You Can’t Always do What you Want
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970’s. There are many things that are emblematic of that time. For me, two big ones are The Rolling Stones, and mosquitos.
The Stones released six albums during that decade. We were big fans. People went to concerts whenever they toured; one friend got a tattoo of the Stone’s logo where the sun (doesn’t usually) shine. We listened and danced and partied to them where and whenever possible: someone’s backyard, a car, and often the woods or an open field of grass, where I would receive innumerable mosquito bites, and have a day or two of intense swelling and itching, as the booby prize for my night of fun.
From the time I can remember, when summer came around and the mosquitos would swarm the area, I would get bitten whenever I would go outside. There was a creek right next to the house where I grew up where they bred. These were the days when a municipal truck would drive around the neighborhood weekly, spraying DEET into the air, in an attempt to control the mosquito population. While that probably inflicted some serious damage on the people in the neighborhood, it did not appear to curtail the mosquitos at all. Some people did not get bitten, and many who did, felt only a slight reaction to the bites. Not me. Wherever a mosquito flew, it seemed to find me, and feed off me. No part of my body was spared. The unbearable itch that would creep all over me would provoke intense scratching in a furious attempt to stop the itching, which of course, never worked. Scratch or not, I would swell up like a balloon with each bite they delivered. It was not a pretty picture.
The obvious thing to do would be to stay inside. I tried this periodically, and reluctantly. I was embarrassed; I felt like a baby, and left out of things my friends were doing. I did not want to have limitations. Or worse, let people know I had them. I wanted to be like everyone else (Its not like everyone else really was like everyone else – but that is another post). Members of my family would disapprovingly tell me to stop scratching, as though that was easy to do. They had no idea what I was going through. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t tolerate the itching, and embarrassed that I walked around all summer with scabs that resulted from my scratching. So, I went outside as often as possible, secretly trying to time my outings with the time of day with the least amount of mosquitos hovering around me. Of course, they attacked each time anyway. And, I itched, and scratched, and itched and scratched, every summer.
I was reminded of this on a recent vacation, when I booked a stay on a beautiful Caribbean Island, and a nighttime kayaking tour of a famous and beautiful Bio-Bay that illuminates with green-blue microorganisms, produced by the surrounding flora and a break in the surface of the water. A protected wildlife reserve, it had all of the appeal of a glorious vacation scientific/nature adventure, right up my alley. Or so I wished.
En route to the tour, my partner read that the alternative name of the bay was Mosquito Bay and suggested we reconsider our plan. I’d worn the bug repellant clothing I’d taken on a prior trip to El Salvador, and covered my skin with a natural “bug juice” that the tour company provided. I thought I’d “covered” it and that the amount of damage inflicted by mosquitos would be minimal. I shot down my partner’s concern about my ability to handle the bugs, and insisted that it would be fine.
The Bio-Bay was beautiful. Thanks to the instruction we received from friends we met on the tour, we paddled around the bay with the 19 kayak team for an hour and a half, the water glowing with an amazing blue-green with each paddle stroke or hand dip into it, like a liquid fireworks display. The sky, unencumbered by development and human made light, was awash with stars. Glorious. I felt a bite or two around my nose, and one on my elbow, and thought that was it, and not bad for an hour and half on the water.
I woke up in the middle of that night with a strange but familiar discomfort, but went back to sleep, only to awaken in the morning to my eyes and the bridge of my nose being completely swelled up and over. I am not talking about a little puffy. My left eye was barely visible; it was hard to distinguish between what should have been my eye socket and the bridge of my nose, and well, you get the picture. I had been bitten multiple times in the corners and around both of my eyes, and was, like clockwork, having a very strong and very painful allergic reaction. This had happened before: at least twice that I can remember.
Yet, I had decided, and acted like I was like everyone else. I completely ignored what I know to be true of myself.
Why? I believe it was my ego.
What I wanted to do did not include the person I am. I had not reconciled the fact that I have always had, and still have, a very sensitive immune system, and am VERY allergic to mosquitos. I was not accepting that I have this limitation, or condition, or particular sensitivity – whatever you want to call it. I needed vacation, and I wanted to do some of the fun things that people do on vacations.
My ego – my own personal mosquito
My ego – my need for a more perfect version of myself with no allergies to anything – drove me to do something I had no business doing. And, like most things that are all about ego, it bit me in the behind, and in this instance, the eyes and the nose.
We searched high and low for some emergency medicine and finally found some. It became clear that I was not in serious physical danger and the pain and the swelling began to subside after a couple of pretty scarey and uncomfortable days. And, then, I laughed at myself. And, we laughed at me, a lot, very lovingly of course.
My swollen and itchy face was a reminder to me that what I needed was to stay out of places that I cannot be in; that unchecked, my ego will drive me in the wrong direction every time, and therefore, what I needed, was to employ the practice that I use and teach to so many people – the practice of questioning the assumptions I have about who I am, how I see myself and what is possible – the possibility practice.
Had I asked (or been open to hearing) the question: “How do you know you can handle the mosquitos at the Bio-Bay?” or, “What do you mean you have it covered?” I would have been able to see (and hear) quite clearly that this was a bad, ego-driven move, resting squarely on my need for some idealized version of who I am. It wasn’t about the Bio-Bay or enjoying my vacation with my partner at all! Had it been, we would have been doing something that would not compromise my health and our ability to continue to enjoy our vacation.
We humans often want to get over, or get past a perceived or actual limitation, whether it is a physical limitation, an emotional challenge, like depression, or sensitivity, illness, etc., something that is part of who we are as human beings. People say this to me in therapy all the time, as they have come to me to have their challenges eliminated, so they can move on with their lives.
How many times have you said yourself, or heard someone say, “I only want to do this (date, travel, work) if I do not have this (sensitivity, depression, health issue, weight, accent, etc.). I don’t want to be “X”- all the things that you actually are! We think that the options are: either don’t do anything because you have some limitation, OR, do all kinds of things that deny your limitation, condition, particularity; distort and deny yourself, and then, fall in some manner or form, on your face.
Having Limitations Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Do Anything–It Means You Can’t Do Everything
The thing is, whether you (we, I), want these things that we have or are, is irrelevant. We have them. Why not value and respect them, and use them to inform the choices we make? The task of living our lives is to live them, given who we are. Having limitations does not mean that you can’t do anything; it means you cannot do everything. Living a full life means doing the things you can do – as you are.
Question Assumptions and Look At How You See
So, thanks to my “run in” with my mosquito, I was reminded to embrace and learn from all of the things that make me “me”, and that the work of the possibility practice – questioning assumptions and having a look at how you are seeing everything – is important to do all of the time, and requires intention. If, for some reason, you forget or neglect to practice, you can resume it at any time. And when you do, you may learn, as I did (again), that you can’t always do what you want. But if you try…you might find you get what you need.