I read something the other day that got me thinking about the difference between obsessing over something and being aware of something. In our case, that something is diabetes, but it could be any number of things — our financial situation, relationships, other health matters, careers, you name it. It is so easy to fixate on the thing itself — on diabetes, on our job, on our relationship, etc. — and forget to pay much attention to the MANNER in which we are relating to it. And that’s unfortunate, because it is the manner of how we relate that most directly impacts how we feel, what we think, and how we move forward.
We all know what it feels like to obsess over something. I find it most useful to frame it in terms of how it feels on a physical level. There is a tightness that creeps in when we obsess. We see this tightness in our muscles, in our quickened pace, in our quickened speech, and in our quickly spiraling thoughts. When we obsess our brows furrow, our teeth clench, and our breath speeds up.
In terms of our thought process, our view of the future narrows when we obsess. It’s almost as if we are wearing blinders that only allow us to see a few possible roads into the future, a few possibilities, blanking out all of the other possible outcomes. When we obsess, we tend to overdramatize, and overgeneralize. The flexibility needed to see a broad future evaporates, and we see only a tight, narrow vision of the future.
I’ve experienced this with diabetes on occasion. When I was younger and I would run into a rough patch, as we all do now and then, I would allow myself to obsess. I would fret and worry about each high number, and by tightening my view I lost sight of the possibility that these high numbers would subside. And so I viewed the future as nothing but a continuation of the worst of the present. Of course, those rough patches always did subside. Sometimes the problem was a bug moving through my system. Other times it might have been a particularly stressful week with little sleep and poor food choices. But each time, normalcy returned.
Over the years, I began to realize something important about these bouts of obsession: they were doing me absolutely NO good! The numbers didn’t change because I obsessed. It wasn’t helping me understand the problem (in fact, it was doing the opposite, clouding my view and limiting my imagination for understanding the patterns behind my numbers). It wasn’t motivating me to take action — again, it was actually pushing me toward apathy. In short, all of this obsessing was only doing one thing: making me miserable.
But we can’t just IGNORE it…
After I realized the futility of obsessing (at least as far as diabetes is concerned; I still spend plenty of time obsessing and fretting over other things), I was confronted with another question: if obsessing, fretting, and anxiety isn’t the answer, what IS? I saw two possibilities. The first answer was to ignore the cause of my anxiety entirely. This seemed like a patently BAD idea. Ignoring diabetes, as far as I know, is frowned-upon pretty universally in the medical community, and with good reason. It is a serious condition, with serious consequences.
The other answer I saw was to learn how to cultivate calm-yet-focused-awareness. By this I mean a kind of meditative awareness, where you are monitoring your condition fully, and putting forth effort to change those patterns that need to be changed. At the same time, you eliminate the habit of wasting emotional energy fretting about what has already happened, or getting angry when the change you had hoped for doesn’t happen. This is when my relationship to diabetes really changed for the better.
In the years since that period, I’ve done a lot of work as a therapist. I’ve maintained a meditation practice. I’ve juggled a music career, a teaching career, a writing career (or at least a writing “side-gig”), and a wonderful marriage. And in all of it, I’ve seen the truth of this distinction time and time again. In all of these endeavors, the source of any misery hasn’t so much been the direct experience of emotional or physical pain. The real misery has come from that obsessive REACTION to bad news, or to pain. Misery has come when I have forgotten how to maintain that centered awareness, and lapsed into reactivity. That reactivity has usually been of the obsessive, anxious variety, but it can also be of the “ignore it, pretend nothing’s there” variety.
In the end, it is reactivity itself that seems to always be at the root of my suffering. I think it’s the root of most of our suffering. I don’t mean to say that the pain we experience isn’t real, or that we should be happy all the time. We shouldn’t. But when we are sad, we should learn how to simply BE SAD, and at least let go of the tension that arises when we try to immediately fix it, ignore it, or obsess over it. When we learn to let it be, we become free of it in a way. When it comes to diabetes care, we need to learn how to monitor our numbers, address those issues that are within our control, and let go of the rest. Because whatever our condition is going to do, we’ll be there with it, whether we want to be or not.
I’ll close with a quote from Lord of the Rings (yep, I’m a fan…). It is a quote from the wise Wizard Gandalf, in responding to one of the other characters who expresses his desire NOT to be in the situation they are faced with. He calmly responds, “so do all who live to see such times [that is, wish those times were different]. But that [is not for us] to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”