Of course, any sense of control is an illusion, and often a dangerous one. The ability to “go wild” seems to have all manner of positive psychological and physical benefits (at least in doses and with some limits); as evidenced by popular dance music for centuries. Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs are much to the same end. Regardless, the illusion has provided me with no small sense of self-satisfaction, even if part of me can also acknowledge the costs. And beyond satisfaction, a sense of security, both situational and ethical. So, on to recent history….
Incident #1: Last month, I was doing some yard work (man-of-the-land that I am!) when I apparently disturbed a ground nest of yellowjackets (wasps) who swarmed me instinctively. Before my “normal,” control-predilected self was aware of this, my amygdalic brain started flailing my arms—foolishly, I later learned—and propelling my legs away quite rapidly. A few seconds later (real time; or an extended period as it seemed in the moment), I was in the house with—mercifully—only four stings on my hands and wrists. By the time I had dashed to the computer to do an internet look-up for appropriate remedies, grabbed appropriate creams and dunked my hands into ice water, I caught my breath and realized that my flailing had left my glasses out in the yard in the spot of the initial onslaught.
For the next several hours, I felt drained physically. Mentally, I didn’t feel scared (I did retrieve my glasses), but a touch wary and with a definite preference for “hunkering down.” I spent some time observing myself. I guess I don’t fire off the brain chemicals and short-circuit my normal, well-processed thought processes very often. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I reacted as instantaneously/intensely. As a result, it was strange to recognize the guy who moved through this situation in this way. I don’t regret acting the way I did; not that “I” had much control over what I did. So, both in the moment and in the aftermath, some quite apparent demonstrations of Steve not being “in control.”
Incident #2: Almost a week later, my wife is starting to feel increasingly bad: fatigue, aches, respiratory inflammation. We had, for three and a half years, avoided being caught by the COVID bug, but our days of innocence were gone. I followed about two days later. Fortunately, for both epidemiological and pharmacological reasons, we only had a few days of being miserable and are both more-or-less returned to normal health.
Nonetheless my two-ish days of moderate misery: spaciness, comprehensive body aches, a bad sore throat, and occasional chills/fever were, for me, remarkable. I’ve been quite fortunate to have avoided acute illness over my life. Other than a couple of out-patient procedures, a light-to-moderate set of cold/flu infestations, and an increasing prevalence of age-appropriate chronic physical conditions, I have been pretty healthy.
COVID presented in me in a manner similar to colds/flu, but more severe. Since I’ve had colds/flue since I was a kid, at one level it wasn’t remarkable. And yet…even though the chances of severe complications was small, it was different. It was new. Or, perhaps I just looked at it (i.e., me with “it”) differently. I was regularly aware of struggling to clear my head, to wake up from my (more frequent) sleeping and deciding (repeatedly) that I didn’t have to or want to. When sitting at my desk, I was “just fine” to sit there vacantly and not do much (if any) work (once I had emailed my students with the revised class schedules for the week).
I didn’t have a chronic condition, but I could see that I could very easily feel the same way indefinitely. I got to wondering whether I could be like this if in some time—for any number of reasons or conditions—my limited acuity and attention (…and self-control) would become my “new normal” and possibly terminal, if indefinite state. What if the reduced sense of connection with the world: my characteristic interests in ideas and affairs, my role in managing my life was “as good as it got.” Perhaps I would mind, perhaps I would be upset with my new smaller world; but perhaps that’s just the current me standing up now when—by definition—that Steve wouldn’t be present anymore.
I’m not sure how to characterize how I feel about such a prospect. Not “scared,” certainly not “resigned to it;” aware, as I say, that any idea of such a future is more projection than prediction. It is all well-and-good to declaim: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But that presumes a certain level of synapses and energy levels to spark such rage. A noble dream, but not everyone’s reality.
So, to return to where I started, this mild-to-moderate COVID bout gave me a second taste (and a hint of a third) of not being in control of myself I the way I am used to thinking. One due to a hyped-up system, the other due to a spaced-out processor. I take from these two (+) situations an appreciation of how much I rely on my constructed sense of myself, the fragility of that control, and a question of whether to lean on it as much as I have. Or, as T.S. Eliot asked (and the Allman Brothers affirmed): “Shall I eat a peach?”