Many people enjoy the horrific thrills offered by books and movies about ghosts, vampires, and psychics, but if you want something really eerie and unsettling, parapsychology is nothing compared to parasitology. In college I took a seminar course in the latter taught by a medical school professor whose research was devoted to eliminating the scourge of parasites, and it was one of the most consistently disturbing experiences I have ever had. It was troubling for three reasons. First, it was my introduction to the fact that there was a huge swath of infectious diseases out there in the world that were not caused by the bacteria and viruses that most of us are familiar with – that were caused instead by worms and one-celled critters that laughed at antibiotics. Sure, you probably know malaria is caused by a non-bacterial parasite (called a plasmodium), but did you know there are dozens and dozens of other worse parasitical diseases out there, upon which the medicines with which you and I are familiar have no effect?
Second, it was astounding to learn that these diseases afflicted literally hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. This was in the early ‘80s, when AIDS had just appeared. It had probably infected a couple hundred thousand Americans at the most at that time, but was front-page news; yet parasitic diseases like leishmaniasis, which infects one or two million people each year (and kills 60,000), were news to me. (Almost all serious parasitic diseases are rampant in the developing world, so folks in the developed world can blithely ignore them.)
The third reason that learning about parasitic diseases was so alarming was the most visceral: some of these diseases had fearful and even bizarre symptoms. Onchocerciasis, for example, is colloquially known as “river blindness”, because it is transmitted by the bite of an insect that breeds in rivers and because the critter passed to the human in the bite eventually affects the cornea of the eye. Lymphatic filariasis is an infection by a tiny worm that often (as in 40 million people afflicted) causes elephantiasis, a condition in which arms, legs, and other less unisex appendages can swell to the size of beach balls or barrels.
Still, some of these parasitic diseases were not so dramatic; they were more like stealth afflictions. The infected might not even realize that they had little creatures living inside of them. They do not suffer from physical deformities or the loss of faculties. Instead, the parasites simply sap their hosts of strength, siphoning off their food and energy. Cestoda tapeworms, for example, live inside human intestines, and can grow from larvae the size of rice grains to slim cords with lengths of 60 feet. The infection starts small and grows slowly, so the infected don’t even notice, and simply accept their lethargy as their baseline way of being. Only when they are cured do they realize how heavily they had been burdened by their invaders.
The same dichotomy is true in other contexts, like our work lives. Sometimes we face really blatant obstacles to career fulfillment. Maybe you have a boss who screams and throws things. Maybe technological advances have made your expertise obsolete and redundant. But other times we suffer from career stealth afflictions. We don’t shine the way we ought to, but we don’t realize it, because what ails us has been with us for so long that it is almost a part of us. Perhaps you accepted short-term work outside your real area of interest, because you needed the money or thought it would lead you to things you really wanted to do, and gradually that short-term work has come to define you professionally. Perhaps over time you’ve developed a persona in the office that you believe helps you be efficient, but you don’t realize that it makes colleagues uncomforable and keeps them from sharing useful opportunities with you.
Like those who suffer from stealth parasite afflictions, those who suffer from stealth career afflictions probably won’t be able to diagnose themselves. Sometimes it takes another person’s perspective, knowledge, and wisdom to shine a light on what ails us. Talking to others — colleagues, family, friends, counselors — is an important part of healthy career planning, because it gives us the opportunity to diagnose these stealth afflictions, and diagnosis is the first step towards cure.