My wife and I have both been sick with a particularly nasty cold for the last two weeks. I'm almost fully recovered, except for a scratchy throat and an ongoing sleep deficit, but it was the worst I've felt in years, and my wife is still fighting a bad ear infection and a persistent cough on top of the cold. But all the enforced downtime did yield some unexpected insights; it's modest compensation for our misery, but at this point I'll take what I can get. So what'd I learn?
1) I really miss Martinis, exercise and being outdoors.
Someone once wrote that we're attracted to intense flavors that assault our senses--like wasabi, or habañeros, or gin--because consuming them is a way of affirming life in the face of death. Too much could kill us, but a small dose allows us to feel a little more alive. And I certainly feel that way about Martinis--except when I'm really sick, and then the mere thought of gin is unpalatable. The larger point is that being sick has left me keenly aware of how much pleasure I take in good food and drink, and over the past two weeks I've had plenty of nourishing comfort food but nothing I'd call a great meal, and I've gone through oceans of herbal tea without a single Martini in sight. I'm eagerly anticipating the cheerful sound of a cocktail shaker, the smell of a well-seasoned steak or a chicken roasting in the oven, and the luxury of lingering over a meal with Amy.
As I discussed in a recent post, exercise is essential to my happiness. I usually work out five days a week, but in the last three weeks I've worked out exactly three times--and just once in the past 19 days. And not surprisingly, I'm miserable and demoralized. My next visit to the gym is going to feel like a kid's trip to Disneyland.
My wife and I moved to San Francisco right after college on a lark, and I never expected us to settle down here. There are many reasons why we grew to call the Bay Area home, but if I had to choose one, it would be the entrancing beauty of places like Briones Regional Park, where Amy and I spent the last day of 2008. I'm thankful that our apartment looks out on the greenery of Park Presidio, but it's no substitute for a actual walk in a wide open space.
2) I don't do stillness well...and perhaps I should find a way.
I enjoy solitude--given the people-intensive nature of my work, I find that I need to be alone regularly to recharge. But my solitude is a usually a fairly active state--I'm always doing something, even if it's not necessarily productive--and I often find it difficult to simply be still.
So one of the hardest aspects of being sick over the past few weeks has been an enforced state of stillness. And I wasn't merely sitting quietly at home: because the illness was also affecting my eyes there were long stretches when I couldn't even read a book or look at my laptop--I couldn't do anything but sit there and be. And it was hard work!
I realized that one reason I enjoy exercising, particularly hiking and long walks, is that those activities allow me to find stillness at a deeper level while burning off all my superficial energy. But I also began to wonder whether my restless, relentless nature--which has so often served me well in life--is also getting in my way at times and preventing me from being more reflective or from simply being still.
I was deeply struck by Bill George's recent remark that a commitment to an ongoing practice that "causes you to go inside yourself and reflect on what's important," such as meditation, yoga, tai chi or journaling, is an essential factor in a leader's development. I suspect that I'd do well to complement my ongoing commitments to be active with a parallel commitment to be still, in one way or another, on a regular basis.
3) I'm less ready for old age--and mortality--than I thought I was.
I'll be 42 this year--too young to feel truly old, but old enough to no longer feel young. As I've become more physically active over the past year, I've grown well-acquainted with a wide range of aches and pains. And at the same time I've come to feel more at ease with myself, more accepting of who I am (and who I'm not) and what I've accomplished (and what I've failed to accomplish) than I ever expected. This feeling's not complete, of course--but I've been surprised by its depth and its persistence.
It's not that I felt I'd completed my mission on this planet, so to speak, or that I'd grown weary of sensual pleasures (see above), but in my more serene moments, I felt...prepared to grow old, and, as an inevitable consequence, prepared to die.
Unless I'm lucky enough to meet with a sudden and painless end, old age will bring with it a host of ailments and indignities that'll make the past two weeks seem like a vacation in the Caribbean. It's going to get ugly. And painful. And lonely. And I'm not ready for that, not by a long shot.
The changes I've felt and adjusted to in my early middle age are merely the absence of youth, the dawning awareness that my health and vigor and independence are gifts, not entitlements, and they can be taken away with shocking speed. And these changes are just the beginning--who knows what's to come?
I'm going to have to get my head around that before I can truly say I'm prepared for anything of consequence.