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I recently encountered what we in the reggae world call, “tribulations.” Or what most people call “health issues.” Nothing life threatening, I just turned 50 and have started falling apart like a paper doll. For the first time in my life, I got laryngitis. Then I got plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation in the bottom of the foot. Despite a suicidal amount of Advil and a self-tormenting number of hours spent with my foot on ice, the pain just got worse.
I could no longer walk the talk. Nor could I talk the walk. I could barely grunt. The doctor put me on total vocal rest, and since I don’t own a wheelchair, I was reduced to crawling.
The laryngitis isn’t a big deal — it just meant Michelle could say all kinds of things and I was reduced to furiously scribbling responses on a pad, which she refused to read. The foot pain was really the issue — not just the immobility, which is an inconvenience, but the sheer exhaustion of being in throbbing pain day and night. After a lifetime of martial arts, I have a high pain threshold. I’ve inflicted a lot of suffering on myself, which may have been stupid, but at least I never felt fragile.
Suddenly my bones seemed hollow and brittle, like those of a small bird. Every step sent lightning bolts of urgent messages to my brain. In the fight world, we like to say that “pain is just information.” You can choose how you react to it. And you know the old saying, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Babies don’t feel like fat old men with laryngitis and foot injuries. They feel more like hippies on acid.
On the other hand, sometimes the reason sucks. Last night, as I was moving painfully across the floor on all 4, like a fat sad grunting bug, I thought, “Things are going pretty well for me. If only those idiots from high school could see me now. Trying to get to the bathroom while bruising my knees on the stone floors, like a boss. “
But I’m an optimist. I like to see the glass half full, even when the glass just broke in half and cut your finger. So while meditating on the arising of sensations which mortals call “pain,” I began to look for a silver lining.
There’s a Buddhist prayer, which is basically, “Whether circumstances seem good or bad, inspire me to maintain a habit of happiness.” Consoling myself with the thought that I was paying off a karmic debt, I began to think, okay, what’s the upside here? Now that I can’t speak or walk, at least I can relate better to what Lev’s been through in the first 16 months of his life. Now I can understand how frustrating it must be for him to have a head full of bat-shit thoughts and be unable to express them clearly, or to want to run across the room like a graceful gazelle, but instead move like a scalded chimp. The lesson of the injury was empathy: Now I know how Lev feels.
Turns out I was wrong.
According to new research, babies don’t feel like fat old men with laryngitis and foot injuries. They feel more like hippies on acid. For the first time ever, scientists have scanned the brains of people using LSD and discovered the drug makes our brain less compartmentalized, and more like the mind of a baby. We adults spend all day identifying, judging and organizing our thoughts and experiences into tidy little boxes. Babies just throw all their experiences into one glorious pile. It turns out your brain on LSD resembles your brain when you were an infant: free and unconstrained, which explains why your baby is hyper-emotional and imaginative and likes Phish.
Of course, the most difficult thing about being sick and injured, is you want to be babied. But your baby also wants to be babied. And last night, Michelle began feeling not so well. So for one Larry David-ish moment, all 3 of us were lying in bed moaning. Michelle was clutching her stomach, saying she felt nauseous. I was trying to use a kitchen towel to wrap an ice pack to my foot. Lev was crying about God knows what. And I thought, Look at the 3 of us. This is what we get for not taking drugs?
I could no longer walk the talk. Nor could I talk the walk.
Health might not be wealth, but illness really is like poverty. It leaves you in a state of constant wanting. Which magnifies our basic stance of petulant dissatisfaction. And just like LSD, illness and injury can also lead to a breakthrough, a change in consciousness.
When I woke up this morning, Lev was smiling and dazed in the sunlight, his little head of curly hair like a dandelion fluff, and I crawled to the bathroom thinking, This is alright. You notice a lot about the floor when you’re on all 4. I saw the little divots in the tiles that Lev stick his fingers into, and a piece of what I hope was an apple. And then it hit me: Instead of me taking acid to understand how Lev sees the world, all I needed to do is spend a little more time crawling.
The moral of the story is that sickness and injury can be a blessing in disguise, to the degree that they force us to slow down and take a fresh look at ourselves. Getting up close and personal with the floor is a great way to learn to relate to you baby. And sometimes you gotta get low if you want to get high.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.