Because of this month’s theme, memento mori (“remember you must die”), I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs of catastrophe: divorce, accident, illness, and the like.
I’m not sure I agree with Tolstoy’s observation, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but it’s true that each of the divorce memoirs I’ve read has described circumstances that are unique and compelling.
Illness memoirs, however, far outnumber those about divorce. I’ve read several cancer memoirs over the last few weeks, and still have many more to go. I dreaded this assignment, but now am fascinated by these accounts.
Research shows that because we measure ourselves relative to others, our happiness is influenced by whether we compare ourselves to people who are better off or worse off. In one study, people’s sense of life satisfaction changed dramatically depending on whether they completed sentences starting “I’m glad I’m not…” or instead, “I wish I were a…” Those making “downward comparisons” (“I’m glad I’m not…”) reported themselves to be much happier than those making upward comparisons.
I’ve discovered the truth of that. Reading about people grappling with terror, pain, and death—even lesser ills, like long waits in doctors’ offices and the indignities of medical procedures—has made me feel tremendously lucky.
Right now, I’m reading Michael Korda’s Man to Man, about his battle with prostate cancer. It has given me a new and intense appreciation for the simple ability to pee in the usual fashion.
Yesterday morning, I felt dejected because I’d re-gained a few pounds. But Korda’s experience made me feel far more kindly to my own body. Instead of feeling dissatisfied, I realize, I should delight in feeling young, vital, healthy, pain-free, fear-free.
That said, I don’t think these memoirs would cheer me if I’d had more brushes with serious illness; I don’t think I’d even be able to stand reading them. They paint a dismal picture.
The Big Man, for one, would never read these books. He’s suffered too many grim experiences in hospitals to want to visit voluntarily, even in imagination.
Childbirth is my only experience with hospitals, and giving birth, though it carries its own fears and discomforts, is thrilling. And although the Big Girl’s arrival was scary—she was induced early, at only 4 pounds, and stayed in Intensive Care for a week—these measures were precautionary; nothing actually went wrong.
I felt a bit guilty about my reaction to the memoirs. Isn’t it wrong to feel…reassured…by these sorrowful events? But I realized that this is exactly what these writers are trying to accomplish. Their common theme is: cherish your health! Appreciate your ordinary life! Other themes: keep up with your doctor’s appointments, don’t ignore big changes in your body, make sure you have good health insurance.
I’m a big believer in clearing clutter. Cleaning a closet is a way to give yourself a boost of energy and serenity—an odd combination, it’s true—in just a few hours. A great source of clutter-clearing inspiration is the blog Neat Living. Today, for example, there’s information about how to something with your precious souvenir T-shirts from twenty years ago besides keep them in a drawer.