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Dealing with Dumb Luck

I have this recurring medical problem that returns from time to time, and when I try to explain it to people, they tend to look at me kind of funny. Almost thirty years ago, I began struggling with chronic pain that would move around to different parts of my body. After trying virtually everything the medical system had to offer - and being told by one doctor that I would just have to learn to live with it - I ended up at an unorthodox chiropractor that someone had told my wife about. He told me that their treatment method was to simply adjust this bone called the atlas which is at the top of the spinal cord. When out of alignment, it would supposedly interrupt the nerve flow to the rest of the body and could cause various health problems: chronic pain, asthma, eczema, migraines, etc. So they would tap this area on the side of my neck and then wait for the body to fix itself. The trick was getting the adjustment to “hold” for an extended period of time so that the body could eventually heal.

It sounded kind of fishy, but at that point, I didn’t feel like there was much to lose. Eventually, after taking many trips to Tustin, spending a lot of money, and making many failed attempts to get that adjustment to “hold” for an extended period of time, I realized one day that I was basically pain free. And for most of the last 30 years, the adjustment has stuck, and I’ve been able to live my life as a “normal” person: playing sports, taking my kids to Disneyland, teaching at three or four different schools at a time, and going on vacations (far away from my chiropractor’s office).

But every now and then, for reasons that are not entirely clear, I start having the same old problems. Sometimes, I see the chiropractor for a couple adjustments and things go back to normal. At other times, the neck adjustment keeps popping out of place, and pain will crop up for no apparent reason in some part of my body. Fortunately, I’ve only had a few periods where the problem persisted for a few weeks or months at a time, and they were usually associated with periods of extended stress. Unfortunately, I seem to be in the middle of one of those extended episodes now.

Yesterday was typical when I’m in the middle of one of these bad episodes. When I started playing pickleball in the morning, I noticed that for the first time in a few weeks that I was basically pain free, and I was feeling very grateful. Then, after a few games, I was standing there between games when my left hip flared up out of nowhere. I kept playing for a while in hopes that it would loosen up (as these things sometimes do), but the pain kept lingering. So after going through my stretching routine, I headed off to the chiropractor’s office where, sure enough, the neck was out of place again for the third or fourth time in the past few months. As I sit here typing this, the pain is still there, and I will be heading back to the chiropractor soon to see if the adjustment is still in place.

But this little blog is not just about my periodic health problems. As I get older, I realize that I ask less and less out of life. I don’t care all that much about accumulating all kinds of stuff or having amazing life experiences. In the end, I mostly just want to be healthy. Sure, I may not be the happiest guy on earth, but if I can just have my health, I can get by. It is even conceivable that I could be happy a significant percentage of the time.

So often, in this society where people try to show off how happy they are, we hear about the power of positive thinking and our ability to shape our own destiny. While I think there is something to be said for the power of positivity, the simple fact is that much of our ultimate destiny is simply out of our hands. We can do everything right, and circumstances still do us in.

Every day, I do all of the things that you are supposed to do to prevent injury and stay healthy. My diet is pretty good, I exercise and stretch daily, and my lifestyle is pretty relaxed. But in the end, a lot of that doesn’t matter. Regardless of what I might do, I’m an injury waiting to happen because that neck adjustment can go at pretty much any time. And while it is easy for me to feel sorry for myself at these times, I am well aware that many people have far worse luck: contracting a terminal illness, getting hit by a car, being born in a shanty town and dying at the age of 5, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time during a war.

In the end, whatever success and happiness I have achieved in life, along with whatever suffering I have endured, is largely the result of sheer dumb luck. Yes, I can do better or worse through my personal efforts than someone else who is dealt similar cards, but some people receive a hand that is impossible to win with. And this pisses me off. This simple fact that life isn’t fair - along with the fear of death - are in my mind the primary reasons why humans have invented so many religious belief systems throughout our history. There is something inside us that refuses to accept injustice, so we come up with imaginary beings and eternal resting places so we can believe that all these wrongs will ultimately be made right.

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Who knows; maybe one of these thousands of theological systems is the correct one. Maybe I’d be happier if I just bought into one of these belief systems so that I could find some comfort when I’m reminded that things are both unfair and out of my control. Or maybe I should have never stopped believing in Santa Claus. Unfortunately, I’m apparently one of those poor souls who is unable to believe something simply to make himself feel better. I’m stuck with dealing with reality as it is.

So for now, I will try to enjoy good health when I have it and do my best to tolerate life when I don’t. I suppose that all we can do in this nonsensical world is savor the best of whatever any particular moment has to offer. In this sense, I suppose the Buddhists - the ones who believe in its original incarnation - have the most logical “religion” out there. All that we have is this moment. Nothing else is guaranteed. So play the hand that you have right now and try to enjoy the game as you go.

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