Learning how to wrestle

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on September 08, 2017 # Health

The art of living resembles wrestling more than dancing, in as much as it stands prepared and unshaken to meet what comes and what it did not foresee.” -Marcus Aurelius, 170 AD

The above quote comes from the famous Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, from the second century AD. I first came across it soon after I became paralyzed and it has stuck with me all these years. First, it’s an epigram that is easy to remember. That helps. But, also, it invites a completely different way of thinking than the kind of upbeat outlook most of us are told will get us through our traumas. This is not the message of “Be happy, be grateful,” though there is nothing wrong with either. It’s the message of “be on your toes for your next encounter with trouble.”

Few of us are, to quote the sage, “prepared and unshaken” to meet something like the trauma of paralysis or any other life-exploding event. They don’t teach emotional wrestling skills in American schools. Mental toughening is not part of the curriculum, unless you decide to go out for varsity football. That might help some. For me, it only demonstrated what a terrible football player I was and how boring it was to sit on the bench for an entire season. The tough decision I should have made was to quit the team and read more books and chase more girls.

In any case, seeing the world as a series of struggles may sound grim but it does take your mind out of the realm of magic thinking – which is why people play the lottery and admire the rich – and back to the reality of most of our lives. If we anticipate that problems will inevitably and unexpectedly occur, we won’t be completely unhinged when they do. To be prepared takes discipline. In this view, freedom isn’t the abandonment of discipline. Freedom is discipline.

Of course, no one can really be prepared for a Big Kahuna like paralysis or cancer and you’d be a complete loony if you spent much of your precious brain power anticipating such a random occurrence. Not that a lot of people don’t “catastrophize,” or incessantly worry about such stuff, all the time. Before I became paralyzed, I was a class A catastrophizer. I would compulsively spin all kinds of awful scenarios in my head, from embarrassing myself in public to losing my mind and ending up babbling in the corner. Worrying was a habit of mind, like biting your nails is a habit of worry. Then, for all my incessant ruminating, when a real catastrophe occurred – paralysis – I was completely lost at sea. All that fretting was useless. I might as well have been spending that time playing computer solitaire. Both amount to squat.

Learning not to worry, not to catastrophize, is an example, I think, of what Marcus Aurelius means by being prepared and unshaken. You are not inhibited by your projected fears. How do you do that? It’s up to you, but, in my own case, I find discipline to be contagious. Working out, for instance, makes you more mindful of what you’re eating, and both make you more mindful of sleeping well, which loops back to shutting down the compulsion to fret. Or something like that.

This may all sound like stern, Calvinistic poppycock to you, that these Stoics are just trying to take the fun and fantasy out of life and force us all to eat our proverbial peas. There are many countervailing views along the lines of life being one large banquet table and your job is to gorge yourself on its earthly pleasures. In the end, it’s all in your own head. I just know that after I became paralyzed, I began to take all aspects of my life more seriously, including, in the words of self-help fanatic Stuart Smalley, “stinkin’ thinkin’.” And the more self-control I’ve managed to exercise – it’s an endless wrestling match -- the freer I have felt.

Go figure.