The Eternally Radical Idea

The Eternally Radical Idea

Medical update plus my first ‘Coddling’ caveat

September 4, 2020

Those of you who know me are probably aware of the medical issues I had this past year or so. 

It started out at the very end of 2018 with a post-Boxing Day head injury from a car accident and it ended up with me discovering (unrelatedly, of course) that I had an aggressive and rare tumor in my jaw that had to come out. More than a half dozen doctors recommended a surgery that seemed extreme and terrifying: severing 20% of my jaw and taking parts of my fibula to reconstruct the lost jawbone. I talked to 11 different doctors until I got in front of Dr. Ravi Agarwal, an oral surgeon at Washington MedSTAR. He was the first to recommend a more experimental, but less draconian, surgery that (best of all) would not involve harvesting my fibula. 

Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of my surgery, but because of COVID, I wasn’t able to come in for follow-ups and therefore had no clue how it had actually been healing. The preliminary evidence on how it was healing did not look great, and if it failed, I would have to go through additional painful surgery with a long recovery time all over again. 

I finally got the news yesterday — and it’s great. The biggest thing I had to fear (after they determined last fall that they got the whole tumor!) was if the bone had not fused together. I learned yesterday the procedure was a success. Due to the amazing science magic of bone morphogenetic protein my jaw had grown back together!

Just because I’m critical of social media doesn’t mean I don’t think it has some real benefits and wonderful potential.

I have way too many people to thank, but got to a lot of them in the comments of this Facebook post. Right at the top of my list are of course my amazing, loving, and wise wife, my two delightful little boys, my family, friends, and FIRE colleagues. I wanted to give a special shout out to Megan McArdle, who brought me giant container after container of delicious homemade soup during the two months when I could eat only purées. Also amazing thanks Celso Palmeri, father of former FIRE legal intern Isabela Palmieri and an oral surgeon, who spent so much time giving me excellent advice as I was trying to get away from the fibula option. 

Comparatively, the bad news seems trivial, but is still a minor bummer. Due in part to my jaw overachieving in the bone growth area and the titanium plate that holds my jaw together, my face now, frankly, looks really weird. It was something that I could hide under the long beard I had grown as long as I did some careful trimming, but before this appointment I had to shave and survey the damage for myself. I will probably look this way for the rest of my life, and I permanently lost feeling in a big chunk of my face and mouth because they had to completely sever a nerve, but once again, I feel like I got out of this better than I could’ve hoped.

So why did I decide to call this a “‘Coddling’ caveat?” Because the experience reminded me of many things Jon Haidt and I talked about in the book, and also made me regret not making one point and I wanted to make it in the book.

Here are some thoughts:

  1. It was a big victory for CBT: In the book, I’m pretty open about my struggles with depression, and I really wonder if I would’ve been able to withstand all of the personal trials of 2019, particularly when followed by the everyone’s trials of 2020. I am not sure an earlier version of me could’ve handled this, but ever since recovering from my breakdown back in 2007, I no longer have the same fear of crumbling that I used to. 
  2. Antifragility: Relatedly, I was amazed at how the attitude with which my family and I faced this changed the whole experience. I can honestly say we came out of this more self-assured and far more confident that we can handle big challenges thrown our way. I left this experience feeling antifragile, and I have to say, I think our very challenging 2019 got us mentally ready for everyone’s challenging 2020.
  3. I got to use one of my goofier reframing techniques. Anytime I said to myself “this is sad, I’m going to look funny for the rest of my life due to this stupid tumor!” I simply added at the end of it by correcting myself with: “I mean funniER.” A dumb joke, just distracting enough to get me laughing at myself, which made all the difference.
  4. To be clear, in my personal and professional life, I kind of love social media. In the book, Jon and I assert that the shocking increase in anxiety and depression hitting Generation Z was at least in part due to being the first generation to grow up with social media and smartphones in their pockets. I still believe that’s true, and we talk about the latest research in Catching up with Coddling Episode Two. But in the original draft of the book, I had a paragraph talking about how much I personally enjoy social media. That got taken out mostly for space reasons.

I want to be very clear about this: I think social media poses very big problems both for polarization and for individual happiness, particularly for young people. As we adapt to social media, I think in many ways we’re being pummeled by it, with ramifications for everything from mental health to political stability.

HOWEVER…  I, most of the time, really enjoy it, and was even able to explore the really positive side of it by being very public about my health struggles over the past year. I took tremendous joy and comfort from knowing that I could vent with a large number of people, crack jokes, catch up — all of that stuff. Usually it was with people I knew, but on Twitter in particular, it was often with people I did not know at all. Yes, I greatly enjoyed the kindness of Twitter, something I practically never hear.

So, that’s how it ties back to the book, but I want to say even more directly, to both my virtual and nonvirtual friends on the interwebs: I cannot thank you enough for the kindness; the caring; the (usually) good advice; the jokes; the good vibes; the good thoughts; and yes, the prayers for this pro-religious freedom atheist; and everything else that just help entertain, distract, and amuse my mind and warm my heart. Thank you so much. 

Just because I’m critical of social media doesn’t mean I don’t think it has some real benefits and wonderful potential. I just hope we can adapt societally to some of its downsides and keep the upsides. Thanks again to everybody.