“Don’t take anything personally,” Don Miguel Ruiz advises us in The Four Agreements. He gives one good reason:
All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in…Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds…
Lately, I have been trying to use my chronic disease to cultivate the skill of not taking it personally when other people are surly or selfish or creepy. I need that ability in order to live and work in New York City, which sometimes seems like the international capital of casual crankiness and bad moods.
Don Ruiz is a wise man, but he missed something important about people. They say and do things not only because of the “dreams” –and words, and memories—thrumming in their minds. Their behavior is also prompted by what is happening in their bodies at any given moment. In fact, the dreams, words and memories thrumming in their minds are shaped, at least in part, by their bodies –and not just the “thinking” parts of their brains, but also their glands, organs, lymph nodes, bones, etc.
Even though it’s obvious that our own bodies affect our moods, it is easy to forget that this happens to other people, because we are all lost in our dreams. My Type 1 diabetes can help me remember.
Low blood sugar can make me cranky, silly, depressed or irrational—or all four. High blood sugar can make me lethargic and inattentive. It was useful to keep this in mind awhile ago when a traffic cop wouldn’t even respond or look at me while I complained about a ticket she had slapped on my windshield. And when a co-worker didn’t invite me to a meeting I wanted to attend. And when a man on a sidewalk growled at me after I’d nudged his elbow as I walked past. What often goes on inside of me triggered questions about what might have been going on inside of them. Was it seasonal affective disorder? Faulty thyroid? Upset stomach from bad shiskabob? Pre-diabetes? Something much worse, something horrible?
You won’t take anything personally if you spend enough time poking around Hormones and Behavior, the official journal of the Society for Behavioral Endocrinology, because you will begin to think that there is a hormone responsible for every action and emotion in sentient beings. There is much more to this than the obvious ones, like testosterone or estrogen. Just read the titles: “Oxytocin and social affiliation in humans.“ “The relation between gaze aversion and cortisol reactivity in middle childhood.” “Thyroid hormones regulate anxiety in the male mouse.”
Endocrinologists are piecing together a very small part of the puzzle. There are also neuroscientists who believe the notion that we have any control over our own behavior, or any free will, is a myth. According to them, that traffic cop was a biochemical puppet, everything she thought and did was pre-ordained, bubbling up into her awareness after neurons crackled and computed, after hormones and neurotransmitters flooded cell receptors.
Many brain researchers and other experts on cognition disagree with this premise. But everyone who studies the brain for a living seems to think that the decisions we make are based mainly on processes happening below the surface, and our conscious minds –i.e., our wills– play a very minor role at best. It’s as if our conscious minds are second chair violists in a very large orchestra, but we don’t hear –and aren’t aware–of the other instruments that are playing the complex music of daily life. That idea can be oddly comforting when other people are behaving abominably. It doesn’t absolve them of responsibility, but they don’t have as much control over themselves as is commonly assumed –maybe that guy who won’t stop shrieking into his cell phone in the elevator isn’t so bad, after all.
It is easy for people with diabetes–or Crohn’s disease, or cancer, or rheumatoid arthritis, or other any other chronic condition–to get frustrated with bodies that sometimes capture and control us, and even hold us hostage. Lately, I have been lurking –and sometimes participating– in chat rooms and blogs where chronics congregate. There is a lot of back and forth about the impact of specific afflictions on moods and behaviors. It is wonderful that social media allow people to candidly articulate how physical conditions provoke anguish, depression and terror and, if they can, to suggest antidotes. But, fellow chronics, it’s also important to remember that we’re not alone, everyone on the planet is controlled and sometimes held hostage by their bodies. I’ve been schooled in both Buddhist and Jewish teachings that are meant to be gateways to patience and empathy, and they’ve helped. But my screwed-up metabolism has helped even more.