Everyone I know has something hard to live or live with: the everyday heartbreak of going on when a greatly beloved is dead or gone, a scattering of demeaning jobs or not-so-sweet sweethearts, tunnels of depression or roller coasters of anxiety, or chronic illness or cumbersome disabilities. Maybe we’re hard-wired to have an Achilles heel, some weak spot named for Achilles of ancient Greek mythology whose mother, Thetis, dipped him into the Styx river to make him immortal. To keep hold of him, she held him by one heel, which became his vulnerable part.
My Achilles heel is chronic illness, mostly of the sinus-infection-whatever-mystery-virus-is-this-fresh-hell variety. While I’ve struggled since childhood with getting sick more than the average bear, ever since I went through cancer and chemotherapy, this vulnerability has gotten more airtime. I won’t bore you with the long list of conventional, alternative, cutting-edge and/or traditional treatments I’ve sought, and I’m certainly not asking for advice — I have what feels like a good and long-term treatment plan in place now that may lessen the and-she’s-down-again days, and I’m honored to be working with a great integrative physician. But there are days, like this one, when I’m limping around on my Achilles heel.
One problem with vulnerabilities, especially the chronic ones, is that it’s hard to get beyond self-blame, or at least, it’s hard for me. When I get sick, my first impulse is to scan my days for what I did wrong and to feel like I’m failing at life. But this is just the my thinking and thoughts, not reality. What is reality? I’m hardly ever completely sure, which I believe is kind of the essence of intersecting with reality, but I do know that life is far more mysterious than we can fathom. We don’t know what will happen, and by extension, what this symptom or that one truly means all the time. We don’t even know all the details of our life lessons, except that sometimes those lessons are relentless intensives. While I believe very much in the power of healing, and siren song of health, I also know it’s beyond my control to have the ultimate power to fix what ails me, or the world.
Just like I practice the cello, I can keep practicing health like all of us can keep practicing ways to live with our vulnerabilities. Some days, I’ll make a sweet note, and some days, it’ll sound like shit. I can keep aiming toward ideal wholeness, but I have to remember that I’m already whole because being being a little bit broken in some way or another (aka Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in) is what it means to be a whole human.
One of my favorite songs, “That’s What Makes You Strong” by Jessie Winchester, tells us how what makes us weak, what makes us need someone, is what makes us strong. “That’s what moves our souls, and that’s what makes us sing,” the song goes, and I love this version by my friend Kelley Hunt. We are moving mosaics composed of all the pieces, edgy or smooth.
What helps us grow courage and compassion is the everyday Achilles heels of our lives, reminding us that, yes, we are designed by nature to be delicate creatures, and yes, we are also called to work, play and live with the materials life gives us. There never was a river of immortality, just us humans, sharing our stories of falling down and rising down, and in the sharing, remembering that we’re never alone.