Saturday, December 01, 2007


Every so often somebody says something that somehow crystallizes a concept in a way that suddenly makes sense. And, given that I'm a child of the Eighties, it should come as no surprise that that 'somebody' the other day, for me, was Michael J.Fox, who made the Thursday night sitcom Family Ties and the Back To The Future trilogy of time-travel films pretty much the highlight of my formative years. (Others worshipped the altars of Jesus or Dickens; I pretty much thought, and still sort of do, that Alex P.Keaton and Marty McFly had the world figured out.)

I watched an old interview with the actor by Charlie Rose on Youtube last weekend, one in which Fox was plugging his autobiography Lucky Me, released a few years ago, a thoughtful, funny, sad and moving examination of his childhood and adolescence in Canada, his superstar status in the States, and his eventual battle with Parkinson's Disease on the cusp of thirty.

Throughout the interview, Fox was bopping back and forth in his chair like a child with ants in his pants, unable to scratch multiple itches in multiple places. (Parkinson's does that.) Fox talked about coming to grips with the disease, and how he ultimately reached a point where he finally came to a fragile sort of peace and realized: "It's not personal."

For some reason, those words floored me.

Being around cancer the past few years, the human brain struggles to figure out how and why such things are allowed to happen. Human lives are disrupted to degrees that are hard to articulate. Fears are brought to the surface, and large things become larger while small things decrease in viability. Everything is magnified or reduced, and at the core of this expansion and reduction are ordinary human beings fighting a grim and lonely battle with microscopic opponents burrowed deep beneath their skin. One's emotional states are suddenly linked directly to which cells are dividing where, and how fast. If it wasn't so sad it would be absurd.

So at first I wasn't sure what to make of what Fox said. How could disease not be personal? It attacks the core of a person's being; it elevates what should be ignored and tends to reduce that which should be exalted. It attacks specific people in specific places. What could be more personal than that?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right.

Part of Fox's evolution as a person was coming to terms with the fact that his superstar status in Hollywood meant jacksqaut in the face of a debilitating illness. When his father passed away in the late eighties, Fox, at the height of his fame, assured his family back home in British Columbia that he would charter the jet, make the arrangements, avoid the paparazzi, do what needed to be done to get the situation under control, while his big brother back in Vancouver essentially said: "Mike, just get your ass up here." After doing exactly that, getting his ass up there in time for the funeral, Fox almost came to blows with his elder sibling, so zonked out was Fox in his own world of fame and press clippings and fancy cars. And his subsequent understanding of the ramifications of Parkinson's disease led him to understand the fragility of his fame and the randomness of both good luck and bad.

It's not personal.

Sometimes I'll be out on a run, wondering why I've decided to run so far so early, and I'll literally start to resent the road in front of me, which is patently ludicrous. The road is just a road; it doesn't have anything against me. It ain't personal. When work piles up and paperwork becomes a pain, I start to resent the paperwork, too, as if it's a sentient being with its own malevolent intentions. It ain't personal. When bureaucracy rears its ugly head in embassies and elsewhere, I roll my eyes and curse the heavens, finally realizing: It ain't personal.

The world has its own internal geiger counter that measures frequencies and alphawaves that exist on another, impenetrable plane. Even when things do get personal, it usually has very little do with us; rather, the other person has their own issues that latch on us as a convenient target.

Perhaps it's an evolutionary tendency, or a remnant of the 'pathetic fallacy' I first heard about it in high school English class while reading Shakespeare, the literary notion that nature mirrors the protagonists' dilemmas. When we are blue, the gloomy skies mirror our darkened states, and when bliss pervades us, the skies, too, seem to celebrate the sunshine. We thus extrapolate even further, blaming and extolling not only our fellow humans but our closest surroundings, as if they are collaborators with our internal malaise. Do ants feel this way? Do deer? I don't think so. They live their lives in spite of the environment, and all other external conditions; only us elevated specimens of life start to see the heavens and the citites as instigators in our own evolution, conspirators against our journey through existence.

When disease strikes, as it will; when age steadily unfolds the red carpet for us to tread on, as it must; when day turns to night, as fortune dictates; when the sky turns from blue to grey and black (and back again), I think the net result is the same: It ain't personal.

To believe that we are being singled out for good or for bad necessitates believing that the universe itself has a particular stake in our own daily comings and goings. Those who are religious may believe that this is so, but for the rest of us, what's important is to realize that the very impersonality of life's endless array of events may, in fact, lead us to a deeper level of understanding, and empathy, and compassion. Is it personal that I have two legs and two arms and can therefore comfortably stroll to the local 7-11 for a refreshing chocolate milk, while the lonely-looking wheelchair-bound person near the station this morning must slowly roll his way home in the cool autumn air? Is it personal that I can see while others stay blind? Is it personal that cancer strikes some but not others?

What's personal is simply the person at the core of who we are, the person we invent on a daily basis, the one who must calmly do battle with life's greater opponents, who demands that we take pleasure from life's smaller joys. To think otherwise is to believe that life is out to get us, stomping us down, walking all over us, when perhaps the secret truth is that we can dictate where we stand, and why, almost in spite of life. It isn't personal, but we are.