On Wasps and Wild Theories

On Wasps and Wild Theories

In early August I was stung on the back of my left thigh while I was biking. I don’t know whether it was the type of wasp or the fast-pumping blood as I quickly pedaled the remaining 40 minutes home to sign on for a work meeting, but my whole upper leg swelled a hot, angry, itchy red that tightened my muscles for days and just fully receded earlier this week.

Yesterday, as we were walking down the middle of the street in a residential section of sleepy Alexandria, I got stung again. On the back of my left thigh, inches from the last stabbing. And I was, again, MINDING MY OWN FUCKING BUSINESS, WASP!

Pain can send you to weird places. The first place I went was Angryland, but the first place most unpleasant experiences take me is Angryland. It’s my home away from home, but it’s abusive, and years of meditation have helped me to pack up and get the hell out of there quickly under most circumstances. I felt like I was clear of the place within a minute of the searing pain kicking in, but really I was still kicking rocks out on the grounds, quickly transitioned from pure anger to angry fear. Why was this happening to me? I joked to my partner that the first stinger had planted a homing device in my thigh that was beckoning nearby wasps. He asked if I had recently bought a 5G phone. But I really was thinking similar thoughts, and the joke was an attempt to hide what I knew was irrational. Self-pity pumped through me with the next wave of sharp pain. Why me? What had I done to deserve this? Nothing, I knew. That was ridiculous. (I refuse to buy into that privileged Buddhist line of thinking.) But I still found myself looking for a reason, a rationale.

I caught myself before I’d gone too far down that path, because I recognized something I’ve long criticized in others: the imposition of a simple, but false logic on a series of random events. It’s that kind of thinking that both leads individuals to believe that their god chose them because they happened to survive a catastrophic event or two, or that the US is teeming with “reverse racism” because a BIPOC person was chosen over a White guy for a job or two. It is the kind of thinking that leads QAnon followers to find meaning in everything from the Trump’s lies to Trump’s ties. They’re scared, they feel vulnerable, and they want to believe there is order to the universe, even to the point of inventing more chaos (Democrats eating children?) upon which order will be imposed.

I am susceptible to this kind of thinking. Beyond the universal human predilection for pattern-seeking as a way to simplify life and save energy, I spent years dissecting works of literature for themes, metaphors, patterns. I am an analyst as much as I am anything. But I have to accept the likely fallacy of any of my assumptions, and the impact of that failure is far more consequential in life than in the study of 20th century American literature. I have to ground myself in the facts as I can reasonably verify them and find some sources I can trust to deliver those facts to me. Otherwise, it’s too easy to dissolve into despair and cynicism. Whether that’s justified or not, it’s not the way I want to live, because it leaves me isolated, helpless, or both.

So. I was stung by two waspy things in more or less the same spot within 3 weeks of each other. It’s weird, but it isn’t supernatural or unprecedented. It’s just hot and itchy and sucky. Like some other things, and not like many different things.

Tu Cancer es Mi Cancer

You have a friend with cancer, let’s say breast cancer because it seems both more common and less scary than others (just lop it off, right?). It was caught early and it seems like she’s going to be fine, if breastless. She’s not, like, your best friend, so this isn’t a direct hit on your life. But she’s close enough that you can’t dismiss it as another inevitable, anonymous cancer story. You truly care about her. You bring food and offer support and “like” or “cry” or “anger” all her facebook posts. You are not a Bad Person.

But she’s not what you think about at 2am, staring at the ceiling. You think about You. Specifically, You in contrast with her. You start to construct a questionnaire, like those at the doctor’s office that tell you whether you’re an alcoholic. Yours is something like this:

  • Are you older or younger than her?
  • Did she smoke? Do you?
  • Is she nicer than you?
  • Does she drink? A lot? How much less than you?
  • Would you describe her as a “positive person”? Are you?
  • What’s her medical history? How healthy are you?
  • Does she meditate? for how long? Does she seem enlightened? More than You?
  • Does she exercise? What kind?
  • Where did she grow up? Was it on a nuclear test site? Wasn’t there a paint manufacturer around the corner when you were a kid? Was this before they banned lead? Why don’t you ever see those neighbors on facebook!?

And you think you can take all your answers and hers, give them each a number, calculate a cancer score for each of you, and objectively determine whether you are more or less likely to get cancer than she is. Then think of ways to dramatically derail your life so you can beat those odds.

But it’s all bullshit. This is the story we tell ourselves. It’s a lot like our success story, our ideas of the right and wrong things to do to lead us to the desired conclusion. It’s magical thinking, and it’s utterly unhelpful. It saps energy and presence and eats away at you. Of course there are proven behaviors that should reduce risk, but that’s not what this is about. This is about constructing a story against which you can praise or blame yourself and chart your future – a way to give yourself control over something that is essentially out of your control.

Crafted after your scary health diagnosis, this magical storytelling is worse than unhelpful, it’s destructive. Blaming yourself for your affliction is, first, untrue (because there is no free will, folks – your cancer is the product of your genetics, the block you grew up on, the people you’ve known, and the behavior of every atom in the universe which crafted your inevitable journey toward every single thing you’ve ever done); and second, it’s adding insult to injury. Even if you do believe you were responsible, what does that matter now? It helps nothing. The post-diagnosis should be all healing and living and decision making and all that fun shit. When it comes down to it, Your Cancer is not about you and your concept of self. But even more than that, Her Cancer is not About You.

Get off it. Be a friend. Get over yourself. I mean, it’s normal to think this way, but stop now. It’s totally normal to turn your friend’s cancer into your rumination fantasy, right?

There’s no way I’m the first one to do this, right?

Hello? Is this thing on?

Of Mindfulness and Magic

I studied my forehead like I’d done almost every morning for the last year, observing closely just how much the scar between my eyebrows had faded, or if it had gotten worse, and then feeling a frustration rise up in my throat, a tightening of my neck muscles as I remembered the moment when I endured the injury that gave me the scar: cutting across a parking lot and walking headlong into a wire stretched so taut it was like walking into a brick archway. Continue reading “Of Mindfulness and Magic”