Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law, who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.
Lou Gehrig (July 4, 1939)
The phrase “It’s a blessing in disguise” has always annoyed me a bit. People often seem to say it in an offhand way or as a way to avoid uncomfortable conversations or thoughts. It seems part of that particularly American inclination to shun negativity and embrace the power of positive thinking.
But recently I have been reevaluating that phrase, or at least the idea that blessings can flow from setbacks. It started a few weeks ago when my wonderful teenage son Andrew asked me, “Hey Dad, what do you know about Zeno the philosopher?” It turns out that Zeno was one of the founders of an ancient school of philosophy called Stoicism. Although Andrew was interested in Stoicism for his own reasons, perhaps he had an inkling that I would find it useful and timely as well.
Stoics divide the world into the things that can be controlled and those that cannot. As it is useless to dwell on things that cannot be controlled, Stoicism encourages us instead to focus on how we respond to things that happen to us. Epictetus wrote that we should “Make the best use of what is in our power and treat the rest in accordance with its nature.” Rather than pointlessly lamenting our bad luck, Stoics urge us to consider that within every setback is an opportunity that we would not otherwise have had to learn something or achieve something. For example, the next time you are stuck in traffic, consider the opportunities: perhaps you could catch a podcast you enjoy, call an old friend, or simply enjoy a few quiet moments.
Although there is no indication that he read the Stoics, Lou Gehrig seems to have this idea in mind when he gave his farewell address. He transformed his ALS diagnosis into an opportunity to reflect on his many blessings.
So what about Parkinson’s? Is it possible that blessings or opportunities can flow from our common malady?
A few years ago, I heard a radio interview that really resonated with me. In it, a psychologist argued that in today’s society for various reasons it is very difficult for all of us, but particularly middle-aged men, to make and keep deep and abiding friendships. I am grateful that I no longer feel the alienation he described. This has been the first gift of Parkinson’s for me. When I meet someone with Parkinson’s—particularly those at a similar stage of progression—I immediately feel a kinship. Thanks to Parkinson’s, I now have a second family that I can turn to for advice, friendship, and even fun.
The second gift that Parkinson’s has provided me—and perhaps there is none more valuable—is a heightened sense that every day is to be cherished. Parkinson’s is a kind of Memento Mori, a reminder of our own mortality. That might sound awful. Who wants a reminder of death? It turns out that our old friends the Stoics have a lot to say on this topic. They argued that embracing our mortality is the key to living life to the fullest. For them, it is the possibility of imminent death that gives life meaning and urgency.
In this vein, Seneca urged us to:
Prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Postpone nothing. Balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on his or her life each day is never short of time.
When you embrace your own mortality, you are filled with freedom and gratitude because you understand that every day that you’re alive is a gift. If you’re a gambler, you might say that every day that you’re alive, you are playing with the house’s money.
But here is the thing: Parkinson’s only offers the gift of Memento Mori. It is up to each of us to accept it and use it constructively. In her Poem “When Death Comes”, The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver uses her own mortality as a lens to bring her life goals into focus.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
So how about you?