I had the awesome privilege of getting to hear one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert, speak in Portland last month. She inspires me in her writing. She makes me think critically. She makes me laugh. Each time I’ve had a chance to listen to her in person or in recorded interviews, I appreciate her honest reflections and the way she shares deeply from her life to make observations about the world around us. This recent lecture was no exception. Leading up to a discussion about having better boundaries (a topic I have and will explore more about later). She led up to boundaries by saying we can’t set them if we don’t know who and what matters to us.
Liz Gilbert’s life reached a crisis point several years ago when her best friend was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In that moment, she realized that Rhea was the love of her life. At the time Gilbert was married to someone else. She immediately ended the marriage and went to be with Rhea’s spend her remaining days alive together. She spoke about how clarifying Rhea’s diagnosis was for so many aspects of her life. In such a short time she understood what mattered, what was worth her time, where she wanted to spend her attention, and with whom. As I listened, I thought, yes, that’s what chronic illness does too. We are in this crucible, stripped of the familiar. When so many identities, opportunities, and ways we used to be are unavailable to us, there is an essentialism that emerges. A clarity. It reminded me of my refrain, “my time and energy are my most precious natural resources.” So, here was Gilbert, and life was extending her this opportunity, asking “what matters?” And all the things she once thought were important suddenly weren’t.
After speaking to her husband, Gilbert got on a plane to be with Rhea. While waiting in the airport to board, she opened her computer. There she was confronted with her email. Like so many of us, her email was an archeological record – messages accumulating like sedimentary layers, things received years ago to the more recent detritus. You know how it is – if it’s easy and clear, you reply to it immediately. If not, it can sit around and accumulate. She looked at those thousands of accumulated emails and had her next epiphany about who and what mattered. She thought, “if I haven’t replied to you, I do not care about you.” And with that it was “select all” and “delete.” Yup. She emancipated herself from her historical inbox right there in the airport lounge.
Perhaps her words sound harsh. “I do not care about you.” And yet, the lie is that we can care about everyone. I had a friend say to me years ago “not everyone can matter.” That did not compute to me at all. I laughed, scoffed, and secretly kind of thought she was a jerk. Years later I put that phrase in a sarcastic embroidery for her, embellished with roses and ribbon. However, a few years after getting sick, I came to understand and agree with that statement. Not everyone can matter, to me. They can matter to someone, but I don’t have the bandwidth to carry everyone and neither do you. Our time, energy, and attention is limited. That means that the number of people we can give it to is limited too.
Brené Brown has a helpful exercise for helping clarify who matters. In the art journaling class she taught to accompany the book The Gifts of Imperfection, she suggested that participants make a list of the people in their life whose opinions of them mattered. To be clear, this is not a list of the people who your opinion matters to, but of whose opinions matter, really matters to you. When you are seeking counsel, when something has happened and you wonder what to make of it, when you’re uncertain about whether you acted with integrity – whose opinions of you do you really trust? She suggests that this should be a very short list. No more than 5, maybe only one or two; and perhaps the people you think should be on it (your mother, your spouse, etc.), have not earned the right to be there. This list may change from time to time, but it should be stable. This short list of trusted advisors is certainly a place to start when thinking about who matters. From there, you might think of concentric circles out and fill in those blanks. This can help you figure out your priorities
Joseph Campbell, famous researcher of mythology and comparative religion, was talking in an interview with Bill Moyers about what makes something sacred. Essentially, he said, the sacred is what we say is sacred. What we draw a circle around and set aside. Whether that is a special patch of earth, evening meals, or a time on the weekend when we put away devices – we create the sacred my saying it is so and following through with our actions.
In both the Brené Brown and Joseph Campbell examples, we need to be putting ourselves at the center. I need to be the person whose opinion matters most (for years I wouldn’t have even made that list – consulting everyone else’s opinion without considering my own.) At the very center of the sacred circle I draw needs to be me. Especially those of us with chronic illness, we cannot mess around. We do not have energy to spare or resources to squander. Am I perpetuating my illness by not putting myself at the center of what matters most? Moments of clarity, like the one Gilbert experienced, like these diagnoses of ours, can be so painful, and such a gift. But they are only a gift if we are able to mine them for the wisdom they contain and then have the courage and commitment to take action. Are you making yourself a sacred priority? Are you clear about what matters? Has chronic illness changed or shifted this?