Diabetes, the Great Teacher

John Lennon is credited with saying, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Mind you, that kind of pithy wisdom is a little easier to coin when your particular life has led you to worldwide critical, cultural, and economic success, but it’s still a great quote. And he was, after all, right about that. We tend to think in big ideas, in big plans, in long-term goals. I fall victim to that in almost every part of my own life. I see my music career in these terms; I see my philosophical-psychological-spiritual life in these terms; I see politics that way; I see way too much of life through these far-too-grand lenses. The one part of my life I don’t tend to see this way is diabetes.

Diabetes is a day-to-day disease. No, scratch that; it’s a minute-to-minute disease. The focus really needs to be on the mundane, the daily details and activities of management. And like John Lennon said, the cumulative results from our minute-to-minute decisions give us what will be our “life,” our big picture. We Diabetians have a very direct analogy here — our HbA1c! Our daily management leads directly to that magic “X-point-X” number that all us Diabetians live by.


I’ve talked in the past about viewing diabetes as a teacher. That’s something I’ve felt throughout my life. We all have different language for this sort of idea — diabetes is a lesson given through Karma, God, synchronicity, the Spirit, the Tao, or simpler psychological terms. Over the past month or so, I’ve been deep in an ocean of philosophical reflection on matters of faith, spirituality, and how to live a more fully awakened human life. It’s all very big-picture stuff, but what’s been interesting is the way my musings continually come back to the small things, the intimate acknowledgement of compassion, truth, and the willingness to listen without judgment in each moment.

Most of all, I come back to one of my original teachers, the one who has been with me the longest (22 years now!!), diabetes. What can I learn from diabetes? What can I learn about my career? What can I learn about music? What can I learn about the workings of the spiritual dimensions of life (expressed in the most open, inclusive, and nondenominational way possible, of course…)? Here’s my list of sage advice gathered through the first 22 years of Diabetian apprenticeship:

Very little good comes from overreacting
High numbers come and go; low numbers come and go; even a pristine three-month stretch of great control has days of spiraling numbers and unexpected spikes. Strong, emotionally charged reactions to these events do us no good. Moment-to-moment, the wisdom of letting go is a very deep lesson for the rest of our lives.

Your failures don’t define you; neither do your successes
I’ve talked to many people who are very insistent that one should always say “I have diabetes,” rather than “I AM diabetic.” I’m not as impassioned on this, but I understand where that idea is coming from. And I would say that another deep lesson of living with diabetes is that we don’t have to let events define us, or define how we feel about ourselves. A high number isn’t a personal failure — it’s an event. It’s something to attend to, something to learn from, something to adjust to, but it’s not something that needs to define how we feel about ourselves on any fundamental level.

Control what you can, let go of what you can’t
I once did a whole blog entry on the serenity prayer, for this very reason. Diabetes teaches us to be wise with our energy and where we direct it. It asks us to put forth effort and dedication where that effort will yield benefits. At the same time, it is showing us how fruitless it is to put energy into the things beyond our control. For each of us, the future is an abstraction, and putting worry into it robs us of that energy in the moment. We can’t know the future; we can’t change the past; we can only put proper effort into managing our condition in the present. That’s one huge life lesson, indeed.

There are undoubtedly more lessons to be learned from this disease. And I’ll continue to learn them. Like the rest of you, I’ve got no choice in the matter. And each day I’ll do my best to listen with an open mind and humility.

Exercise may be more difficult for people who have Type 2 diabetes, according to new research. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.

  • I really like how you bring the spiritual back to the minute-to-minute acts that make up our lives. Does everything we do have a spiritual dimension, if we notice it?