Karen Duffy, who has steadfastly refused to let the chronic pain of sarcoidosis rule her life, finds strength, comfort, gratitude, and love in the wisdom of the Stoics
Let me tell you what I know about Karen Duffy. Aka “Duff.” Aka one of the strongest, most resilient, and laugh-out-loud funny women I know.
But first, some background.
For those of us who came of age in the MTV era, Duff was our muse: the cool girl, the it girl, the young woman with the giant smile who was unafraid to show her goofy side and be real.
Then, in 1996, she was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an incurable inflammatory disease of the brain, central nervous system, and lungs that causes constant, searing pain.
Duff ended up marrying a classmate of mine from college, but I didn’t get to know her until she hopped into the backseat of my car just last spring. We’d both been invited to the 60th birthday weekend of our mutual friend, Jean (a delayed 60th birthday, as Jean’s actual 60th had to be canceled due to COVID.) Chronic pain prevents Duff from wearing a seatbelt over her right shoulder, so she needed a ride to the weekend which would allow her to sit comfortably in the back seat for the four-hour journey. Jean put us in touch, and voilà: one of the most inspiring forty-eight hours of my life had begun.
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Over the course of that weekend, I not only grew to love Duff, I became mesmerized by the ways in which she not only smiles, she beams sun rays through her pain. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that Duff is one of the happiest humans I’ve ever met. How, I asked, is she able to remain so present, grateful, and alive while battling crippling pain?
Easy, she said. She has been a longtime student of the Stoics. And they have taught her everything she needs to know about living well under any circumstances.
I was embarrassed to admit I’d never read the Stoics. In fact, I told Duff, my Stoics ignorance was kind of a massive, shameful hole in my education.
So Duff, being Duff, filled me in. She quoted directly from Epictetus: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” She filled me in on the tenets of Seneca, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius. She yanked those Stoics straight out of the dustbin of history, sentence by sentence, and made them not only alive to me but readily applicable to my modern life. She’d just written a book about them, she said, in the form of a letter to her son, who was about to graduate from high school. She wanted to pass on their ancient wisdom to him, too, before he set off on his life path.
The week after I arrived home from that weekend upstate, Duff’s book, Wise Up, landed at my front door the same way Duff herself arrived in my car: with a life-changing bang. True to her irreverent nature, she’d taken a Sharpie to her beautiful face and marked it up with a beard and mustache. The book itself is much the same: stunning insights mixed with side-splitting irreverence.
She signed the opening letter to her son thus: “I endured years of fertility treatments to have you. Don’t be a helpless sack of organs, Mum.” She goes on an entire riff about the modern day curse of her name, Karen. Of her own funeral, she writes, “I want a novelty recording of spooky sound effects, normally used to scare trick-or-treaters, to greet my mourners.” But she also offers the kind of wisdom that not only came at the exact moment I needed to hear it, the words of the Stoics got me through the better part of a difficult year and formed the foundation of my current ability to weather, well, hopefully anything. Life happens, as Epictetus reminds us. It’s up to us how we react to it.
In fact, I ended up having to draw directly upon Epictetus’ words exactly one week after receiving Duff’s book, when a second round of COVID stole my hearing. “It’s not what happens to you,” I kept repeating to myself like a mantra, “but how you react to it that matters.” Duff, who sends a handwritten thank you note every day of her life—be it to an old friend or the barista at her local coffee shop—sent a care package of sweets to my home plus a machine to exercise my newly ravaged lungs.
But while these gifts were nourishing and useful in equal measure, it was in rereading passages from Duff’s book, especially those like this one, that helped me stop feeling sorry for myself, embrace the silence, buy some hearing aids at Costco, and carry on:
“Whatever’s coming, it’s going to be painful, it will be worrying, it will be gut wrenching, and it’s going to leave a mark. This is why it’s important to have philosophy of life. Stoicism offers wisdom and insight. When you’re alone, it offers good company. When you’re ambitious, it inspires self-discipline. When you’re lazy, it motivates action. When you’re fortunate, it reminds you to be grateful and moderate. When you’re suffering, it teaches you to dig deep and be resilient. When you are anxious and fearful, it gives you the knowledge that you have the guts to carry on.”
Yes yes!, I thought. Then I repeated the words of Epictetus again: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Herewith, an interview Duff and I did together a little over a month ago: