There once was a man who was extremely sick. Maybe you just thought to yourself, “Lots of people are sick, so why should I care about this one sick guy?” Well, I mention this particular sick person because he had a very rare disease. In fact, he is the only person in world history known to have ever been afflicted by this particular malady. Plus, when his symptoms manifested, it was excruciatingly painful for the sick man: beyond the limits of human conception, really. I’ll give you an idea of just how painful by describing some of his symptoms.
Here’s one. Whenever the man was surprised or saw an attractive human female, his eyeballs would shoot with a loud suction-cup popping sound straight out of his head in the direction of the surprise or woman, presumably to get a closer look. His out-of-control eyeballs would then rapidly enlarge, engorged with blood, stretching the cords that held them to his brain tight like rubber-bands. These made a sound like the vibrating of a large metal spring, while from the man’s mouth emerged a noise like a submarine horn. Seconds later, in a final burst of frenetic jiggling, his obnoxiously protruding eyeballs would finally succumb to gravity. At which time the man would fretfully apologize to whoever was nearby, and in a clumsily embarrassed way try to put his eyeballs back in their sockets. But they were slippery and often flew from his fingers like fresh watermelon seeds. Sometimes he would get his eyes into his sockets, but they’d be in the opposite ones with his optic nerves all crossed and knotted. So then he’d stumble blindly away to find someplace private to fix his face, holding his eyeballs in his upturned palms so he could sort of see where he was going.
Here’s another bizarre thing that would sometimes happen to the very sick man. When he got angry, boiling-hot steam would shoot from his ears and make a screeching sound like a locomotive whistle. The scorching vapor would burn his ears inside and out, leaving massive blisters all over the side of his reddened face. So the man tried to avoid getting mad by taking courses in anger management, deep relaxation and mindfulness meditation. He also avoided watching, reading or listening to the news, especially during our long presidential campaigns. But, the world being what it is, he couldn’t avoid getting mad sometimes.
Also (and this happened with unusual frequency), the poor sick man often had the bad fortune to find himself on top of tall cliffs or skyscraper roofs, which he would invariably fall from. Then he would drop through the air until he went splat! on hard rocky or concrete ground, where his body would instantaneously flatten into an evenly spread-out puddle of mutilated skin. Eventually, over the course of minutes, hours – or even days – he’d reconstitute to his original form. Which, as you can imagine, hurt like…well, there really is no word strong enough to describe how that felt.
Because he had Cartoonitis – the world’s rarest (and, some might say, weirdest) disease – the very sick man became the subject of many medical tests done by some of the world’s most renowned physicians. They poked him with needles, probed him with scanners and pumped him full of pharmaceuticals both common and experimental. Multitudes of articles and books about him were published by university presses, which were then promptly popularized, misinterpreted and sensationalized by mass-media hacks competing with one another for higher ratings. Several journals were devoted solely to studying his disorder. Tens of millions of dollars in government grants were allocated, and crowdsourcing by sympathetic social media sites showing videos of his tragic condition raised millions more in private donations.
Despite their financial resources, dedication and brilliance, doctors were at a complete loss to either explain or treat his disease. Ultimately, they were puzzled by the fact that he did not die, or even sustain permanent physical damage from the injuries he repeatedly endured. Exhausted by the sheer number of problems requiring their professional attention, all serious researchers moved on to more profitable prospects.
The medical establishment’s abandonment created a scientific vacuum. In the mainstream media, this was filled by New Age charlatans, snake-oil salesmen and celebrity “doctors” who hosted daytime television talk shows. They used the very sick man to boost their ratings and destroy their TV-timeslot adversaries.
But psychologists and psychiatrists also moved in to figure out how the very sick man managed to withstand such unbelievable pain without lapsing into unremitting psychosis or catatonia. They interviewed and interrogated him, stuck electrodes to his scalp and measured his brain waves with fMRI, CT, PET, EEG and MEG machines. Yet the mystery of his condition persisted, ultimately prompting innumerable hypotheses that were then expounded upon and argued over in the academic and popular press. But none of them explained the unprecedented phenomenon.
A few ambitious therapists even tried to help the very sick man cope with his unfortunate predicament. But despite their good intentions, they failed because his experience was so far beyond what anyone had ever suffered and survived. Soon after admitting that their “treatment” of the very sick man had failed, many of them either attempted or successfully committed suicide.
Still, the very sick man just went on living…unable to die. Suffering – moment-by-moment, day-by-day – never quite knowing when something horrifically bizzare might happen to him. But eventually, on his 88th birthday, the very sick man finally died: peacefully, in his sleep, of old age.
There is no moral to this story. But if I had to make one up (which I will), it’s that everyone suffers: no exceptions. Just that some suffer more than others, and suffering is relative. For example, many people who suffer relatively little (compared to others) believe their suffering is intolerable. Meanwhile, those who suffer pains that most people cannot even contemplate just go on living.
Often happily. Simply because they experience something rather than nothing. Because it turns out that, for the most part, something is better than nothing: if you can summon the strength to welcome whatever comes, no matter how painful or seemingly tragic.
If you understand that, congratulations. You are now fully alive.