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When I read this I never want to complain again

July 18, 2010

Every so often, the sufferings of a fellow human being break through the consumer haze and teach us how to value life in a way that isn’t twee or glib. Times columnist Melanie Reid broke her neck and back in April and has been writing about her experiences weekly for the Saturday Magazine. Last Saturday she wrote, like a prophet from the wilderness about What No Longer Matters. It’s powerful stuff, and has changed – just to give one example – the way I experience rain…

Nothing, take it from me, gives you a clearer perspective on society’s obsession with physical desirability than a date with spinal paralysis, although I imagine that suffering from other terrible illnesses must do the same. When one is fighting for one’s life or physical identity – not to mention other vital skills, such as learning to hold a large latte – there is something profoundly alienating about a world that increasingly judges people solely by their ever-readiness and suitability for sex…

Now I don’t want to sound too hair-shirted about this. It’s nice to look good and be admired. But there is absolutely no doubt that when something as catastrophic as paralysis strikes, it completely alters your view, and your family’s and close friends’ view, of what really matters in life. And probably top of the What No Longer Matters list are the various shallow insanities of the fashion and beauty industry, and our obsession with being thin.

There are loads of other things, too, that have occurred to me over the past few weeks. People who moan all the time about their life or their job or their relationship. You don’t like it, do something about it. Leave. Confront it. Retrain. But do something. Appreciate the fact that you have a body that works and the chance of a full life. Don’t waste it moaning.

Ditto for those who complain about the rain. I lie in bed at night and yearn for the feel of rain on my face, a scouring wind in the small of my back or the smell of the grass after a shower. Weather of any kind, when you are closeted long-term in a hot hospital, becomes like another desperate, missing sensation, a distant memory of how life used to be.

I asked my family how their attitudes to life had changed. They said, primarily, that their perspective of time changed radically. Being late, rushing, getting stuck in traffic jams, missing phone calls – these things didn’t matter any more…

Other things not to worry about? All the things the consumer society has conspired to make us fret totally unnecessarily about: new sofas; curtains that match; break-the-bank kitchens; service in restaurants; crowded trains; snobbery of all kinds. Damage your spine and you are freed of all these hassles in an instant, liberated from the supreme irrelevancies that clutter all our lives.

With devastating clarity you come to realise that what does matter, of course, is life stripped down to real things – not just things as basic as mobility and health, or the ability to feed yourself, but also people who love you; kindness from unexpected quarters…generosity of spirit; a sense of the ridiculous…access to peace and quiet. I’m sure the list will grow longer as my rehabilitation progresses.

Sounds like a rehabilitation we could all do with.

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