; the flowers are more beautiful to me than they ever have been before.
At my campsite on the fourth morning, I heard a cry out from behind the brush and trees above me less than 100 meters away. It sounded like a fawn. And it sounded like mountain lion was trying to kill it. Then it cried out again. And again and again. It was a terrible sound I won't soon forget. And it reminded me of something.
I am going to die. I am going to die someday. No matter what I do. My death will happen. It will probably be painful. It will likely involve a lot of anguish and grief. I might even be screaming in pain like that poor fawn I could hear – calling out, over and over again for a rescue that was never coming – for an option it didn't have – for a chance to change the past.
I imagined it was me. I imagined myself screaming in anguish. I imagined this as an allegory for my future – and that it was inevitable.
In some ways, my life is no more under my control than the ants I had carelessly stepped on while I was hiking.
The thoughts were awful, but liberating.
In a way, I had been lying to myself. Somewhere, deep down in my almost subconscious thoughts; I believed that I could defend myself from the inevitable.
While I've been preparing for the worst, looking everywhere for ghosts, and fighting windmills; I've been missing out on life. I could rest now.
Later on, I also realized that everyone I care about is destined to die. It is likely I am destined to hear some of them screaming in anguish too. That is my fate. And though I could probably change things for the worse, I won't be able to change things for the better.
Since my epiphany; I noticed (while on a somewhat frustrating mountain bike ride) that when I started feeling overly vulnerable, I started to sneeze again. Stress from the fear of crashing my mountain bike and the pounding of my body against the rocks appears to trigger a mild allergic reaction in me. Apparently; I'm allergic to crashing. Actually I'm allergic to the thought that I cannot control my actions on a mountain bike – and that I cannot avoid trauma. I occasionally spaz. Even though I've been riding for 30 years now, I still seem to forget everything once in a while. That leads to an almost mild panic attack. I can still ride, I just don't ride as well – or enjoy it as much... Stress does that.
Humility is now my best defense from stress. I have to admit to myself that I cannot keep myself perfectly safe. It isn't possible. It isn't even worth the effort to try. I'm not a perfect rider, and therefore I will make mistakes. If there wasn't a risk, it wouldn't be as exciting. And if I'm not willing to get scuffed up once in a while, go find another sport... I'm not willing to quit. So, I have to accept that someday I will likely fall... and it's not worth worrying about. I have to accept my vulnerability – and own it. And when I relax, I ride so much better.
About a couple of weeks after my epiphany, I woke up one morning with my sinuses all stuffed up again. It took me the rest of the day practicing what I had learned to get back to a well state. Apparently, I had somehow dreamed about something that brought back my allergies.
And oddly, when I first got my allergies back as an adult, it started when I witnessed someone else with allergy problems. It was as if I caught her allergies. But I think for me it was more like I caught a yawn that wouldn't go away. I guess, in a way, empathy can spread disease. By empathetically feeling her pain, I must have somehow copied her painful process.
The word psychosomatic comes to mind – but only for me. I make no assessment of anyone else's allergies. I also am not bothered to be labeled as once having a psychosomatic illness. I did nothing wrong – except to unknowingly overreact to a perceived health threat. I learned from the experience. And now I feel healthier in multiple ways. We all have health issues throughout our lives. What's important is that we heal.
Now, when my sinuses act up – which they sometimes still do a little; I repeatedly remind myself not to fight it… and I don't – and neither does my body. That's not only peaceful, it's empowering.
Though I made it sound like I accomplished all of this by myself, I had a lot of help:
I want to thank chiropractor Joseph D. Kepo'o for the balloon treatment he performed that opened up my sinus cavities.
I want to thank Chinese medicine doctor Robert Cozzie for helping me understand how to turn what Western doctors condescendingly call the “placebo effect” into my primary health strategy.
I want to thank life coach Carol Reynolds for giving me permission to be this honest with myself.
And I want to thank my Native ancestors for living a healthy sustainable life in this beautiful place so that I too could enjoy it now – more like they did than I ever have before.