Musings on a Night in Paradise (or How to Create your Own Misery)

My father-in-law likes to repeat a Zig Ziglar saying, “It’s your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude.” Last week, in the middle of paradise, I came to agree with him (something he’d likely be amazed about). Our family traveled to Guna Yala and stayed in rustic thatched huts on a tropical island for three days while visiting my daughter who is studying albinism in Panama.

You have to understand that my idea of camping is staying in the park lodge so sleeping in a hammock and taking “bucket showers” was not high on my list of things to do before I die. On top of that I am one of those odd people who hate the beach. That’s really not correct. I hate SAND! It is pervasive. Really, if I want to exfoliate there are much more reasonable ways to do it.

We arrived on Isla Tigre in a hand-carved boat without benefit of life-preservers after a 40 minute ride in a ten-passenger airplane. (The gentleman sitting behind us from Amsterdam seemed relieved when I offered him a Dramamine at the beginning of our taxi down the runway). Our afternoon was spent mostly in a hammock. Probably my constant nodding off to sleep while trying to read Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer was due to the medication because the book is excellent. The food was tasty, though I would get tired of rice before the three days were over.

That first afternoon and most of the night I was melancholy. Here I was on a beautiful tropical island with a breeze and my family but all I could think of were the discomforts. I was too hot to sleep in the hut so I slathered on DEET and slept outside in a hammock. The toilet was located in a concrete hut with no running water–you threw in water from the bucket for the “bucket shower” in order to flush. The plumbing could not handle toilet paper so that went into a garbage can. Don’t think about the smell.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, as I was coming back to my hammock from the privy with the waves breaking on the beach ten feet away from me, I looked up at a beautiful sky full of stars and saw the Milky Way with my own eyes for the first time ever. It occurred to me that my melancholy was wholly generated from within. The thought made me laugh out loud. It was as if something burst inside and from that moment forward I knew this trip was going to be a blast and that whatever happened, I could handle it.

There are many times I see patients who create some or most of their own misery. I don’t know how to give them that kind of “ah ha” moment. Repeating my father-in-law’s expression to them would be patronizing and suggesting a trip to Guna Yala unhelpful (although seeing how happy the Guna are despite their lack of the things we consider necessary might help). Maybe the most I can do is have a little more understanding for them.

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