My wife has been in Ohio for the past week, and one of my fill-in companions has been Netflix. There are a few shows we both want to catch up on, so I’ve avoided those series so we can watch them together when she returns. Instead, I’ve been browsing around in search of interesting fill-in material. And last night I came across Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition in the US.
I’ve always been a sucker for documentaries, so I settled in for the night and watched most of the series. The central moral of the story, to me, was one of balance and moderation. All of the intertwined stories and conflicts that led to Prohibition had this theme in common: reaction and counterreaction, always pushing back with too much force and swinging the pendulum far beyond the balance point, only to have it come back with even more force.
Living with diabetes, I am intimately familiar with reaction and counterreaction, predictable and manageable fluctuations and fluctuations that are swinging beyond the bounds of control. All of us Diabetians are students of balance, and we have a deep, kinesthetic, ingrained understanding of it. And all of this brought me back to a thought I had many years ago, when I was still in high school. Diabetes, pain and setbacks aside, offers us insight.
Moderation and the art of balance
Most people who don’t really understand diabetes see it as, well, a form of prohibition. How many times has someone we know summed up our condition with the following statement: “Oh, he’s diabetic. He can’t have sugar.” Now, I don’t expect others to necessarily know the intricacies of this disease, or begrudge well-meaning friends and family for looking out for me in the best way they know how. But this statement really DOES miss the point, doesn’t it? Diabetes is so much more nuanced and complicated than that.
Honestly, how much easier would it be if it really WERE just a matter of prohibition? That would be a lot less complicated than tracking blood glucose levels, matching insulin, counting carbs, factoring in physical activity, factoring in fluky biological fluctuations from things like colds, allergies, stress, and natural chemical reactions in the body. Monitoring and balancing a living system is no joke. It’s an act of constant moderation, patience, and balance. That’s MUCH harder than a simple prohibition against sugar.
No, living with diabetes means cultivating a deep understanding of true balance. And true balance means understanding the difference between natural fluctuations that are within the bounds of dynamic equilibrium, and fluctuations that threaten to push past that point. It means understanding how to respond to imbalance with a LIGHT enough touch that the counterreaction doesn’t simply push the pendulum even further off-course, but rather brings it closer to a state of balance.
Having such a direct relationship with balance is a challenge. But as with any challenge, it also offers a level of insight and understanding that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. I’ve often relied on this understanding of balance in other areas of my life. I think it has made me better suited to help clients as a therapist. It has helped refine my abilities as a music teacher AND performer.
Like I said, one of the themes that really struck me in the history of prohibition was the back and forth, the reaction and counterreaction, that led to the Eighteenth Amendment. Alcohol itself often leads to excess, and it was the problem of so many people’s inability to moderate their consumption that led to the strong reaction of those pushing for prohibition. But in their reaction to immoderate behavior, they missed just as widely, pushing far past any balance point and demanding total prohibition.
The phenomenon of reaction/counterreaction was particularly interesting to me because it felt so familiar to living with diabetes. I don’t know how many of the people reading this can relate, but let me share my own experience. When I was younger, I would react very strongly when I might have a week of unpredictable numbers. I’ve since calmed down a bit, and come to recognize that these brief periods are just part of the normal fluctuations of a living system, and they always pass. But during my younger days, my reactions were strong. And in particular, I remember feeling a visceral DESIRE to overreact.
Let me explain. I might have several successive high numbers, with escalating reactions each time. Finally, I might give in to my emotional reaction and respond to the high number with what I KNEW was more insulin than I needed, hoping to push my blood glucose way, way down. The initial stimulus of a high number caused me to respond with an overreaction rather than a measured one. What inevitably happened was a low blood glucose, which would then require some sugar, which would then lead back to a high number.
The CORRECT response would have been a measured, thoughtful amount of insulin. While the result might have still been a slightly higher number than I had wanted, I would have been moving gently back to the position of balance. Instead, I pushed the pendulum so far that the imbalance simply gained more momentum.
Over the years I’ve caught this pattern, and learned how to let my head remain cool even when my numbers are not. And that’s a tremendous gift. If the people on both sides of our many debates could cultivate this understanding on a deep level, our world might be a very different place. Our climate might be improving, moving toward sustainability, rather than decaying and moving toward destabilization. Our politics might be constructive and thoughtful, rather than divisive, emotional, and hurtful. Our interactions with one another might be kinder, more understanding, and more tolerant. And that Eighteenth Amendment? I think it would have been rightfully shelved.