We may be luckier than we think
Feb. 28, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

The victim trudged wearily on, each step an effort. Every part of his body ached, as if he had been trampled by a herd of unusually ill-mannered wildebeest, and he struggled to keep his itchy, dry eyes open and focussed on the path ahead.

He paused for a moment to rest. As he did so, his body was racked by another violent paroxysm which sent a sharp pain from head to toe and started the bleeding anew. He idly dabbed at the blood with a sodden rag, and continued on his journey.

It seemed that he had been trudging along for ages, and yet his destination was no nearer.

After an eternity, he reached the oasis. His chest was heavy and his breathing was labored. He ran his desiccated tongue over his dry, cracked lips, but there was no moisture left.

He opened the steel door and took out the precious aluminum water bottle. Carefully, he unscrewed the cap and raised it to his lips. He could feel the cool liquid trickling down his parched and swollen throat, but it did nothing to quell his relentless thirst.

He replaced the bottle and prepared to retrace his steps. Again, a violent spasm of coughing shook his body sending shock waves of stabbing pain into all his aching joints.

When he finally fell back onto his bunk, he checked the time. It seemed like he had lain there for days, but he was shocked to see that only a couple of hours had passed.

He closed his swollen eyes, and reflected that he didn’t much care if he lived or died, as long as the end came quickly.

The victim in the above narrative was not the survivor of a plane crash in a desert, nor one who had sustained an attack by marauders. It is a reasonably accurate description of the way I felt when I got up to get a drink in the middle of a recent night while I was afflicted with a touch of a cold.

The bleeding, incidentally, was real, no doubt the result of the cold symptoms, combining with the dry weather to initiate a persistent and annoying nosebleed.

I did manage to pull through that ordeal, and what struck me the most about this little incident was this: If something as minor as the common cold can make us feel so rotten, how do people who face real challenges cope?

I refer now to the people who are victims of major injuries, or chronic illnesses that last weeks, months, or even years, not just a couple of days.

These might include children with cancer, or veterans who return from a tour of duty after being maimed and broken by an improvised explosive device while serving their country.

It might include those who suffer from a disease for which there is no cure, or a condition that is not yet fully understood.

How do people face each day knowing that they will never get better, and the way they feel now is about as good as they will ever feel? How do people manage chronic pain?

If the way some of us react to the most minor discomfort is any guide, one presumes that being faced with a chronic situation would present a rather bleak outlook.

It is clear, though, that humans are remarkably resilient, and people in these situations somehow manage to come up with coping strategies that allow them to get on with their lives.

I believe that those who are successful follow a pattern similar to survivors of any traumatic change in situation.

It begins with acceptance. The victim must come to terms with his new situation, face the reality of their condition, and find constructive ways to deal with it.

These victims may not be able to change their condition, but they do seem to find ways to regain control.

These may include talking about their condition, getting rid of any feelings of grief they may have, and coming up with a plan for the future.

I admire these survivors, and I applaud their strength and courage.

But, while they provide a great inspiration, they probably won’t keep the rest of us from complaining.

It is not so much that we feel sorry for ourselves (although some do), it is more that complaining helps us in some small way to feel better.

We have all known people who enlarge any minor discomfort into a major drama.

You know the type of person to which I refer; these are the characters who get a speck of grit in their eye and wail like a banshee, claiming that they have been blinded.

Or, perhaps they get a paper cut, and scream as though their arm has just been torn off.

For some people, complaining about life’s little discomforts makes them feel better. For others, it may be a way to get attention.

I get through most of the small stuff without complaint (at least without excessive complaint) but, as the narrative above suggests, I am not much good when in the grips of the common cold.

In those cases, my energy drains away more quickly than bath water down the pipe, and the question of life and death becomes a matter of some indifference.

We enjoy complaining, and perhaps having a little moan about our misfortunes can be therapeutic, but in the big picture, most of us probably don’t have much to complain about.

There is always someone worse off than we are.

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