Defeating the Six Specters of Life: Part 4- The Fear of Ill-health
The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.” -Gilbert K. Chesterton
I’ll be completely honest with you guys, when I first started this series, I had no idea how I was going to tackle this particular Specter. I really just hadn’t come face to face with him yet, not personally. I have seen plenty of ill-health within my family, and even saw my Grandmother succumb to it when I was a child. However, I have yet to really go one on one against it. You could say that I’ve been carrying around the blissful ignorance of youth, pretending that I’m bulletproof, and that my arteries are impervious to cholesterol. Unfortunately though, youth passed me up a few years back and I now find myself somewhere around early-middle-age. Actually, if you look at my family history, I’m probably further along than that. It’s high-time I start thinking a little more seriously about my health, and what a debilitating illness would do to me and my family.
But Wait! I’m Doing Alright…aren’t I?
I have a few things going in my favor and you probably do too. I exercise quite regularly, eat a fairly healthy diet, and I feel like I do a pretty good job of handling stress. These factors alone will mitigate much of the risk of disease, but there is no magic talisman that will ward off accidents and injuries. By most standards I live a fairly high-risk lifestyle. My job can be quite physical and carries a fair amount of risk of bodily harm, and I also enjoy riding motorcycles and other activities that have been known to cause injury. All things considered, despite my “healthy” living, I’m just as likely to end up incapacitated by ill-health as anyone else. How about you?
You’re Not Special!
I’ve mentioned in previous posts the fact that you are probably not special, because if all of you were, then it wouldn’t be called “special” anymore. It would then be ordinary, and we’d be right back to where we are…not being special. What this means is that you are just as likely as anyone else to experience ill-health before you die. The good news though, is that you are also just as likely to live a happy, healthy life right up until you kick the bucket. Thinking about this is comforting to me, perhaps it will be to you as well. It keeps me from unconsciously ruminating about the hypothetical worst case scenarios and realize that yes, I could come down with a spontaneous case of terminal cancer, or I could get hit by a truck, but it is more likely that I won’t, so I shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about it.
Stoicism Strikes Again!
Much of my personal philosophy stems from the Stoics, although most of it came through trial and error during my life. I didn’t stumble on to actual Stoic writings until perhaps 10 years ago, if it was that long ago. That being said, one book that I think will be extremely helpful for you, and goes into much greater detail explaining some of the concepts I’ve mentioned in previous posts, and am about to mention is “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy,” by William B. Irvine.* Throughout Stoic writings, we find that a practice they are quite fond of is negative visualization. I have mentioned this practice before, in last week’s post about defeating the Fear of Death, but it works the exact same way for the Fear of Ill-health, only better. The reason I think it works better is because you can actually witness first hand the effects of ill-health, whereas we have no knowledge of what death is actually like, so there is the extra fear of the unknown there.
To practice negative visualization, you simply need to consider what part of your health is good, and imagine what life would be like if it wasn’t. For example, when I was in high school, I met a Vietnam Veteran who was an amputee. It occurred to me that I would feel somewhat helpless if I lost my primary hand or arm, as I rarely used my left hand for any tasks at all. I spent the better part of an entire school year trying to train myself to write with my left hand, to eat with my left hand, and to quite unsuccessfully brush my teeth with my left hand. At the time I didn’t know that I was practicing a Stoic technique to develop appreciation and inoculate oneself against fear of loss, but it actually did have a lasting effect on my tranquility. I now think back to that, and while I can’t say what emotions I would feel if I experienced the tragedy of losing a limb, I do know that life would not cease. I could still function, albeit not as well. I also have a greater appreciation for the fact that I do have two working arms. To apply this same principle to other calamities requires only that you think through what life would be like living in that situation, and what you would still have to be thankful for that you may currently take for granted. I bet that you will have a new-found appreciation for your current health.
What if I’m Already Sick?
If you are already experiencing the effects of ill-health, then you know much better than I do what fear and anxiety comes with that. I can’t begin to tell you how to cope with that, as I’m not a health professional, but I would recommend that you make an attempt at negative visualization, and see if you can use your current situation to more fully appreciate what you do have that is still going well. In the book I mentioned earlier, Irvine discusses a very personal situation he had with his mother. She was in a nursing home and unable to even drink regular liquids, due to problems with swallowing and the risk of pneumonia. He said that when he finally got clearance from the doctor to give her ice cubes, he saw that she appreciated those ice cubes more than he had previously seen her appreciate high-end food and wine. It is tragic that it takes getting to that point in our lives for many of us to realize how much we have taken for granted. Fortunately, through negative visualization, you can learn to fully appreciate the small things before the small things are all you have left.
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall.” – Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Do What You Can
The best way that I have managed to keep the Specter of the Fear of Ill-health at bay has been to remain constantly vigilant, with my physical health, but also with my mental state. I get yearly physicals; as I mentioned earlier, I exercise often, and I put some thought into what I eat. I do not worry about what I cannot control, and I know that I cannot completely control my health. I do the best that I am willing to do, and I acknowledge the risks of the activities I engage in that aren’t necessarily healthy. For example, I enjoy pizza, beer, and going fast, but I do all of that in moderation, and with an understanding that it could lead to my ill-health. Beyond those steps, I don’t worry about it, because chronic stress and worry will lead you to the Specter of the Fear of Ill-health every time. Whereas everyday life will only get you there some of the time. Why give the bastard better odds?
JOIN US, so you won’t miss next Friday’s post, when we’ll give the Fear of the Loss of Love a swift punch to the kisser!
*The reason I’m going into that is because I’ve referenced that book several times during posts, but I never actually cited it, as the concepts I was using are more common knowledge among students of Stoicism, and not specific to this book. I do plan to do a full book review at some point though, as it was just that good.