The Scramble for Privilege 

“If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.” That’s a Chinese proverb.  I don’t know if it would make much sense to modern-day Chinese who seem to be scrambling to get ahead as fast as anyone on the planet, but it makes an important point.  Aggressive action to improve your status or acquire advantage probably won’t make you happier in the long run.

Much of what happens to us is the result of our actions, though sometimes we can’t see the causal connection. We see ourselves as victims. Everybody gets about the same amount of lucky breaks, but some of us know what do to with them while the rest of us insist on waiting for an easier, softer opening. Fact is, if you’ve identified and addressed your addictions, life can be pretty easy. Take it easy, act prudently, and wait for good fortune to strike again.

That sounds like a prescription for happiness, but it’s too simple for most of us to accept.  We would still rather believe that if only we manage our affairs better, we’ll be more successful, prosperous and happier.  So we lie awake at night, scheming. This time we’ll get it right.  We’ll hit upon the right formula.

But that’s not how peace of mind comes. Like the quality of mercy, “it droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven.” More than power, more than fame, more than riches, we hope to achieve peace of mind before we die.

I almost died a year ago.  Even though I had no history of heart disease, and had recently passed a medical insurance physical exam, I had a heart attack. Some recent events had transpired that were upsetting, and I allowed them to make me doubt my grasp on reality.  I won’t go into them here, but the story of the year before was quite fantastic and upsetting. But here I was back in Chiang Mai, a place I liked and felt comfortable in.

One scorching morning in June, as I sat in my guesthouse, checking my e-mail, an invisible hand gripped my esophagus and began to squeeze.  I thought “surely this is just indigestion,” but as the pain increased with no signs of subsiding, I decided to err on the side of caution.  Grabbing my wallet and passport and chewing a precautionary aspirin, I headed for the emergency room of a nearby hospital.

The whole way I kept thinking “I’m making this up. This isn’t happening. What a waste of time and money. They’re going to laugh at me and send me home.”

Instead they admitted me and rushed me up to stent surgery.  But as luck would have it, after threading the stent through my arteries to the main blockage, the surgeon could not proceed.  He came out and told me I was in terrible danger, that there was a huge blood clot lurking in front of the blockage, and they would have to abort the procedure and administer blood thinners.  Once the clot was dissolved after a few days, they would try again.

I began to feel scared, deeply afraid of dying. I thought “so this is it?  Too bad there’s no one around that I know to say good-bye to.”

They took me to the Intensive Care Unit and wouldn’t let me leave my bed for three days.  During that time, I had to pee in a bottle and to read lying flat on my back. I was bored and felt very alone, because no one spoke much English.  So I constructed an alternate universe to make sense of my reality.  I decided that this was a ward for people who weren’t really very sick at all, and that’s why we were all together, ten to a room.  This was like summer camp! At the time, I didn’t realize it was the ICU, and since this was the public hospital, I figured it was cheap and that’s why there were so many people around.  The nurses who checked on my spreading groin hematoma were my friends.  They liked me so much they wanted to pull my pants down every few minutes. They laughed at my jokes.

Finally, on the second day, I demanded to be allowed to go the bathroom. The nurses didn’t like it, but they let me use a walker to hobble over there.  Once inside, I heard a wailing noise.  A whole family was crying.  Turns out a patient just a few feet away had  died. This got my attention, for it underscored the gravity of my situation.  I was in a place where people just like me died despite all efforts to save them.

I later found out that fifty percent of people who have heart attacks die from them. My stent operation was not routine. The surgeon had not been exaggerating when he said I was in terrible danger. Three days later they performed as second operation and this time were able to place a stent.  A couple of weeks later they performed a third operation and were not successful in inserting a stent.  That blockage was too big to be penetrated.

During an aftercare checkup I asked the surgeon if I would have died that morning had I not gone directly to the emergency room.  He nodded his head and said “You would already be working on your next incarnation.”

Through all of this I still sort of believed that I made all of it up, that it didn’t really happen.  I found it hard to accept that it had been a real heart attack, and not a product of my over-active imagination.  A few months later I found that I have Parkinson’s Disease, though I had already been symptomatic for a few years. They can give you an exam in the office, but the only definitive test involves an autopsy.  The best test is if the patient responds to Sinemet, then it’s PD.  I took Sinemet and it alleviated most of the symptoms.

But then, after about three months, I started wondering if I made all this up, too, so I stopped taking the medication.  After one day, nothing happened.  After two days, I began to have slower reaction in my hands and legs.  After three days, my walking became a shuffle and my hands became useless, aching mittens.  So I started taking the medicine again, and after three days I was back to forgetting that I had Parkinson’s Disease.

I seem to have the ability to not notice really important things yet to readily manufacture beliefs with no supporting evidence.  So it should come as no surprise that I have often have a hard time managing my affairs. Common sense and practicality bore me.

I once had a psychotherapist who encouraged me to act as if I were a normal person.  Try to avoid being exceptional in any way.  Just fake it and see what happens.



  1. Incredibly clear account of multiple crises that is uncompromisingly and vivid, yet at the same time, conveys the impression that events are seen from an aerial view.

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