Friday, December 24, 2010

The Joy of the Pain

Severe pain can really focus your life.

When I was in college, I dated this nice Canadian girl who, the year before, had been in a horrible car wreck with her boyfriend.  He was driving too fast, left the road, and flipped the car, end for end, several times.  They were both lucky to survive the crash.

But it left her in the hospital for a year with a broken spine and debilitating pain, which to some extent, she would have for the rest of her life.  She was a sweet girl, but we were not a well-suited match.  Like most American youth, I was pretty naive about the realities of life - how harsh and difficult and unfair it can be.  Most the population on the planet lives a very painful and difficult life, compared to here in America.  And yet like most young Americans, I didn't realize how lucky I was.  I had no focused life plans nor did I take my work too seriously.  I just wanted to party and have fun, often abusing my body in the process.

She told me that while she would not wish her circumstances on anyone, that laying flat on your back in a hospital for a year, in constant pain, really focuses your life.  She said "If you went through what I went through, you would be taking all of this a little more seriously."  And of course, she was right.  In a way, she said, it was a blessing.  Because before that accident, she was a bit of a party girl, and like most American (and Canadian) teens, not really focused on the seriousness of life.

I was fortunate in that I lived for another 20 years or so without any major medical maladies.  For the most part, I have been robustly healthy, being able to eat what I wanted at any time and being able to consume as much alcohol as I wanted (or thought I wanted) and still wake up the next day feeling chipper.  And yes, not having the sharp focus that pain can put into your life, I was not very serious about many things in my life.  We spent money like drunken sailors and partied and had a good time, with little thought to the future or that life could change - oftentimes in a real hurry - for the worse.

All of that came screeching to a halt, however, when I turned 40.  I felt myself slowing down and suddenly suffering from some painful ailments which escalated into excruciatingly painful ailments.  Gout was first, a sharp pain that felt like a nail being driven into your foot.  Pain so severe that putting weight on your foot felt like walking on hot coals.  Diverticulitis was next - a sharp pain in the stomach that feels like a linoleum knife being torn through your bowels.

And the long-term news was not great.  Both were chronic conditions that I would have "for the rest of my life" which I was alarmed to realize was more than halfway over (if actuarial tables are any good).  And moreover that these conditions would continue to strike me down periodically, in severe pain, many times during the rest of my life.

I now realized what my Canadian friend was trying to tell me, but of course, I could not learn until I experienced it firsthand.  Life does not go on forever, and moreover, just waking up and feeling "normal" is a real blessing in life.  Yet many Americans will whine and bitch about being "depressed" or "bored" when they feel perfectly fine, are well-fed, and have good incomes and money in the bank.

In short, we are staggeringly lucky in this country, but most of us fail to realize it.  We bitch and moan about "being in debt" but fail to acknowledge what it was our own actions that got us into it.  And we complain about how "hard" our lives are here under our "oppressive" government.  No wonder the rest of the world thinks we are complaining crybabies.

Pain can be a blessing, as odd as that may sound.  It focuses the mind quite sharply.  When you are in pain, the first thing you want to do is get out of it - and you will do anything to do so.  And once out of pain, you realize that you do not want to get back into it.  And you also realize what is and isn't important in life.  And what is important isn't having fancy consumer goods to impress other people - and being in debt up to your eyeballs to do so.

Pain forced me to re-think my diet, as both illnesses are diet-related or aggravated by poor diet.  As a result, I started taking better care of myself, losing weight, exercising more, and drinking less.  It is a long, ongoing process to be sure.

And it also forced me to re-think my life, in terms of goals and what I wanted to do.   Suddenly I realized that life can go sour on a moment's notice and moreover you can keel over dead at any moment.  How do you provide for your loved ones if that happens?  And yet, I saw firsthand, many times, what did happen to a "successful" professional couple, when a spouse dies and leaves nothing behind but a mountain of debt.  So many of us are chasing the false God of consumerism - buying fancy cars (or worse yet, leasing) and mortgaging ourselves to the hilt for "look at me!" houses.  When it all goes horribly wrong, a widow or widower is left behind to clean up the mess and try to start over in life with nothing to show for 30 years of marriage but photos of happier times.

It is not optional to build up wealth - but essential.  You need to have some inherent wealth in order to take care of yourself and your family.  Unfortunately, our culture is immersed in the philosophy of "entitlement" theory - that you need not accumulate wealth, as the government will support you, or your pension plan will pay you, should things go wrong.  Both are bad ideas, as these sorts of safety nets, it turns out, are full of holes.

Take Care of Yourself. Be Kind to Yourself.  No one else will do it for you.  You need to save money for the bad times - which are inevitable.  And no, this is not "selfish" but being responsible.