Does it take upheaval to wake us up? It can happen any time. It can happen in a pandemic. It can happen as politics go on as usual or not so usual. It can happen as the world swirls in climate chaos. You’ve gone along, existing, for all your years. You’ve thought that life shines. You feel healthy, vibrant, useful to others. You eat kale. You walk daily. You feel empathy for those who are not well, who struggle, who limp. But that’s not you. Sickness happens to ”others.”
Then one day, you pick up your keys and your hand tremors so much that you can’t hold them, or you go blank multiplying 8X5, or your chest hurts and your arms and neck tingle, or you fall, or you cough more than ever with what you labeled a cold. And you think, “This is odd.”
You say, “hmm.”
You know you are fine, because you have always been fine and, of course, fine will last forever. But just to be safe, you call your doctor. She says, “you don’t sound like yourself. Something’s wrong. Go to the ER. Now.”
Never before has someone else had to drive you. The kind, smart ER nurses and skilled, compassionate doctors think your slurred words indicate a stroke. They do a brain CT scan and an MRI. Sure enough, the scans show a stroke. Or your chest cold turns out to be lung cancer.
Or maybe you have your regular yearly physical. Your doctor says, “Your weight is good. You look great. Let’s peek at your chart and your lipid profile. Ohhh. Wow. Your blood pressure is 170/100. Your triglycerides are way high.”
For the first time maybe, you realize your health is not fixed. You are human. You are aging. You now carry the diagnosis, or diagnoses, that killed your grandparents. On this day you realize you have been denying what mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hahn repeats: “I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.”
You have been asleep to these realities. Today you feel humbled. You thought you were invincible, immortal. Now you take medications you never wanted to take. You grumble about that but you begin to accept the truths that life is short, fragile and uncertain, that moments are precious and to savor, that all things come and go, that every minute counts. You remember more often to call your kids, to check in with friends and family. You become willing to let go of what no longer seems important. You say “thank you” more.
You might watch the news or study climate change or nod your head “yes” when you see that Democrats and Republicans are talking to each other, even the teeniest bit. Maybe you double-mask. Whatever you do, you stop putting off until “later” what really matters.
I wonder, can you build a new relationship to life without a crisis? Can we do more than go along, more than exist? Can you cultivate a new gratitude for being alive just because you are alive? Can we collectively become more aware that being human does shine, even with ups and downs? Wakeup call or not, I wonder about staying awake, about not waiting to live, about keeping ourselves from falling back to sleep. Does it have to take a life rearranged to wake us up?