Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Running, symptoms, and lessons from 2010

The idea of a long run midmorning on New Year’s Day was appealing. I thought about how good it would feel to get out into the fresh cool air and meditate on the year ahead: set goals for myself, imagine possible outcomes, focus on areas for improvement.

Instead, I found myself reflecting on the ways in which an unexpected situation – namely, the sense that I had an incipient sinus infection – served as a metaphor for the year that had just ended.

The sense that a sinus infection was about to take hold over me was unpleasant in itself but didn’t really put a damper on my wish to hit the six-mile route I’d already planned out in my mind as I indulged in a little sleeping-in that morning, in the wake of New Year’s Eve festivities.

And besides, I didn’t have a full-blown infection, just the approximate symptoms of one.

So I set out. But it wasn’t as much fun as I anticipated, because even though I was feeling generally fine, I couldn’t stop worrying. What if it got a lot worse? What if after a couple of miles I started to feel really uncomfortable? What if it turned into actual pain? What if I developed a fever?

But you don’t even have a sinus infection, I told myself. You just have symptoms. You’re probably absolutely fine. Besides, it’s a New Year’s Day, so just be brave. This isn’t like the middle of the week when you can call your doctor and ask her to prescribe antibiotics just in case things get worse. Sure, you could put in a call to the practice, but it’s closed for the holiday: you’d have to wait for a call back from the covering physician, and explain your symptoms, and figure out where and when you wanted to pick up the prescription…that’s way too complicated. Just keep running and stop worrying about it.

I reminded myself again that I didn’t have an infection, just symptoms.
And then I told myself that my worrying was ruining what was supposed to be a peaceful, meditative, six-mile run on a mild sunny New Year’s Day.

At that point I started to feel better. I stopped worrying and the symptoms lessened. I started to enjoy the sunshine, the scenery, the tranquility of having the road almost to myself on this holiday morning, the sight of a snowman in a front yard, a red-tailed hawk circling over a field, the aroma of baking from a house I passed.

Then, inevitably, I noticed how many similarities existed between my condition on that run and much of what had transpired in my life in 2010. It was almost as if the incipient sinus infection stood as a symbol for lessons I may or may not have assimilated, but certainly had plenty of opportunities to do so, throughout the previous twelve months.

For example:

• I nearly ruined my chance to enjoy what I was doing because I was too busy worrying about what might happen in the near future. Even though I was feeling fine, the prospect of hypothetical problems kept me from focusing on what was actually happening.

• At the same time, I tried to tell myself that what all signs pointed to couldn’t possibly be true. Although I had the three or four primary symptoms of a sinus infection, I kept telling myself I didn’t have one, rather than accepting the fact that most of the time, if enough signs are pointing in the same direction, chances are it’s an accurate reflection of the truth.

• And finally, there was the conclusive realization that it was just good sense to take precautionary measures. Even if I was bound and determined to will myself back to perfect health and refuse to admit the possibility that an infection might still be brewing, trying to reach the physician on call at my doctor’s office and asking for a prescription for antibiotics early in the day rather than waiting until the middle of the night was a sensible solution.

Inexplicably, by the end of the day I felt all better. The symptoms were gone. And that was great; I was delighted to have started the new year on such a promising note. But if I needed one last review of the lessons of 2010, I’d had that as well. Don’t worry so much. When irrefutable information presents itself, use that to draw logical conclusions. And pursue sensible measures to improve the chances of a positive outcome.

Illness as metaphor: a peculiar phenomenon indeed, but I paid attention. And I very much hope not to make any of the same mistakes in 2011. Here’s to wisdom. And health.

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