(Meditative Soup for the Happy Soul)
You haven’t heard from me for a couple of weeks for a simple, ineluctable reason. It is simply this: despite all the intricate plans my mind was making, my body decided to shut down for a week or so. Chills. 103-degree fever. Chills again. More fever. Extreme lethargy. Extreme fatigue. Headaches. Dizziness on rising. Loss of appetite. When the fourth day of fever began, I called the doctor. I went in and was diagnosed with “walking” pneumonia. I barely coughed at all, but there it was. An x-ray had revealed an infection on my lung. Antibiotics were prescribed. I gobbled them down for a week, drinking insane amounts of water. After many hours of Netflix movies and soreness on both hips from being in bed all day, I gingerly ventured out for a little longer each day, until I finally started to feel, well, “normal.”
I’m really glad I was sick. I wasn’t glad while it was happening to me, but I think illness is a time when your delirious mind has a chance to reorganize itself, put everything into perspective, and make you focus on the essentials in your life. I ate very little, but when I did get my appetite back, it was only for small quantities of healthy foods. The very thought of junk food was repulsive. I lost 10 pounds.
I also cut out the futile luxuries of perfectionism and anxiety, in which my mind had been indulging when it had more energy. All the focus was on resting, being kind to myself, and feeling better. Everything else was on indefinite hold.
I had to give up my spot in my scuba diving class. It seemed somehow ironic to me that of all the things that could have happened to prevent me from taking this class, pneumonia would stand in my way. How in the world did I catch pneumonia? Where did it come from? Then I started examining the possible “larger meaning”: is this a sign that I shouldn’t learn to scuba dive? If “everything happens for a reason,” what was the reason behind this? Is some greater power telling me, a 54-year-old teacher and mother of three, recently laid off of my job, that I should trim down my aspirations of exploration and self-fulfillment and stick to a boring routine with no surprises?
Now that my delirium has calmed down, I am somewhat humbler. I am really grateful for being healthy and for being able to do things I enjoy. Some of those things are as mundane as making apple streudel or painting the trim on the outside of my house. Or even just cleaning my house. Or calling friends and catching up. Or thinking of how to put together a new blog post.
The most useful thing that pneumonia gave me was an opportunity to rest and just to feel the value of repose. While I was ill, I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Happy,” about what makes people … you guessed it … happy. It pointed to a syndrome in Japan where the work ethic is so strong that many have lost the ability to be happy; the extreme manifestation of this work obsession is a phenomenon known as karoshi, which literally means “death from overwork.” This has become an epidemic in Japan, where support groups are sprouting up everywhere for the wives and families of those who have literally worked themselves to death. I was fortunate to be shown so clearly the importance of balance between work, play, and rest. By contrast, the Harvard researchers studying happiness found that, after basic needs are met, money does not contribute to happiness. Some of the things that contribute most to a person’s happiness, they say, are intrinsic rewards found through relaxation and meditation; engagement in activities of self-enrichment and learning; and helping others. And a key factor in all “happy” people, they concluded, is being part of a supportive social or family group.
So the question remains: will I sign up for another scuba class? Part of me says, “Yes, by all means, go for it!” Another part of me says, “Make sure you’re ready and have the energy before you commit.” A third part of me is still wondering if I “dare.” I am going to meditate on the question, while engaging in activities I enjoy, as I continue to help, and be enriched by, my friends and family members.
All the while, I will continue to monitor my own happiness quotient. If I am content with my decisions and my actions, then I will consider myself to be a success, regardless of what I accomplish or do not accomplish.
Thank you, pneumonia, for letting me see things more clearly (sorry if I sound like Jimmy Fallon!).