A clear November sky hovers over Austin. As the sun shines through oak trees shedding leaves, a brisk breeze makes the leaves dance across our patio like they are listening to Western swing.
The fourth anniversary of my Parkinson’s diagnosis has just passed. Watching the leaves descend in the wind, I remember a line from a Walt Whitman poem, “Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul.”
Though I practiced a periodic re-examination of my life before having Parkinson’s, my diagnosis has upped the frequency and intensity of this practice. Illness can call into question nearly anything you believe, value, seek after, and hope for; and also what you assume about your future. Illness can also awaken you in ways that force you to re-examine what and whom you may count on, and can prompt a shedding of certain values, priorities, practices, and even people that are not good for you.
Parkinson’s has helped me get better at relinquishing what I cannot control. For example, I spend much less emotional energy these days on worrying about what my future with Parkinson’s will entail: how I will function, my appearance, and my quality of life. All of this matters to me, but it’s mostly beyond my control and also lies in the future. I focus more on today.
Letting go of these concerns, and others, I give my energy to being the best version of myself possible. I can control how I treat others and the values I embrace and live out. I can choose how I use my resources. I can also determine with whom I spend time. I can choose my people — those who encourage me to live well with Parkinson's and to be a better human because of it.
Joseph Campbell said, "Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again." To my surprise, having Parkinson’s has created a sacred space that invites ongoing opportunities for growth. In this way, having Parkinson’s is a spiritual thing. It bids us to re-examine ourselves, and, like trees in autumn, to shed what we should and to find ourselves, over and over again.
I have written other pieces on the spiritual nature of having Parkinson’s for my blog, PD Wise. These include: Spiritual Questions, Let Tomorrow Come Tomorrow, and Seeing Adversity from the Back of a Sanctuary.
I welcome learning about your journey. Email me at email@example.com.
Allan Cole is deputy to the president for societal challenges and opportunities at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a professor in The Steve Hicks School of Social Work and, by courtesy, professor of psychiatry in the Dell Medical School. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2016, at the age of 48, he serves on the Board of Directors at Power for Parkinson’s, a nonprofit organization in Central Texas. He is the author or editor of 11 books on a range of topics related to bereavement, anxiety, and spirituality. His latest book is Counseling Persons with Parkinson’s Disease (Oxford University Press, 2021). His next book, a memoir titled Discerning the Way: Lessons from Parkinson’s Disease, will be released this fall. Follow him on Twitter @PDWise.