The Philosopher and RA
I recently finished reading a memoir for my book club that (oddly?) made me think about RA and chronic illness–The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness by Mark Rowlands.
Here’s a little synopsis of the book from Amazon:
Mark Rowlands was a young philosophy professor, rootless and searching for life’s greater meaning. Shortly after arriving at the University of Alabama, he noticed a classified ad in the local paper advertising wolf cubs for sale and decided he had to investigate, if only out of curiosity. It was love at first sight, and the bond that grew between philosopher and wolf reaffirms for us the incredible relationships that exist between man and animal.
The Connection to Chronic Illness
You’re probably wondering, what on earth could I find in this book to relate to RA? Does the author have RA or another autoimmune disease? Did the wolf limp around on sore paws? No, and no, thankfully. But like with many things I read, watch, and experience in life, there were things in this book, which I’d describe as a cross between an autobiography and philosophy journal, that made me think about how chronic illness can influence the “love, death, and happiness” of the human experience.
To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of this book and I was mostly relieved to be done with it when I finished the last page. While the author made some interesting philosophical points and gave readers a unique peek into what it’s like having a wolf as a constant companion (and soulmate?) for 10 years, his often arrogant and patronizing tone was difficult to stomach. His dark, misanthropic view of humanity for 99% of the book also grew tiresome for me.
Rowlands undoubtedly loved and adored this wolf, Brenin, much more than he liked humans, I’d argue. He raised Brenin from a cub and shortly after first bringing him home, the wolf pup wound up traveling everywhere with him (even to work). Living with a real, 100% wild wolf would be fascinating and rich with anecdotes, of course, and it’s something that I’ve never thought about until reading this book. I’m glad I was able to have a small taste of the author’s experience and relationship with such an intriguing animal. One of my chief complaints, however, is the condescending and negative attitude that Rowlands had toward his fellow human beings. But we’re not as cool as wolves, I suppose.
Hope and Time
Hope is the used-car salesman of human existence: so friendly, so plausible. But you cannot rely on him. What is most important in your life is the you that remains when your hope runs out. Time will take everything from us in the end. Everything we have acquired through talent, industry, and luck will be taken from us. Time takes our strength, our desires, our goals, our projects, our future, our happiness, and even our hope. Anything we can have, anything we can possess, time will take from us. But what time can never take from us is who we were in our best moments .1
Thinking and worrying about “time” has freaked me out since I was a kid; I had a neurotic fear of it running out (and still do) and often felt deeply sad about it passing (and still do). I’m not a therapist and it’s hard to try to analyze yourself, but I suppose this probably has to do with a fear of death, fear of missed opportunities, and a fear of losing people and things. Who wouldn’t worry about these things, right?
Fears Regarding Time
I think my fears regarding “time” have become more pronounced in my life and significantly deeper due to getting RA when I was 18 years old. As we who have the disease all know, a painful chronic illness like RA that is full of ups and downs and maddening uncertainties, can make you worry about the future–and grieve for the past.
“RA” could easily be swapped in for the word “time” in one of the sentences in the above passage I quoted from the book: RA takes our strength, our desires, our goals, our projects, our future, our happiness, and even our hope. That’s a really bleak sentence, I know, and I don’t completely agree with it. Well, I agree with it in that RA certainly has the power to do all of these things, but I strongly feel, even when I’m hurting the most and at my lowest, that this disease does not have to rob our lives.
Desires, goals, projects, plans, our future–these things do not need to suffer abandonment or be destroyed (nor should they) at the hands of an unfair disease we had no choice in getting. Most important, which is often very hard to hold onto, is to remember that a life of happiness, joy, and hope is absolutely possible–even with RA.
Another sentence that stood out for me in the passage is this one:
What is most important in your life is the you that remains when your hope runs out.
Who are you when your hope runs out? Who am I? Good questions.
This makes me think about the times when I’ve had severe, excruciating RA flare-ups, and my entire body and soul became mostly hopeless and crushed. Yet, I must have been hanging on by tiny, fragile threads of hope during these times because I got through them and survived, somehow. The potential risk for these hellish situations to keep happening are uncertain and high, which is also a big obstacle to holding onto hope.
But to answer the question about who I am when my hope runs out, I must say the “me” that remains is a much simpler and more real, raw person. I don’t have the energy to deal with petty things or people and my insecurities and self-esteem issues fly out the window because I feel like I’m dealing with something much more serious. Who cares what so-and-so thinks of me? What’s the big deal if I don’t have the “perfect job” right now? Who cares what my prednisone-buffalo-hump neck looks like?
Instead, what’s important to me in life also becomes a lot clearer and affects how I behave and communicate with other people. I want to be around my family and the very small circle of people who know me best and whom I trust. When I’m feeling hopeless, I’m brutally honest with myself. Or maybe just brutal (bad joke).
Secret admission: the more I think and write about this book, the more I want to go back and read parts of it again, and especially think more about how Rowlands’ views on life can be seen through the eyes (and heart) of someone who lives with RA and chronic illness and pain. Life and RA are full of many contradictions and seemingly endless shades of gray–like a wolf?