“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” ~James Openheim
December 19, 2001: this will forever be written in history as the day I was pitied by a 90 year-old.
I was holiday shopping at the mall, grimacing in pain with each step I took. “One… two… three…” I counted my steps, hoping to distract myself from the painful task before me: reaching the Bath and Body Works store roughly 300 yards ahead.
After several torturous minutes, I looked up. The store was still an oasis in the distance – perhaps a mirage in this vast desert-of-a-mall.
Had I even made any progress at all?
Just then I noticed a 90 year old man – stooped, shaky, and walking slowly as a turtle, like old men often do. To my absolute horror, the old man passed me with ease.
He turned around and spoke to me: “You OK? You aren’t looking so good.”
Tears of desperation welled up in my eyes.
“No,” I said. “No, not really.”
The reason for the old man’s pity? In a strange stroke of fate, I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis during my sophomore year of high school.
“You have a severe case,” the doctor had told me without a hint of empathy. She explained the science behind it: for unknown reasons, my immune system was recognizing my joints as foreign bodies and attacking them full-force.
I had always imagined that arthritis was some mildly annoying affliction that only affected old people. I unwillingly discovered that in my case, it was much more than just annoying – in fact, it was devastating. It felt as if I had a constant and never-ending war raging in my joints, as if I had badly sprained my knees, my wrists, and my elbows all at once, and all I could do was endure it.
“What did you do to your knees?” people would ask me with concern. I didn’t blame them for asking – my knees were inflamed and swollen to the size of ripe watermelons ready to burst.
“Nothing,” I answered truthfully.
My classmates were worried about getting their homework done or about who would ask them to homecoming. I was worried about whether I could walk down the halls without wincing in pain or whether I would even have the energy to get out of bed for the day. Things that were supposed to be easy became nearly impossible. Even tasks as simple as stepping into the shower and getting out of my desk after class were excruciating.
With tears in my eyes, I lamented in my never-ending misery. “If only I could feel normal again,” I cried, “I would be so unbelievably happy.”
Fast forward seven years, and my dream had somehow become a reality. As the years passed, my symptoms slowly decreased in severity until one day, for no apparent reason, they became nearly imperceptible.
For the first time in years, I could go to sleep each night without dreading the day that lay ahead. I could bounce up and down flights of stairs without a thought. I felt like a normal person again.
So here’s the big question: did I suddenly become ridiculously, enormously, unbelievably happy? The sad truth is, I didn’t.
After I started feeling better physically, new concerns arrived. “If only I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” I lamented, “then I would be so unbelievably happy.””If only I could find the right guy,” I cried, “then I would be so unbelievably happy.”
In the meantime, my health was vibrant and my joints were pain free.