“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin
The war metaphor in regard to mold illness – or any illness – has never really resonated with me. I’m not sure why. I’m sensitive and gentle by nature and that might be part of it. But also I think that I’ve never wanted to feel like my body was my enemy. I made a concerted effort to call my back “vulnerable” or “fragile” and never “bad” during the decades I struggled with severe chronic back pain.
I know the war metaphor works for a lot of people, though. Dr. Shoemaker’s book is even called Mold Warriors. For a long time I figured I must’ve been alone in feeling like it wasn’t helpful or useful to think of mold as my enemy or my life as a series of battles.
Around Christmas I mentioned to one of the Moldies that I’ve been mentoring that I found it much more helpful to think of my illness as a journey, that thinking of mold as my enemy leads to absolutist ideas of being mold-free which are bound to fail. It leads to ideas of fighting battles and of winning and losing, and that felt corrosive to my health. I knew that if I told my mind and body it was in a war, a war was what my mind and body would give me. It would be the way in which my mind framed my experiences.
She said that she felt her whole body relax as I shared this. The next day she texted that she felt different. More at peace. That her circumstances were the same, but she didn’t feel the same.
So I’ve been thinking that maybe I’m not really alone in needing a different umbrella philosophy within which to frame my illness. But it kind of bothered me that my explanation was so cliché. It seemed that there must be a better way to explain this. Last night I realized why the shift from a war mindset to a journey mindset could be so much more conducive to healing.
It has to do with rejection and the way rejection affects us both emotionally and physically.
Everyone in life has dealt with rejection. It feels positively awful. Rejection sits in your stomach heavily like a ball of lead. Then it spreads to your chest with a tenacious grief-driven ache. It makes you tired. It makes you wonder what is even the point of trying so hard.
This article in Psychology Today entitled Ten Surprising Facts about Rejection mentions that “rejection piggybacks on physical pathways in the brain” mimicking physical pain. Rejection also “sends us on a mission to seek and destroy our self-esteem” and even “temporarily lowers our IQ”. Rejection pummels us physically and emotionally. Rejection is an assault on our self-worth. This is why it is so important to reach out to the people who love us for exactly who we are when we experience rejection. It is legitimately harmful to our health.
In my mind, rejection is the opposite of winning. It is losing. Losing what I wanted, how I wanted to feel, what I had hoped would happen. I don’t want my relationship with my body, with illness, or with mold to be framed liked that.
Rejection in regards to illness only exists if you think of your experiences in this binary way. With a shift to a journey mindset, the duality falls apart. Wins and losses, constantly fighting battles…these things don’t exist in the journey. Journeys are about learning and having new experiences.
It’s not that a journey is necessarily easier than a fight. As someone who used to puke on every airplane flight, but also loved to travel overseas, I have had more experiences of being exhausted and sick in my travels than not. I once threw up five times on a train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, Finland. And while I was running back and forth to the bathroom to puke my guts out, my husband realized we were on the wrong train! It led to a saying in our house, “The only thing worse than getting sick on a train is getting sick on the wrong train!” But we kept going and 13 hours later we made it to Rovaniemi…which was lovely. It is one of my favorite places I have ever been.
They say that many of the best athletes focus on their losses more than their wins. That these losses drive them to excel. And so I can see why the war metaphor has worked for so many. Billy Bean in the movie Moneyball explains this mindset perfectly:
“I hate losing…. I hate it. I hate losing more than I even wanna win.”
-Billy Bean (played by Brad Pitt) in the movie Moneyball
But that way of thinking doesn’t work for me. Mold isn’t evil. It isn’t my enemy. It just is. That it is something I need to avoid scrupulously in order to be well is a reality in which I live, but if I get hit or slammed by mold, it is not a failure or a loss. Only a change in the direction I thought my day – or week, or life, really – was going to go.
I’ve found that the journey mindset makes it easier to shake off biotoxin hits and slams. It helps me be courageous when I’m trying something new. If I get hit by a problematic biotoxin, well, I know how to handle that. Decontaminate as quickly as possible! Wash my head, change my shirt, get some fresh air. If possible, I’ll go for a walk at a higher elevation. It’s really no big deal. I just have a wet head and an extra piece of laundry. If I get slammed, well, that’s okay, too. I have tools in my toolkit for slams.
And I never know what beautiful thing I might see because I had to change my plan for the day. Maybe it’s a bald eagle or a moose. Maybe it is a cowboy gabbing away on his cell phone while riding a horse. It’s just life and life will always keep on happening no matter what my plans are. That’s why the journey idea works for me.
If this idea of moving away from the war metaphor resonates with you, I would recommend reading James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. (Many thanks to my friend Peter Tavernise for recommending it to me.)
Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life; they are played in order to be won, which is when they end. But infinite games are more mysterious. Their object is not winning, but ensuring the continuation of play. The rules may change, the boundaries may change, even the participants may change—as long as the game is never allowed to come to an end. –James P. Carse.
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