By Riyad A. Shahjahan
“Pain can be a path to body knowing and self-centering like no other” (Donna King)
I naively thought I was in control of life until a few weeks ago. My semester was going well. I already had a well-developed semester plan. I planned weekly on Sundays, and wrote every work day. Everything collapsed once I became sick a few weeks ago. Our four-year-old daughter got Bronchitis. While she was getting better slowly, my partner and I contracted the virus and became really ill at the same time. We were dysfunctional for the entire two weeks.
Even though I usually accept the fact that life happens, the unexpected long-term sickness made a huge impact. I lost complete control over my life. It took a toll on my physical and mental health. I had a hard time getting out of the rut. I felt behind in many tasks. I was striving to catch up, but my body told me that it wasn’t possible. “Wait,” it said. My mind became anxious and I heard many negative stories including: “do I belong here in the academy?” “I’m going up for tenure next year. I can’t afford to be sick in this busy term,” and “How will I ever catch up?” Receiving frequent work emails only made me feel frustrated and angry at my condition. I completely lost my wisdom – I started to panic.
Reflecting on what happened to me and how I navigated it, here are five lessons I gained:
1. I needed self-compassion
When I didn’t accept what was happening to me (my illness and resultant fatigue), I was increasingly frustrated with everything around me, including myself. I harshly judged myself with narratives like: “I am not strong enough.” “Why did I get sick like this? Why now?” Instead, what I needed was self-compassion. Kristin Neff suggests that we take a self-compassion break. This has three important steps: 1) acknowledge our suffering; 2) accept that suffering is a part of life; and 3) be kind to ourselves. In retrospect, this self-compassion was a key to beginning the healing process and becoming more present with what I was going through. As Donna King (2012) reminds us, I needed to let go and accept: “Freedom from suffering comes from total involvement in simply being with what is—and in constantly letting go of our attachment to having things go a certain way” (p. 56).
2. I needed patience
Self-compassion allowed me to be more patient with my conditions and let go. I eventually told myself I should focus on one small task and trust the process. As Kabat-Zinn (2013) puts it: “To be patient is simply to be completely open to each moment, accepting it in its fullness, knowing that … thing can only unfold in their own time” (p. 24). I slowly shifted away from trying to tackle the huge pile in front of me in a day or so. While I waited, I needed faith that the universe is indeed friendly and will take care of things just as it has in the past. I will be alright.
3. I needed to assess and adjust my schedule
My regular schedule became useless because my body simply couldn’t cooperate. I needed to assess and adjust my schedule given my health (see Rocquemore, 2010). First, I became more realistic by cutting down the number of daily tasks and including more breaks between tasks, and began to map it into my weekly calendar. I reminded myself that my body was still recovering and I did not have the same energy that I used to have. Second, I started with tasks that were small and easy. Getting rid of them from my plate quickly made me feel better. And then I celebrated each task completion by taking a break or giving myself a treat. Third, I had to lower my standard in my tasks wherever I could. After my schedule was adjusted (and more humane) and completed some tasks, I began to ease the tension in my body and started to become more hopeful.
4. I needed a community of support
Reaching out to people for help was also crucial. My partner and I asked our friends to bring food for us and to pick up our son from school. We were grateful for people’s willingness to help us. Asking people for help by delegating tasks was a key to adjusting my schedule that had to be realistic. My self-compassion reminded me that I deserved and needed to accept help.
5. I needed to center self-care
Maintaining self-care is so obvious, yet it is easy to forget in an outcome-oriented society (Shahjahan, 2015). One of the reasons it took me so long to recover was that I ignored what my body was telling me. For instance, while sick, I had to teach a class in the evening. I just wanted to push through it partly because I didn’t want to deal with rescheduling. When I came back home that day, my temperature was higher. As a result, it took me longer to get back to a normal temperature than my partner, who did not go outside at all. As my body was not functioning properly, my mind was full of anxieties and concerns. I was worried about grading that was due the following week. Implementing the four lessons mentioned above, I eventually listened to my body. I decided not go to work for the next few weeks, but rested at home. I meditated a lot to center, took numerous naps, and calmed myself down.
In short, things happen in life that are out of our control. I know of people who have chronic illness, a family who just lost their house due to fire, and a friend who just got diagnosed with cancer. This experience of being sick for a long time (or external realities) reminded me of my own limitations and taught me humility. I am only a minute human being. But, no doubt, we feel pressure and guilt for slowing down and “not working” in an outcome-oriented society. As Susan Wendell puts it: “Much of the public world is . . . structured as though everyone were physically strong . . . as though everyone could work and play at a pace that is not compatible with any kind of illness or pain, as though no one. . . ever . . . simply needed to sit or lie down” (cited in King, 2012, p. 63). We need to make peace with slowing down and letting go.
In short, I need to keep reminding myself of the lessons described above. I am still a work-in progress!
King, D. (2012). Toward a feminist theory of letting go. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 33(3), 53-70.
Photo credit to Free Photobank