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What This Joke Taught Me About Life With Illness

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My grandpa used to tell this joke: A man had one hair. He shampooed it, conditioned it, combed it and daily arranged it. One morning when he woke up, the hair was on his pillow. “Well,” he said, “Now I’m bald.”

That man, if we were to take him seriously, had mastered the art of appreciating what he had. Instead of complaining about thousands of hairs he didn’t have, he took meticulous care of his one hair until he had enjoyed it for the last time. Furthermore, we can only assume that his arrangements were as stylish as could be.

Now that I have ruined the joke, let’s talk about chronic illness. For most of my life I watched my dad fight a long, awful battle with MS. If I learned anything from that, it was that life isn’t fair. Sometimes we lose pieces of our life that we love.

I’m in a different situation, functioning well, but with a condition that isn’t understood well enough to give me a clear prognosis. No one can tell me what will happen next. I try to educate myself, but the internet is scary. In trying to learn how to best take care of myself, I’ve had to shoulder the burden of knowing more and more about how delicate the human body is. I try not to think about what could go wrong for me, but that’s not easy when the smallest symptoms are a reminder of all that is already wrong.

As a defense mechanism against endless worry, I’ve decided to adopt the one-haired man’s philosophy. I’m not bald until I’ve lost my last hair. I don’t want to live under the shadow of what might happen tomorrow, or 20 years from now. When I catch too many worries stewing in my mind, I try to force myself to look at my symptoms for what they are today – not what they might become later. This doesn’t make the bigger problems go away. It doesn’t make me feel any different physically. But, as for today, I will take care of my one hair. I will lean on my faith in a good God. I won’t live buried in fear. I will enjoy what I can do. I will be thankful for all the good health I have. That’s the goal anyway. I’ll let you know how it works out.

As for this man, had he been worried about losing his one hair, he would not have enjoyed the hair so much. He could have said, “Why bother?” He had to have known he was going to lose that hair. Realistically, we will all face some sort of degeneration through natural aging. If you’re like me, you’ve probably noticed that chronic health problems amplify our awareness of that process. We feel it happening, and that can discourage us from taking care of today.

Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom wisely said it this way, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” Yes, degeneration is inevitable. Instead of worrying about it, we would do better to milk the goodness out of today while we can.

For anyone dealing with illness, the future is an added burden on top of today’s challenges. It can be hard to keep going through the basics like the man did: Shampoo. Condition. Comb. Arrange… Especially knowing the hair might fall out tomorrow.

Health problems bring so many kinds of negativity to us. The losses hurt. The weakness hurts. The pain hurts, obviously. Pain and weakness can tempt us to devalue our own selves, and to say, “Why bother.”

We can’t always change the facts. We may be facing bleak, difficult times. More pain. More change. More loss. The fears and feelings that go along with that are very real, and heavy. But with whatever good is left to be grasped, we can and should.

My dad had an almost superhuman ability to enjoy what he could of his life, even when he was struggling. He learned how to maximize the good things. If you asked him, he almost always said he had a good day. This was not because his day was easy or painless, but because he had found the good in it.

If we remember the one-haired man’s story, we will face each day as if life itself is scarce, fragile, and infinitely precious. We will not treat today as less important because it is flawed. The very opposite – we will treat it as the most precious thing we have, because it is all we have. Today will deserve our most tender care and attention. We will not allow the knowns or unknowns of the future to rob today of its strength. We will react to today. Be thankful for today. Take care of today.

Getty Image by Wavebreakmedia

Originally published: July 20, 2018
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