Chronic Disease, Empathy and Surly Traffic Cops

“Don’t take anything personally,” Don Miguel Ruiz advises us in The Four Agreements, a memorable guide to Toltec philosophy. He gives one good reason:

All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in…Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds…

It’s hard not to take it personally when other people are surly or otherwise unpleasant. But I need that ability in order to live and work in New York City, which sometimes seems like the international capital of casual crankiness and bad moods. Fortunately, I have been given a gift that makes it somewhat easier: my chronic disease, diabetes.

Don Ruiz is a wise man, but he missed something important about people. They say and do things not only because of the “dreams” –and words, and memories—thrumming in their minds. Their behavior is also prompted by what is happening in their bodies at any given moment. In fact, the dreams, words and memories thrumming in their minds are shaped, at least in part, by their bodies –and not just the “thinking” parts of their brains, but also their glands, organs, lymph nodes, bones, etc.

Even though it’s obvious that our own bodies affect our moods, it is easy to forget that this happens to other people, because we are lost in our dreams. So I try to use my diabetes to help me remember. Low blood sugar, for example, can make me cranky, silly, depressed or irrational—or all four. High blood sugar sometimes makes me lethargic and inattentive.

It was useful to keep this in mind two weeks ago when a traffic cop wouldn’t even respond or look at me while I complained about a ticket she had slapped on my windshield. And when a co-worker didn’t invite me to a meeting I wanted to attend. And when a man on a sidewalk growled at me after I’d nudged his elbow as I walked past. And when a friend wrote something needlessly snide and cruel in a private Facebook message. What often goes on inside of me triggered questions about what might have been going on inside of them. Was it seasonal affective disorder? Faulty thyroid? Upset stomach from bad shiskabob? Pre-diabetes? Something much worse, something horrible?

Spend enough time poking around Hormones and Behavior, the official journal of the Society for Behavioral Endocrinology, and you won’t take anything personally, because you will begin to think that there is a hormone responsible for every action and emotion in sentient beings. There is much more to this than the obvious ones, like testosterone or estrogen. Just read the titles: “Oxytocin and social affiliation in humans.“ “The relation between gaze aversion and cortisol reactivity in middle childhood.” “Thyroid hormones regulate anxiety in the male mouse.”

Endocrinologists are piecing together a very small part of the puzzle. There are also neuroscientists who believe the notion that we have any control over our own behavior, or any free will, is a myth. According to them, that traffic cop was a biochemical puppet, everything she thought and did was pre-ordained, bubbling up into her awareness after neurons crackled and computed, after hormones and neurotransmitters flooded cell receptors.

Many brain researchers and other experts on cognition disagree with this premise, as noted here and here. But everyone who studies the brain for a living seems to think that the decisions we make are based mainly on processes happening below the surface, and our conscious minds –i.e., our wills-- play a very minor role at best. It’s as if our conscious minds are second chair violists in a very large orchestra, but we don’t hear –and aren’t aware--of the other instruments that are playing the complex music of daily life. That idea can be oddly comforting when other people are behaving badly. It doesn't absolve them of responsibility for acting like creeps, but they don't have as much control over themselves as is commonly assumed --maybe they're not so bad, after all.

It is easy for people with diabetes--or Crohn’s disease, or cancer, or rheumatoid arthritis, or other any other chronic condition--to get frustrated with bodies that sometimes capture and control us, and even hold us hostage. Lately, I have been lurking –and sometimes participating-- in chat rooms and blogs where chronics congregate. There is a lot of back and forth about the impact of specific afflictions on moods and behaviors. It is wonderful that social media allow people to candidly articulate how physical conditions provoke anguish, depression and terror and, if they can, to suggest antidotes. But I believe it is also important to remember that we are not alone, everyone on the planet is controlled and sometimes held hostage by their bodies. A screwed-up metabolism and even debilitating disease can be gateways to patience, and to empathy for everyone, especially those who try to push our buttons and get under our skin.

Originally published in The Insulin Chronicles.

Thank you for writing this, it prompts me to think more carefully about crankiness in both me and other people.

You're most welcome.



Beautifully written! You have conveyed your message so eloquently. Thank you.

What a great read, thank you Dan. I'll try and think about that the next time I encounter a surly soul. It may make me look at them differently.

very thought provoking indeed. as a yoga instructor and spiritual seeker I very much try to walk the walk and be empathetic towards others. It is great to keep this in mind that we never know what is going on in anyone else's life. There is a Buddhist parable I like to share especially if working with children called the gift of insults, it is a bit long but you may enjoy.

Buddhist Parable: Gift of Insults: Often, it is easy to forget that our emotions are within our control. Insults and harsh words can only cause harm if permitted to, as we see in this story of a wise old warrior. The Gift of Insults Once there lived a very old warrior, and although he had grown old in age he remained able to defeat anyone who confronted him. Students would follow him, hoping to learn and receiving lessons from the old warrior's insight and experience. One day a stranger came to the village. This stranger was a young warrior and this young warrior was determined to defeat this undefeatable old man. The young warrior was confident, not only in his own strength but in his ability to spot weakness in any opponent he had ever battled. He had a strategy: wait for the opponent to make a move, the weakness would be revealed, and the young warrior would strike hard and fast and win, every time. The old warrior's students feared for their master's safety, for he was quite old and this young warrior seemed intimidating, but the old warrior brushed them aside and accepted the young warrior's challenge. As they began the fight, the old warrior remained still. The young warrior began shouting insults at the old man. He spit at the old man and threw dirt at him, trying to anger his opponent into striking first. But the old man waited. For hours the young warrior continued his bashing of the old warrior, only to be met with the calm gaze of the old warrior's eyes. Finally, the young warrior accepted the old man was just not going to strike first and he walked away, ashamed for he had been defeated without the old man even lifting a finger. The students crowded around the old warrior, disappointed that their master didn't throw the young warrior about and teach him a lesson for insulting him so. They asked, "How could you just stand there and take such insults and disrespect? Why didn't you fight him and throw him out of the village?" The old warrior looked at his students and said, "If someone comes to give you a gift, and you do not receive it, to whom does the gift belong?" The students realized they had much to learn, and went about following the master's instructions.

so I guess we can only control our own actions and reactions... although there are many many reasons for behavior as you suggest I do think society in general could benefit from self study, mindfulness and building empathy. if all this took place there would be less 'bad' behavior and a more peaceful, productive society! that being said people that struggle with more challenges like all of us here, tend to be more empathetic! many blessings, amy

Thanks, Amy. You are preaching to the converted. I'm a "JewBuu." Have been reluctant to incorporate that into my writing thus far, but I do know, from my own life, that nurturing compassion --or as one of my teachers put, "practicing the heart"--is more important than just about anything we can do.

Hi Dan, JewBuu I love it!! I sensed from your writing we were on a similar page. I was raised catholic and haven't really gone to church in many many years, but felt a need for a bit more of community and started attending a nondenominational church, they play awesome Christian rock, the minister dresses in jeans and so for has mostly talked about doing the work of love hugely motivating and straight form modern day life, even my teens and husband enjoyed it last week and may attend at least intermittently, but still going to keep studying the middle way! nice to witness your open heart! amy