By Robert Levithan
Originally published on Advocate.com February 28 2011 6:50 PM ET
I’m a petty, ungrateful, sniveling whiner. Reduced to self-pity by the flu. The co-diagnosis is entitlement. My perception has become so skewed that I perceive my high-octane life as a right — rather than a privilege. Whether I write this in dead seriousness or mere ironic dudgeon, how absurd my plaint!
Memory (probably inaccurate) tells me that I handled life-threatening illness with more grace. Why the big deal over the flu: I have had to cancel workshops; I have missed Broadway performances and publication parties. I have had to ask for help from friends and neighbors and colleagues. So?
There is a wise spiritual teacher who frames life’s challenges as ‘inconvenient’: I have been down-sized: Inconvenient. My child is in jail without bail: Very inconvenient. I have inoperable cancer: Very, very inconvenient. On this scale, the flu is a bad hair day.
My mind doesn’t follow this logic all of the time, however. While ill I was haunted by visions of a sudden decline into older age: Alone, living in a 4th floor walk-up, unable to care for my dog and feeling marginalized. The New 60 is based on taking those stairs two at a time and having what a friend described the other night as “ the best social network of anyone I know…”. Suddenly 2000 Facebook friends don’t seem as important as a spouse or an elevator.
Life is all perception. Today as my health has rebounded and I am feeling much better. I would like to skip over my less attractive musings of the past week, but they offer yet another fucking opportunity for growth: I am not as at ease with turning 60 as I would like to believe.
When I started writing this column 11 months ago, I think I assumed that by now I would have a new boyfriend, a new loft and a slightly used convertible. I have had a lot of fun this year, so far — traveling and falling in and out of love and lust. I have been expanding the scope of my professional life with this column and other endeavors. And, I have so much more work to do on myself… When I was in graduate school, we were discussing emotional decoys, ways that clients hide their true feelings. My professor gave me a bit of gold: “You, Levithan,” he said “have a very interesting decoy: You reveal so much that what remains hidden is difficult to see.” Bingo!
I have few qualms about revealing my story in all of its messy glory. Underneath, however, I am very, very private. The vault is closed — to me as well as others. Turning 60 has begun to spring the lock. After all, what am I waiting for?
I have to admit that my life is mostly wonderful, and I also can admit that I have moments when I feel such isolation, that I dull this pain with work and thrills. Recently, one of my doctor’s was asking me a series of life-style related questions and I was struck by how they revealed an underlying addiction: Risk. I am a risk junkie. I ride a Segway without a helmet, I love extreme sports and I love to take risks with my heart. I embrace extreme physical pleasure. By working with people in crisis, I keep the day-to-day stakes high. What I fear is boredom.
The challenge of course is to differentiate between quiet contentment and boredom. One is peace, the other is hell, and my inability to discern the difference has become a handicap.
Our culture encourages distraction. It is not easy to get quiet and meet the demons, to observe the mind—and to realize that we are not the chatter. Illness forced me to listen, to hear the craziness and to offer yet another chance to remember that I am not my thoughts or my feelings — that I am actually fine, with the flu--within the existential dilemma of being human.
When I was facing death from AIDS, I was often at my best. I need to go back to loving my mortality…to balancing my desire to live healthily til 90 with the very real possibility that this might be my last year on Planet Earth.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference…