life’s an itch

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”    – Victor Frankl

I was out in my yard, minding my own business, when the Spawn of Satan attacked me.

Actually it was a gang of yellow jackets. And if you asked them, they’d probably tell you that pushing a lawn mower across their nest isn’t exactly “minding my own business,” that the yard I consider mine is in reality theirs, or their queen’s, and that they’re not a “gang,” they’re a “colony.”

Really, though, they wouldn’t tell you that, because yellow jackets can’t talk.

There’s another thing they can’t do, either, and that’s take a chill pill and be the slightest bit reasonable. I’ll confess that I do not read every issue of Entymology Today, and I may have missed an article on “Consciousness and Decision-Making in Yellow Jackets.” But I will say this:  if any of them took a deep breath, reflected on what was happening, and made a mindful choice about how to respond, or if, as a community, they created opportunity for dialogue so that everyone felt heard and valued and wisdom emerged collectively, and if, in that dialogue characterized by mutuality and shared respect, they discussed the criteria of just war theory, considered trying sanctions instead of launching at attack, or beseeched their elders for counsel, they did it very quickly. My feelings may be clouding my judgment here, but I think a yellow jacket is a pure stimulus-response-no-space-between kind of creature who has probably never even heard of Victor Frankl.

Of course, in that particular moment, so was I. They stung. I ran. No space. No Frankl. TheystungIran.

I ran with the speed of a man much younger, the wisdom of one much older, and the vocabulary you might expect in such a circumstance from men and women of any age. I reached the porch and was about to dash inside when I realized they were still stinging me – several were embedded in the black dress socks I was too nerdy to change when I came home from work — and if I went indoors just yet I would become their Trojan Horse. So I swatted and smacked and swept and swore before finally, mercifully, making an escape.

I spent the evening lying down with my legs on fire. Jeanine fed me Benadryl and applied a poultice of baking soda and water to the stings. Whether either helped at all is hard to say, but I was grateful for her kindness and that what felt like a thousand stings was in fact only seven.

The next morning, when I awoke, the fire was gone, but there were seven sunburn-warm whelps on my legs, and they had begun to itch. Or, to be precise:  to itch LIKE CRAZY!

What is more, there were also several patches of poison ivy breaking out on my arms, from my biceps (such as they are) all the way to my fingertips. I am extremely allergic to poison ivy and very careful to avoid it. But prior to mowing, I had done some weeding, and I suppose then I must have accidentally looked at some.

Thus began a week of itching — like crazy.

Here is what an itch feels like:  like something is crawling around on the surface of your skin. I know that’s a creepy thought, creepy literally, but it’s true, and it’s why the urge to scratch is so automatic, because you want to remove this little invader (“remove” being a euphemism for “claw to death!”) before it does something to hurt you.

That’s what an itch feels like on the outside. On the inside, it feels like a sinister electric being has hijacked your nervous system and is madly, and maddeningly, pushing buttons, yanking chains, and loosening every screw possible, with the express purpose of driving you utterly insane. It’s a drippy faucet, the neighbor’s dog barking in the middle of the night, and someone’s car alarm honking for an hour outside your window, all rolled into one.

For the next seven days there were twenty or so of those creepy things on me, taking turns so that six or eight of them were moving around at all times. Often it felt less like they were crawling and more like they were having a little dance party, with the mad scientist in my nervous system spinning the tunes. They swapped in and out as they jolly well pleased, but I was the non-stop dance club.

Here’s something else about an itch:  there is no cure. This flies in the face of what we wish were true — that there is a fix for every problem and we are entitled to it – but there are indeed things that effort, action, and striving can not change, and an itch is one of them.

Yes, there are antihistamines, steroidal creams, oatmeal baths, hot compresses, cold compresses, mint oil, camphor, not to mention a bottle of poison ivy lotion that a very thoughtful neighbor might bring you, a neighbor you will appreciate no less after you read the expiration date on the bottle and see that it was thirteen months ago. I tried them all, and some of them helped a little. But none of them made the itching go away.

There is also scratching. Scratching is a vile and disgusting habit when someone else is doing it. But when it’s just you, and no one is watching, scratching is absolutely on the Top Ten List of Most Satisfying Things in the World. It. Feels. So. Good.

Sadly, though, the pleasure of scratching (which I like to call scratchisfaction) lasts only as long as the actual scratching, and eventually there are other things you have to do with your hands, like tie your shoes, clean the kitchen, or, hypothetically, Google “how to destroy a yellow jacket nest.” What is more, and also sadly, scratching irritates the skin further and makes the itching worse. It’s like giving one of those little dancers a hit of Red Bull.

There is also appealing to a Higher Power, as when – also hypothetically – a person is driving his or her car (possibly even waiting at a red light at the corner of French Broad and Patton) and experiences such an intense attack from the sinister one upon his or her skin and nervous system, that he or she finds himself, or herself, shouting aloud, “Holy Mother of Joe Biden, deliver me please!” This kind of praying does not help either. Hypothetically.

Nothing cures an itch. Nothing. There is no fix. An itch arises, endures, and passes away entirely on its own.

There are lots of things like this, obviously, things without fixes and cures, which may be why they get top billing in one of the world’s best known prayers: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” There’s something about seeing this — seeing that there is no cure, that there are tides so strong we cannot swim against them, that the best we can do is relax and float – that actually helps, or that helped me. Once I understood that I would be living with itch for as long as itch lasted, once I got that, something shifted in me, and I felt my nervous system settle down. My skin still itched, but I was free at least from the grip of the mad scientist.

There are lots of ways to itch, of course, compulsions and cravings in all variety of sizes and colors. There are urges to control, to possess, to retaliate, to be important, to interrupt, to yell, to judge, to steal, to cheat, to lie, to eat, to drink, to sleep, to sleep with, to hide, to criticize, to dismiss, to retaliate, to hold a grudge, to quit, to dominate, to humiliate, to submit, to avoid, to be seen, to be hidden, to be adored, to be right, to be first, to be perfect, to fix, to rescue, to hoard, to fight, to run away, to zone out – to name just a few – and in their presence we can look and feel like stimulus-response machines, beings without the freedom and power Frankl described, creatures who live in chaos and scratch at everything.

We can not make these itches go away. We can only hope to live well alongside them, and for that we do at least have a resource. No one knows an exact name for this resource — it seems to answer to names like spirit, mind, and God – but whatever we call it, whatever it is, its faculties include things like seeing clearly, being still, having control of our actions, and relating to things with Love. It’s the thing Wendell Berry makes me think of when he writes, “[W]e pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear,” and it’s what I was thinking of when I named this blog, “clear eyes, full heart.” It also seems to be the case that the more we call upon it, the stronger it grows in us, and that when we use any one of its capacities, the others often come along for the ride.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the great spiritual teachers ever speaks directly about itching. This makes me assume that none of them – not Jesus, not the Prophets, not Mohammed, Lao Tzu, or the Buddha – not a one of them was allergic to poison ivy or ever ran over any yellow jackets with a lawn mower.

But Mohammed did say this:  “My Satan has become a faithful servant.” And in some limited way, I think I understood. Maddening though it was initially, and unpleasant though it was throughout, itching prompted me to seek a resource other than cure and, in a strange way, increased the power of spirit in me. My tormentor had become a mentor, my Satan a faithful servant.

I should definitely add that there are injustices and afflictions we should never accept, circumstances for which we need “the courage to change,” and that there are experiences more painful and more consequential than itch – things like addiction, illness, conflict, and loss. But I do not discount, and I am grateful for, the things that happened during that week of itching.

I am also grateful for Mohammed’s permission to use the word Satan. And yes, yellow jackets, I’m thinking of you.

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