In graduate school, I studied the immune system for a couple of semesters because the work being done in our lab had been shown to have an effect on it. Writing about a traumatic experience gives your immune system a boost in all kinds of ways, lots of evidence about it even though there is no explanation for why, since we can’t randomly assign people to have a traumatic experience — so no causality in an explanation, but it’s a reliable relationship, and a significant one.
I remember my surprise at learning the “immune system” isn’t really a “system.” Not like the circulatory system — it’s more this loose amalgamation of processes and organs that kind of hang around together, but not like the heart/lung/arterial-venous collection. And I also remember my surprise when I learned that the way I’d been thinking about it had been kind of bassackwards. Like everyone else, I had the experience of getting sick after a prolonged period of stress, and my take on it had been that my immune system crashed, had failed, had let me down. But actually it had been brilliant! It had been soldiering on throughout the stress, and when finally the stress ended, and it had done its job to keep me going when I needed it most, like me it could collapse a bit. I felt kind of bad for having dissed it all those years. 🙂
Do you have the same experience I have, of hearing yourself say something and suddenly you know the absolute truth of it — and you didn’t know you knew it until you heard yourself say it? I’m sure you do. This happens all the time when I’m writing, but in recording my little daily creekside chats, I’ve surprised myself by those kinds of tiny but not-tiny truths that slip out, and I hadn’t known that I knew such a true thing. A week ago, more or less, in preparing to talk about two war documentaries I’d watched (WWII and Vietnam), I opened by saying hello to all of us, so full of life. I guess that came from a moment of gratitude that we are alive, when so many have died in the awfulness of war, but that’s not what I meant, and I knew it in the moment I said it. I meant something much more electric than that, and it was a similar kind of misunderstanding to the one I had about the immune system. I got this bassackwards, too.
At the moment, there are several people I care about a WHOLE LOT who are dealing with life-edge situations of illness and real grinding hardship. I haven’t yet been on the illness life-edge, but I’ve had so many experiences where my life might not have continued, whether because of a gun to my head, literally by my father’s or my own hand, or by the extreme difficulty of a life situation, and in those times I have felt not very much alive. I’ve felt like the life inside me was nearly gone.
But I have had it all wrong. Bassackwards. In those dread and dire moments, my life was pounding in me. Friends who are being poisoned by chemotherapy to save their lives, friends who are grappling with the remnants of a brain scavenged by stroke, friends who are battling organs that have given up the ghost — life is screaming in them, too. Friends whose lives are in a crisis that feels impossible and overwhelming, life is screaming in them. In fact, life, the force of life, is screaming so loud it’s almost deafening. It’s a force, an electric charge, a phenomenon. It’s in us, pulsing blue, when we’re doing boring tasks like grocery shopping and putting away clean dishes. It’s in us, pulsing blue, when we are feeling despair, or loneliness, or emptiness. It’s easily recognizable in us, pulsing blue, when we are enjoying our lives, but what a mistake it is not to recognize the aliveness that’s always there. On July 29, 2013, I had a strange dream that was like a slideshow, and each slide was a very loud color. One tiny part was that the two scars on my arm from an earlier surgery were glowing with a brilliant blue LED light, and the blue light was all inside me, leaking out through my pores. For some reason I don’t know, this has always been blue, to me. What color is it for you?
This is such a little gift some deep part of myself gave me. Ever since I said that, an unprepared sentence that emerged from my mouth, I have felt differently, thought differently, as I move around in my quiet little life. I walk to the creek, filled with electric blue life. I sit in my chair reading a manuscript, literally vibrating with blue life. I lock up the house at night to head upstairs in the silence, electric blue life shimmering all around me for any with eyes to see. Like me, for instance.
If it’s hard for you, if you’re fighting for your life, life is fighting for you too. None of us are going to win, ultimately, but it’s the only fight that matters, and we fight it every single day — some days it feels like a fight, some days it feels like a mountaintop joy, but it’s always there. Always. It’s the biggest gift, this awareness, and of course I can’t say anything with absolute certainty in this regard, as a person who has 8-year cycles of suicidality, but I hope this truth from deep inside me helps see me through. Hello you, so full of life. I see you there. I see that force of the universe animating you, vibrating you, affecting everything around you. How dearly I love you.