Eating the Elephant

Rheumatoid disease (arthritis) is sometimes overwhelming. The frequent pain, fatigue, niggling low-grade fevers, and feeling ill and foggy are a lot for anyone to cope with. Add it to all of your everyday responsibilities--work, your family, your finances--and you have a very full plate, indeed.

Is it any wonder that you worry about the future? That you don’t know how you’ll handle the ravages of RD today, let alone tomorrow or 10 years from now? RD is incurable. The chance of a lasting remission is infinitely small. Of course you wonder how in the world you’ll deal with such a debilitating disease for the rest of your life.

Recently, a friend of mine deployed a perfect analogy about the futility of worry. “Don’t eat the elephant,” she said. I have a relentlessly visual imagination, so it immediately conjured up an enormous gray elephant in my mind’s eye. It was sitting calmly on a tiny dinner plate, on a tiny table, with a tiny person (me) looking up at it doubtfully. She held a fork and knife in her hands, and her expression seemed to say, “OMG. Where should I start?”

More importantly, I thought, why should I start?

Because you know, eating that elephant is an impossibility. There’s just no way such a ridiculous thing can happen. Even if it could, it would take forever, and while I was at it, I couldn’t do anything else. Eating an entire elephant would clearly be an elephantine (pun intended) overindulgence. And can you imagine the indigestion afterward!

OK, I’ll admit the whole analogy is pretty rickety. But so is worrying about how you’re going to live with RD for the rest of your life. It really is a lot like eating the elephant. There’s just no good outcome for it. Worrying can’t fix the problem.

And yet, the worry and the elephant remain. So here’s my suggestion. Rather than trying to eat the elephant, how about just trying to live next to it day by day, acknowledging its presence but not getting terribly excited about it. RD is as enormous, stubborn, and immovable as an elephant. Instead of fussing at it, push your chair back and step away from the table.

The fact is that you can’t do anything about yesterday, when the elephant first appeared on your plate and your doctor diagnosed you with RD. That time is gone forever, a relic of the past. Could you have done something to prevent it? Probably not, but it’s too late now to ruminate over it, and besides, you were doing the best you could at the time.

There’s no point in getting all worked up over the elephant--or the RD--in your future, either. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow, next week, or next year. The future is a blank canvas waiting for life to paint it in. You might be able to influence it--tentatively pick some of the colors, say, or envision the subject--but it hasn’t actually happened yet, so your control is tenuous, at best. Worrying about the future will only make you miserable today.

And that’s just it. What you have is today. Right now, at this moment, you have power. You have some control. You can simply live with the elephant, with your RD. Or you can waste this precious moment by poring over the past and worrying about the future.

The best way to live with an elephant--and with RD--is by doing it one day at a time.

As I type this, my hands hurt. I don’t like how they feel, but that’s not the only thing going on in my life. I can also hear birds singing outside my open window, and I can feel and smell the cool spring breeze that’s blowing out there. The combination of sounds, scents, and sensations is beautiful and soothing. I can focus on that, or I can focus my attention on my pain. Both choices are equally valid, but only one will feed my soul.

Today, with an eye to my unknown future, I can do whatever I can to feel better and to control my pain and my RD. I can take medicines that can slow the progression of the disease, and while they’re doing that, also relieve some of my pain and prevent new disability. I can choose to eat nutritious, healthful foods today, and I can choose to exercise my body gently so it can function at its best, given its limitations. Today I can choose to go to bed at a reasonable hour, hoping to get some restful, healing sleep for my body and mind. And I can do it all again tomorrow.

Conversely, I can dwell on my pain and disability. I can choose to give up trying to influence the elephant and my RD by eating poorly. I can refuse to use my muscles and body, and ruin my sleep with my fear of tomorrow. I can give up on taking care of myself and let the elephant--my RD--take over my life. Certainly, it’s a lot easier. I can worry about the past and the future, and while I’m at it, worry myself into an early grave, helped along by my fatalism.

Will my choices today influence my elephant--my RD--and my future? Maybe, maybe not. But our lives are so short. They’re a precious gift in a world full of precious gifts. We don’t have a lot of time on this beautiful Earth, so it makes sense, to me, to use what I have left wisely and well.

I just don’t need to eat that bleeping elephant!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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