I smile remembering the familiar scene: Donna situated in front of the 5 foot long exam table in her oversized wheelchair with her oversized body spilling out the sides, the drone of her supplemental oxygen interrupted with her periodic wheeze. Her daughter seated in the one additional chair provided in the 10 foot by 10 foot exam room. There was exactly one space for me to pull up my stool and join the intimate huddle to discuss her recent hospital stay and home health needs.
I’m about 3 feet from Donna’s face, looking a good 10 years older than the middle age her chart displays. A grayish hue underlies her pale and wrinkled skin. Her dark chin stubble intermittently dispersed with one long prominent hair just left of center. The clear tubing poking into her nostrils delivering just enough oxygen to keep her organs running, for now. Donna was living on borrowed time.
I had known Donna about 9 years. She had never been well by my definition of the word. She had smoked heavily her whole life. She was about 150 pounds overweight, limiting her mobility most of her adult life, culminating in a near-reliance on her wheel chair. She lived off of soda and processed foods. She took two handfuls of medication every day to keep her heart pumping; to prevent another stroke or heart attack; to keep her blood sugar in check; to prevent her kidneys from failing; to keep fluid from building up on her lungs and in her legs.
She was happy as a clam, and I didn’t know what to do with that information.
Her version of happy was a version I had never considered.
I envisioned myself in her situation, and I could only picture misery. Disappointment. Sadness. But she was none of those things. And for this I was confused and unsettled.
Every time I saw her I was acutely aware of my own cognitive dissonance.
In an effort to understand and appease my discomfort I decided to take a closer look and identified some nicely packaged belief systems that I was butting up against:
- Humans should want to live their best lives.
- A best life includes physical and mental well-being, as so much as those are in our control.
I was assuming she was not living her best life (what does it mean to live our “best life”?); that she was not wanting to live her best life (need that be everyone’s goal?); that better health was in her control (how much is in our control?).
I was judging her.
Judging her felt awful.
Yet I couldn’t seem to stop wanting more for her. Or rather, wanting her to want more for her life. Didn’t she want to lose weight? Stop smoking? Have a more active life?
As I got to know her and realized how content she was in her life, in her own skin, I still found myself asking her questions like “are you happy with your health?” “What exactly are your health goals?”
Why was I so uncomfortable with her being happy with her life?
So I dove deeper and identified another belief I was butting up against:
- Not aiming to live our best lives leads to unnecessary disease states which is a drain on the healthcare system, costing dollars we can’t afford.
I was assuming her disease states were “unnecessary” (who gets to decide that?); that there was something she could’ve done to have had fewer health problems (can any of us have done something other than what we did in any given moment?); that her healthcare cost more than it “should” (does mine cost more than it “should”?); that we taxpayers couldn’t afford her healthcare (???).
Judging her felt awful.
Yet I couldn’t stop wanting her to want to be different that she was. Why was I still so uncomfortable with her being happy, just how she was?
One more dive uncovered these beliefs:
- The pursuit of living our best life is meaningful and valuable and necessary for the purposeful evolution of the human race.
- This purposeful evolution includes becoming better caretakers of ourselves and of this planet such that we improve our own and future generations of humans’ quality and quantity of life.
I was assuming she hadn’t been or wasn’t evolving to contribute to the betterment of the planet and of the human race.
I hope no one is keeping score of my evolution and contribution to the betterment of the planet and the human race.
Yet I still wanted Donna to want to be be a non-smoker, 150 pounds lighter, off supplemental oxygen and ten of her medications.
What bothers us most in others is a reflection of what we stifle or least like in ourselves.
I stated that like it’s a fact. I don’t know if it is, but it’s hard for me to find evidence to the contrary in my life.
I have a track record of always wanting to be different than I am. Better than I am.
I’m a self-flagellator. Perfectionism at it’s finest: The perpetual self-rejection of who and where I am now in pursuit of some fantasized nebulous future in which I am able to accept myself fully as I am.
I was uncomfortable with her accepting herself for who she was, something I’ve found to be so elusive in my own life.
Though her borrowed time elapsed a few years ago, I still think of her often. I think of the beliefs I uncovered from knowing her and how she helped shift me away from my black and white thinking tendencies toward more nuanced world views. I think of how she has led me to think more deeply about well-being and the role our healthcare system should play in such; of how healthcare is paid for in this country; of the concept of free will and if it just might be a mirage.
And as for living my best life? I haven’t quite defined that—nor am I sure it’s a legit concept worth defining—but if it is, I know it entails (and perhaps has the pre-requisite of) dropping my self-rejection in exchange for accepting myself for who and where I am.
Donna? She had already figured that out.