Coming to Terms With Imperfection

I’m in Colorado this week, visiting family and soaking in as much opened-spaced, beautiful serenity as I can before heading back to the concrete jungle of Philadelphia on Sunday. I grew up here, just outside of Boulder, and the contrast with where I live now couldn’t be more drastic. I grew up in a house surrounded by wide-open fields, about 5 miles east of the Rocky Mountains; the nighttime soundscape was wind through the trees, coyotes in the field, and, when it was “running high,” the babble of the creek about 20 yards outside my window. The nighttime soundscape of Philly is a little different: sirens, cars, buses, the hum of the street light outside our bedroom, and neighbors yelling down the street, usually joyfully but sometimes heatedly. Through my back window I look out on the back of my neighbors’ row home, not the wide-open fields of my childhood. When the wind blows, it doesn’t gently rustle the leaves of the tree outside my window; it blows over the trash cans along our pavement street and the only rustling I hear is trash rolling across that same pavement.

And so it was in this serene, idyllic Colorado setting that I was talking to my mother about recent feelings of dissatisfaction with the trajectory of my career (my ongoing gig writing for Diabetes Self-Management notwithstanding, of course!). And she responded with a contemplative, serene retelling of an experience she had while listening to talk given by a prominent Zen Buddhist scholar (can’t you just hear the wind chimes as you read that sentence?). Buddhists talk a lot about “suffering.” We get kind of a bad rap for it, really. So many people just think we’re masochists, pessimists, or just depressed, depressing people with no hope. And that’s not true, I promise. But that’s more than I want to go into here. What she said (which was a retelling of what someone else said) was this:


“The word for ‘suffering’ in the original language of Buddhism is ‘dukkha.’ ‘Dukkha’ has several meanings that often don’t translate, and one of those meanings is ‘off-centeredness,’ describing what is basically a wheel on an axle that is off balance, off center, and ‘wobbles’ as it moves through space.”

All you need to know is this: Buddhism talks a lot about the “suffering” of living a human life, full of human problems, imperfections, pain, and “things not working the way they should” (or at least the way we want them to). It’s describing something exactly like, oh, I don’t know, diabetes. Diabetes is full of moments where things don’t work the way “they should” (“I ate the right amount of carbs with the right amount of insulin, and now I’m too high/too low!”), and our share of pain (“Ouch, pricked my finger”; “Ouch, another shot”; the much more severe and real pain of complications; and so on).

When I heard that translation something clicked for me. Diabetes is the ultimate “wobble” — sometimes it moves smoothly, other times it pushes against us. It follows a rhythm, but not a perfect one. And there’s no such thing as “figuring it all out” in a way that takes away the irregularities and imperfections for good. Oh, were there a way, but there isn’t. Living with diabetes means living with imperfection in a daily, direct, and often irritating way. It means letting go of the stretches of great numbers because that was yesterday, and working with what our blood sugar is doing today. By the same token, we have to be able to let go of that stretch of horrible numbers. We have to just stick with the wobble, move with it, and settle in with it.

Everyone has his own method for coping with the imperfect wobble of diabetes; I’m a meditator (always helpful) and an overthinker (almost never helpful — I didn’t say all of the coping skills were good coping skills). Some people are exercisers (probably very helpful) and emotional exploders (probably not so much). Perhaps there are those rare Diabetians who are more enlightened, who only use the helpful coping skills and have learned to let go of the negative habits, but most of us struggle with a mixture. I think framing diabetes within “the wobble” might help those of us stuck with a mixture of the positive and the negative nudge ourselves toward the positive in a few ways.

First, framing diabetes within the wobble — that is, understanding that its fundamental nature, and indeed, the fundamental nature of human daily living, is that of an ongoing wobble — reminds us that nothing is “wrong” when things fluctuate. It might be frustrating, maybe even painful, but it’s not “wrong.” Life wobbles, and diabetes absolutely wobbles. It’s part of diabetes’ nature, and we don’t have to get so worked up every time it does so — we can detach our emotional state from the wobble of our physical state. Secondly, once we understand that no amount of overthinking, emotional-exploding, secluding, self-shaming, or other negative coping skill can change that fundamental wobble, we can stop expecting constant perfection from our bodies and from ourselves. That’s an impossible expectation, and yet when you live with diabetes, it’s often a thought that manages to sneak in, planting itself in some corner of our mind that we might not even be consciously aware of.

So the next time I take the right amount of insulin for the right number of carbs and see the “wrong” number, I’m going to recite a little mantra (a meditative phrase; a prayer; whatever name you prefer) that I coined after that conversation:

“It’s just the wobble… it’s just the wobble.”

The severity of diabetic complications is linked to the risk of developing dementia, according to a new study. Bookmark and tune in tomorrow to learn more about the research.