I had an odd birthday this year. I have not had a birthday worth reporting on in a long time; one of the side effects of the internet is forming relationships with people who are far away. So I was okay with not doing anything “special”. I even wrapped my head around spending the day doing unpleasant prep for a test that was the polar opposite of “fun”, without sleep or food. But toward the end of the day, the cognitive dissonance of getting a stream of birthday wishes from friends while sitting in a clinic discussing whether I wanted to “preserve fertility options” was more than I could really process. (I have to say, because everyone always goes there – I am dying, but not any sooner than previously scheduled when I was born. It’s only the circumstances of the parts in between that change.)
I have a long, boring history of health problems. I have a trail of specialists, tests, procedures, medications, and diagnoses running through more than half my life, through four high schools and three colleges (I never did graduate). I was not hoping to start a new chapter in my medical history.
Illness is such a strange thing. We romanticize some from a distance, while avoiding them up close. I think maybe we have an odd obsession with cancer as a disease because it appears to be so clear-cut and obvious; it’s not because it’s our most pernicious healthcare foe. It’s a good story, with a beginning, a middle, and a (hopefully) victorious end. Cancer is a shared Voldemort, our Big Bad. Even though the bad guy is our hero’s own cells, we’ve become comfortable with “fuck cancer!” because it’s such a good villain. That may be how it seems from a distance. That may be what we need to reconcile how something so awful and indiscriminating exists. But really, the truth of all our illnesses and injuries, acute or chronic, visible or invisible, is how mundane much of the “battle” is. It’s hundreds of small struggles, indignities, and wounds that seem too petty to even speak of. It’s tiny pieces of ground that we cede when even something ordinary is too much of a challenge. And all those things, regardless of the overall outcome, are a forced detour from normal life.
In one of the (dreadful) standardized tests I took as a child there was a math word problem about a snail who was trying to climb out of a well, but slid back one stone for every two he climbed. I’ve often felt like that snail; but sliding back two for every one stone I climb up.
Right before I went to bed on my birthday I was plugging in my phone and saw this notification.
(Please see this post for how this came about.) And I’m not going to lie; I held it together just fine through a very difficult day, and this tweet made me cry a bit. I didn’t RT this tweet because…well, humblebrag much? But I’m sharing it now because it got me into a line of thought about how I could possibly have reached a reality where that kind of thing could happen. About how my life could simultaneously have led to bad things and amazing things. Something specifically that personal and unprompted just seemed so surreal and impossible, when I was again watching the edge of the well slide out of reach.
If I try to trace back the course of my life from that one small outcome, it runs through happy memories and painful ones in equal measure. That path is an unbroken line, detours and all, however meandering or rocky. Your good experiences aren’t “in spite of” your bad ones. ALL of the things that happen to you – and the decisions you make about them – create your path. The unhappy things aren’t disposable. The only road that could lead you to where you are now is the one you took; and that process never stops. The pain that you’re in now is the brick you must lay to be able to take the next step.
There are certainly days the math of creating a sum from the good and the bad in your life seems impossible. But maybe the issue is how we word the question. We’re measuring how much an outside gravity pulls us back into the well we’re climbing out of. We’re still trying to see it as a fight between good and evil, marked up in separate columns, and with the correct answer a Normal Life. I’ve had a very strange year and as a result, I’ve come to think “normal” is a lie. The normal life is a myth we perpetuate in fiction, an illusion we see when we look at the lives of others from the outside. It’s victory over an enemy that doesn’t really exist, except where we define it. The math seems impossible because it is; you can’t subtract the negative from the positive in your life and come up with your worth.
I wanted to post this, not for myself, but because I’ve seen so many people lately – friends and strangers – struggling with a contagious disease of despair about the state of the world and of humanity. If we cannot face the ills in the world, I worry it’s because we haven’t learned to accept them on the small scale of our own lives. We’ve learned to see our personal challenges as a cancer upon our normalcy, an irredeemable villain in our story, a vicious gravity that pulls us ever downward when we try to scale towards the sky.
But you are not a snail climbing out of a well to a better life. Your life is not a math problem that has a correct answer. The divide between the good and the bad is imaginary, and neither can nor should be cut out. And the same thing that can crush you down can lift you back up.
But if you’re struggling to see how that continuum can be possible…maybe it was put best, appropriately, on a science fiction show…