Using diabetes to create a more meaningful life

My Projects page provides a partial current list of what I’m reading. Last night finishing Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, I found many insights that seemed worthy of posting here. Many can be translated to living with diabetes. The second half of Frankl’s book examines his concentration camp experience from the perspective of ‘What does it take to persevere and come through such a monumental, tragic experience?’ Can there be happiness in the overwhelming miasma of suffering? Yes, Frankl says, if we have meaning in our lives. 

Meaning not meant in a generalized sense like, “What is the meaning of life?” but in the most personal sense, “What is the meaning of my life at this time?” Frankl believed everyone has a specific, unique mission in life and finds meaning through enacting it. Being in service to others or a cause, loving someone or something and turning tragedy into triumph are ways to discover meaning in life. Psychiatrist Frankl believed, and I found this an interesting insight, that the field of psychiatry holds a dangerous misconception – that man is benefited by a lack of tension in life. What man actually needs, he hypothesizes, is struggling and striving for a worthwhile goal.  

What does this have to do with diabetes? Many people I’ve interviewed actually see diabetes as an opportunity to pursue a more meaningful life. An opportunity to become fitter and healthier, and for some, help others. They see diabetes as a wake-up call that life is short, precious, and comes with no warranty. While a bump in the road, diabetes can be the very thing that makes you sit up and recommit yourself to a more meaningful life. Perhaps to pick up a dream you left abandoned by the roadside. It can be the push to start that walking program you’ve been talking about for the past two years. The only warranty life comes with is that we get the most out of it when we discover what we truly care about and do it.

After losing my job at 48 I searched for a way I could use my talents to contribute to the world. Step by step that urge created my road to here. Since diabetes was my arena, I gained more and more knowledge and it’s been reflected in my own better management. But even if diabetes were not my focus, the excitement of waking every day to add new strokes to this canvas I’m painting, has created a deep-seated happiness and an even deeper desire to be healthy and enjoy the rest of the journey that way.

Why hasn’t the world yet realized that the attainment of wealth, status, bigger houses and corner offices doesn’t make most people happy? In fact it leaves  many miserable. More people are on anti-depressants because they feel empty inside. Boredom and depression flit quickly into the lives of those who are running so fast they never pause to ask themselves what would really make them happy. Frankl found that camp survivors who persevered, who held onto getting through it and coming out the other side, who looked forward to finding their families again and creating their next great work, these were the ones likely to survive. And, that there could actually be joy in the agony by finding a forgotten picture of a loved one. In that moment suffering was gone and elation existed.

Frankl also points out that when a man sat on his bunk and smoked all his cigarettes they knew he would soon be gone. Immediate gratification indicated giving up. Not meaning to compare the gravity of the situation, could we not look at the same principle in regards to diabetes? If you spend more time satisfying your immediate desires – that piece of cake, skipping the gym, not bothering to test your blood sugars – are we not choosing defeat in some subliminal way?

Frankl received a letter from a young man paralyzed from the neck down from a diving accident at 17. He wrote to Frankl, “The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn’t break me! I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I view my life being abundant with meaning and purpose. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible.” 

Have we not heard Patti LaBelle proclaim in TV ads, “Diabetes doesn’t control me, I control it!”  So here’s my advice, look beyond diabetes. What is it you really care about? What is it you love to do? See your diabetes management as something you do to be well, and to stay well, the bedrock from which to create your meaningful life. Even better, see your diabetes tasks as gifts you give yourself, because they will reward you with even greater health, possibly greater than if you’d never gotten diabetes at all.

If meaning is the road to happiness, and being in service, love and triumph over tragedy are paths to meaning, then use diabetes as a catalyst to create a life of greater meaning. Most people I’ve talked to felt diabetes had not made them any less happy. They still found joy in life, and many found diabetes enriched their lives, prompting them to create greater health, appreciate what they did have and help others. Can you use diabetes as a way to create a more meaningful life?  

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