I was sitting in the shower crying at the hopelessness of it all. Since I hadn’t showered in three days, I really needed to shampoo my hair. But the shampoo bottle seemed so far away that I just cried instead.
Maybe I should back up. This particular cry – one of many that week – came on the tail end of being sick all winter. In January, I caught a terrible cold that turned into a sinus infection. After three weeks on the couch, I was finally starting to feel a little better when I caught a second, much worse virus that wouldn’t vacate my body.
I was ashamed to admit I was sick. It was a point of pride that I hadn’t been sick in 26 month – yes, I was keeping track – and I saw my health as a personal accomplishment. It’s clear now that I was equating sickness with weakness; I was attached to the idea that my health was directly tied to my mindfulness, eating, exercise, and sleeping habits. So when my “plan” failed and I found myself coughing and hacking all night, I was embarrassed and mad at fate. Every time I had to cancel something I was looking forward to – Girl’s Night, a concert, Book Club – I railed at the universe, shook my figurative fist at the sky. But mostly, I was mad at myself.
And – no surprise here – that self-recrimination just made me feel worse. It’s ironic that my column last week was all about the power of self-compassion when I couldn’t show myself the tiniest shred of love. I just couldn’t forgive my body for being sick. My body was down but I felt that my body had let me down.
I’ve had a lot of downtime to reflect on this. What being sick for two straight months has taught me is that I’m not nearly as positive and peaceful as I would like to believe. Exhausted does not look good on me. Around week three, I became a sniveling, grouchy, pity-me monster. It’s easy to be calm and optimistic when everything is going our way. But character is revealed in how gracefully we respond in the hardships. And I’m not particularly proud of how I handled an extended illness. There are so many people dealing with far worse maladies and chronic conditions.
Perhaps it’s less that I am naturally optimistic and more that I am lucky enough to live a fairly conflict-free life. And while I constantly strive to feel gratitude for the beautiful life I lead, I needed to be reminded that I ultimately have no control whatsoever over what happens in it.
What I’m taking away is the humbled truth that I still have a lot of spiritual growing to do. The good news is that life is always going to deliver a heaping pile of suffering to practice.
The bigger take-away is to offer more grace to others. If you met me this winter, you would be forgiven for thinking me a grouchy whiner. When other people are acting awful, I need to remember that I don’t know what battles they’re fighting. Perhaps their mother just died. Maybe they have cancer. Possibly they just lost their job. For sure they have doubts and flus and weird rashes. They’re human and a certain amount of suffering is a given. If they act terrible, it’s more about them and less about me. If I can resist the urge to jump to conclusions about them or take it personally while offering them compassion, everyone wins. And a little kindness might just be exactly what they need at that moment.