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Learning Our Limits
October 20, 2010
I’m not happy to have multiple sclerosis (MS), and I’m pretty sure you would prefer not to have diabetes. No one wants a chronic illness — they take up too much space. But illness has taught me valuable lessons that have opened my life.
Before I got sick, I was like the proverbial chicken with my head cut off. And not just any chicken; I was Super Headless Chicken, trying to work as a nurse, raise children, play in a band, write for magazines, and save the world in my spare time. With such divided loyalties, I naturally did a poor job at all of them and spent much of my life in frustration.
When I had my first major MS attack, it dawned on me that I couldn’t do everything. I had only so much time and energy, and what I had could be taken away at any time. I had to accept that I had limits. I had to focus. Without that acceptance, I probably couldn’t have written my books, wouldn’t have gotten to travel and teach, and wouldn’t have met the wonderful people I’ve met.
Illness shows us our limits and encourages us to focus on what’s really important to us. The limits were always there, but most of us choose to ignore them, to live as if we were not only immortal, but superhuman.
That unrealistic attitude dissipates our energy. We think, “Should I do this or that, or this other thing? I want to do X, but I’ll do something else. What difference does it make? I have the rest of my life, which is forever.”
We don’t have forever, though, and an illness like diabetes shows us that fact, with symptoms, scary predictions, and sometimes with disabilities. But there’s an upside. Being confronted with our mortality can lead us to change, grow, and create.
Accepting mortality can motivate us. I met a friend named Rob Mitchell while teaching self-management classes. Rob has AIDS, and has had it since before the effective drugs came out. He told me facing his own death was in some ways a blessing.
“I learned about living with the end in sight, knowing that I have a finite amount of time here,” he said. “I don’t have forever to do the things I want to do, so I better do them now.”
Rob wound up traveling the country in a small RV, posting wonderful travel diaries to a blog. Now he’s counseling others on living with AIDS and playing a big part in his church.
Illness can make us pay attention. A nurse named Lindsay Lewis, who has lupus, told me, “I used to try to be all things to all people. I was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I wouldn’t have spent one minute living in the moment. I would have missed my whole life, not realizing that it is so precious.”
I know accepting limits has been a huge benefit for me. Like, I can only work about three hours a day. That’s all the energy I have, so I have to make those hours count. I try to keep that limit in mind while I’m at my desk, so I don’t waste the time doing unproductive things. I have the rest of the day for that. Whatever I’m doing, I try to be there for it, not let my mind wander all over.
Unfortunately, pretty much everything in this society pushes us to ignore our limits. Do more, be more, work more, buy more! Public figures are praised for how little they sleep, how tough they are, or how much money they make. Nobody gets media credit for living gracefully, for loving well, for being fully present, for doing the best they can within their abilities.
So how do you deal with your limits? Do you acknowledge them and work with them, or do you try to fight them? Is it painful or scary to acknowledge mortality? There are actually no right or wrong answers, but I can testify that things go better when I accept my limits.
Online Self-Management Programs Starting
Workshops can be accessed from any computer that has an Internet connection — including dial-up. The programs are led by people with chronic conditions, so there will be no preaching.
Better Choices, Better Health is sponsored by the National Council on Aging (NCOA). It’s an online version of Stanford’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Program. I have both taken and led this program and can testify to its value.
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