Why We Sweat the Small Stuff

Some of us would rather pretend our hard battles don't exist and invent a war over the trivial instead. Half the time, we don't even know we're doing it. But there's hope.
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Hi, my name is Ellie, and I sweat the small stuff. Sure, I got the bestselling book as a stocking stuffer back in the '90s, but when I have issues I don't want to acknowledge, I resort to my chosen form of denial. Plato writes, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Some of us would rather pretend our hard battles don't exist and invent a war over the trivial instead. Half the time, we don't even know we're doing it. But there's hope. If we ask ourselves, "Would I let this upset me on my best day?" and the answer is no, then we have a strong indicator that our reaction is masking something bigger. There's healing to be done.

You'd think we who sweat the small stuff would drown in a glass of water, but in the midst of an actual crisis, we rise above it all, buoyed by our denial. Last year, I found out I had a worrisome, massive, bone-dissolving tumor; it was the calmest I've felt in years. During initial oncology appointments, I took on the role of politician. I shook hands, listened intently, and didn't feel a thing. In the "This isn't happening to me" stage of denial, I took copious notes as a casual observer in a medical mystery. But with all the testing, I had to move on to the next stage: the Denial of Severity. I tried to lighten the mood. As my surgeon marked my leg for surgery, I adjusted my hair cap and said with a teasing smile, "I shaved just for you." And as I was wheeled down the hall for my second operation, the nurse asked if I had any last questions. "Yes!" I said, in earnest. "What should I do with my life?"

Denial gets trickier after surgery. Cement filled the hole in my leg where my giant cell tumor had been. I'd have 113 days stuck at home to process my experience. Instead, I set lofty goals for myself, determined to make the next three months the most productive in my life. I'd learn Italian, study Kubrick films, and make sense of Ulysses. But that level of ambition wears off quickly when you're wearing sweaty pajamas and can't wash your hair. So, I dropped the Renaissance Woman shtick and sought out lowbrow distractions instead. I kept telemarketers on the house line as long as possible. I spied out my rear window, but only a neighbor's cat went missing.

And then, I started sweating the small stuff. Big time. This is where I shined! I took inventory of all the insignificant ways I'd been wronged but never had time to notice until now. Like how most of the buttons had popped off our tufted sofa cushions. I called Crate and Barrel, and the store manager asked why I waited so long to issue a complaint. "Because," I said, "I used to have a life. And now, this couch is my life." There was nothing he could do; the couch had been discontinued. Probably because of the buttons.

"Elles, this isn't about the sofa buttons," remarked my husband that night.

"Fine," I said, contentious from my ice cream and pain killer snack. "It's about the Tumor. And the buttons."

In order to get out of my funk, I had to process what I'd gone through. I had to admit that despite my want for structure and predictability, my cells rebelled. I'd never be the same inside or out. I'd probably always hurt. There were so many things I'd never be able to do again. It could come back and leave me with so much less. I took a deep cleansing breath and sobbed. But it felt selfish to grieve for my old, whole self when others are battling for their lives. And so, I spent a few days in bed feeling bad about feeling bad. And then, my friend Lindsay reminded me that I had to honor my experience in order to heal. Healing is the opposite of selfish. Greek historian Plutarch writes, "What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality." In other words, when we heal, it benefits everyone around us. Oh, and also, our spouses are less likely to go screaming into the night.

It's been a year, but I suppose I'll always relapse. Like the other night. To my horror, I found my swimsuit in the dryer. Didn't my husband understand that this oversight would lead to a "shrinkage or weight gain" spiral when I later tried it on? He hinted that I was blowing the dryer situation out of proportion. I tried my best to sound rational as I said, "I'm not overreacting. I'm simply reacting to this and the past ten things I didn't react to before this." In translation, I've got my quarter-year chest and knee X-rays coming up, and my tumor's high recurrence rate and potential metastasis freak me out. Eventually, once I've exhausted myself by nitpicking the small stuff, I breathe in and lean into the big stuff. I acknowledge what I'm fearing. I'm a little nicer to myself. And I heal a little more.

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