Gilbert Gottfried had a joke that included the land of the one-name people—there was also the pretentious first initial people, I think, like F. Scott Fitzgerald—and there was a time I thought the joke was brilliant, especially in the context of Gottfried’s delivery.
But not today.
I have been planning to write about Prince’s death, and the role of chronic pain in that far-too-early passing.
I was sidetracked by nerd-panic over Captain America, and then Ali died as well.
I cannot claim to have been a fan of Prince. What I can say is that I was, from the very first moment I heard and saw Prince, in awe of Prince—the enormity of his gifts, the size of his presence.
Ali was a completely different story because he was an iconic target of the racism within which I was raised. I was brought up to scorn Ali.
From young adulthood until today, I have worked diligently to make amends for those facts of my life that were not my decision, but for which I still feel responsible.
Today, now, as the world has lost both Prince and Ali, I can say without hesitation that I live in awe of both men—I am driven to cold chills and tears because of the grandeur of their lives, their living.
But that Prince fell victim to chronic pain and Ali lived a deteriorated man for years hurt me to the core in a way that I understand in ways I wish I did not.
Along with my lifelong battle with anxiety, I suffer under the weight of chronic pain—and I have no real way to separate the two since I think the anxiety and chronic pain are working in tandem, a brutal cycle.
How does someone of Prince’s talent and fame end up dead and alone, fallen by his battle with chronic pain?
I don’t know the facts of Prince’s life, but I do know that anxiety and chronic pain are the twin cousins of a much more powerful and dangerous force: embarrassment.
As a tremendously privileged white male, I am not writing a pity party here, but even my privileges work to create an even greater bubble of embarrassment.
My anxiety and chronic pain make me feel weak, inadequate, and hopeless—less of a man, less human because I cannot enjoy my mortal shell.
Even on the best days and during the most wonderful moments—moments public and intimate—anxiety and chronic pain tag along, hover there, tap me on the shoulder.
In Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that the ultimate tragedy of poverty is that people living in scarcity cannot take a vacation from poverty.
That is the anchor of anxiety and chronic pain—there are no vacations, even when we stoop to proper and self-medication.
If we find ways to numb the chronic pain, we still know it is there, that it will return. Chronic pain is chronic, it isn’t a wound or affliction that will heal.
Along while Prince’s pain, I am petrified of the natural deterioration of aging, held before us by Ali’s struggle with disease.
When the mighty fall, we all must be more aware of our shared humanity, a frailty that cannot be ignored forever.
Ali was vilified for his bravado, that scorn a base code for rejecting the nerve of a black man to demand with words his own and other’s dignity.
I live in the shroud of embarrassment created by anxiety and chronic pain, but my heart is drawn to Prince and Ali as they lived, as they celebrated themselves as evidence that we humans can be glorious if we so choose.
Their public selves were the antithesis, the antidote to embarrassment for simply being ourselves.
Today, I am sad, yes, but I also feel fortunate to have been gifted these possibilities of living life freely and proudly—as Ali demanded: “You must listen to me.”