When I was 15 years old, I had my first music lesson with Art. Art is a jazz pianist who lives in my hometown of Boulder, CO, and just happens to be one of the most brilliant musical minds in the country. For reasons that are still not completely known to me, Art is not a household name in the jazz listening community. He is, however, a household name in the community of professional jazz musicians, all of whom revere him as one of the finest musicians to inhabit this earth.
Art didn’t mince words. If you played something mindlessly, if you got lazy, if you didn’t put the kind of intention into the music that the music deserved, Art would tell you. In fact, his first words to me were, and I quote, “that was bull****, now play it again and MEAN it this time.” It sounds harsh, but here’s the thing: He was RIGHT. I was trying to impress him, and playing something totally outside of what was actually inside of me. And he caught it. He said exactly the right thing. It knocked me out of trying to “impress” him (as if a 15-year-old kid could “impress” a living legend of jazz, anyway), and brought me back to myself. He was much nicer after my second attempt, though he still had quite a few pointers on what I could have done better.
Art’s style was that of a skillful Zen teacher. He said things directly, he didn’t offer false praise, and he did what any good teacher SHOULD do: He pruned away the stuff that wasn’t working in his students’ playing, and gave us the tools to make ourselves better. And if we didn’t put in the work that the music deserved, well, he’d tell us what he thought about that (and it wasn’t good).
What makes me think of all this? First, I’ve always regarded diabetes in somewhat the same way: a sometimes harsh Zen teacher who doesn’t mince words and demands that we put our concentration and intention into what we are doing. Second, diabetes came into my life right around the same time as that lesson. I’ve often talked about how much Art taught me about music. That’s a no-brainer, but as I thought about these two events, I realized something: Art taught me how to live with diabetes.
You see, before I took that lesson with Art, I had always favored teachers with a “softer” style, teachers who were more inclined to pad their opinions with comforting niceties. I was afraid of teachers like Art. At the core, I was insecure about my own ability, afraid I would be “found out” to be a fake, to be less talented, less skilled, than I had built myself up to be. In a sense, I preferred to keep blinders on, to shield myself from the areas where I needed to improve.
Of course, there’s an obvious problem with that: If you shield yourself from criticism, there is no way you will EVER improve the deficiencies that ARE holding you back. A teacher like Art understood this, and so he attacked those weak areas head-on, with quick, skillful cuts of a Zen sword. Had I gone into living with diabetes with that kind of “shielded”mindset, the results might have been life-altering. Imagine if my reaction to a high number was to ignore it, sweep it aside, and continue doing exactly what it is I was doing that LED to that high number, day after day.
Art showed me how to face problems, how to face areas of failure and areas of weakness, head-on. He showed me how to stop being afraid of my failings, and how to learn from them. And so while Art never said a word about diabetes, and was only dimly aware that I even had it, I learned a tremendous amount about how to live with it from him. Most of us who live with diabetes have probably had similar teachers, people who have impacted our relationship with this disease in ways we are only vaguely aware of.
I am amazed how often the deepest lessons in our lives come at us in this sideways kind of way. After all, I had a wonderful endocrinologist who taught me about diabetes, and so many other people who directly taught me about this disease. But diabetes is so much more than the numbers. It is so much more than blood glucose levels, carbs, ratios, and medical descriptions. It impacts our lives minute-to-minute, and influences our thoughts, our feelings, and our perceptions.
Learning to live with diabetes is learning to live with suffering — I don’t mean this in the “woe is me” kind of way, but in the way Buddhists mean it: The daily challenges of living in a world that so often falls short of our ideal, challenges us when we’d rather not be challenged, and forces us to confront weakness and failure. And so Art lives on as one of the great teachers of my life, not only as a musician, but as a human being, and most certainly as a human being faced with the challenge of diabetes.
I invite you to reflect on your own journeys to find the hidden teachers who have guided you in living with diabetes. You may be surprised. And when you find them, thank them.