It’s been 15 years since I learned that I had Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a set of blood cancers, which, as they say, can be managed but not cured. When I received this devastating news, I thought that my relatively short life would soon be over. How could someone like me, a trim, active man who had a healthy diet, a lovely family, a terrific set of friends and a satisfying professional life, get cancer?
It didn’t make sense.
It made me angry.
The news stunned me. My bleak future flashed before my eyes–chemotherapy, weight loss, hair loss, bone pain, nausea, and fatigue–all leading to an untimely death. I suddenly realized how much time I had wasted on unimportant things. Confronting imminent mortality frightened me. Slowly and timidly, I moved forward on an uncertain path. In the time that I had left could I somehow experience the wonders of life? In a world of endless choice and incessant distraction, could I discover what was important?
Given our culturally-contoured and time-pressed penchant for expedience, it’s hard for anyone to figure out what is important. A diagnosis of cancer, though, can sometimes accelerate a process that sometimes points you in an existentially satisfying direction. A 15-year sojourn on cancer’s path has compelled me to think about how to live well in the world. Here’s some of things I’ve learned about the quest for well being:
1. The destructive force of anger: When I began my journey on cancer’s path, I was angry. Why had I been singled out to suffer such a horrendous fate? I quickly discovered that anger led to feelings of powerless and despair, a state that wasn’t good for me, for the people around me, or for my work as a scholar. In my view anger never leads to well-being. And so, I tried to accept my situation and attempted to cope with the anxieties of confronting an incurable disease–none of which is easy.
2. Combating bad faith. In his incomparable play, No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre confronts the specter of bad faith, a collective set of beliefs based on illusion. In bad faith we construct the world as we want it to be, which blinds us to the world as it is. In bad faith, we make life choices based on wishful fantasy rather an inconvenient truth. The political world is rife with bad faith thinking and decisions–the fateful decision to wage war in Iraq, the denial of climate change, the dogged belief in supply side economics, and the distrust of science. In the world of cancer bad faith thinking and decision-making can compel people to deny their medical status. It can convince a person to seek unproven miracle cures. The negative results of bad faith thinking also tend to reinforce anger, which in turn, leads to bitterness. Long before I understood much about anything, Adamu Jenitongo, a wise man among the Songhay people of West Africa, taught me to consider a situation realistically. He said that a person needs to accept her or his limitations and live well within the parameters those limitations set. That advice only made sense to me when I had to consider how remission from cancer, a way station between health and illness, between life and death, limited my possibilities in the world. Those limitations, I soon discovered, did not prevent me from living well in the world.
3. The importance of human connection: If you live in isolation, chances are you will construct a world shaped by bad faith. If you have the good faith support of friends and family, you are likely to confront your remission realistically, a position that allows for a life filled with little as well as big pleasures. It is well known that social isolation often leads to alcohol and drug abuse as well as to a variety of domestic dysfunctions. It is also well known that the absence of social support contributes to heath declines and premature mortality. No one should be be alone when confronting the physical and emotional challenges of cancer diagnosis, treatment and remission.
4. The value of patience: In America, we live in an impatient, results-oriented society. We take the furiously fast straight highway–not the slow sinuous side road–to get from one place to another. We expect such an emphasis in the corporate world, but we also find it in academe. In academe there is an emphasis on results. Did you get the grant? Did you publish in one of the most prestigious journals? Are your ideas cutting-edge? How many books have you published in the last five years? Are you on the fast-track to a distinguished career? When you begin treatment for cancer, no matter who you might be, the world slows down. You can continue do elementary things like walk or get out of bed, but you have to do them slowly, deliberately and mindfully. When you undergo chemotherapy, you have to sit in a chair for long periods of time–two, three, or, in my case, five hours. The side effects of treatment demand a slower orientation to life; they require patience. This slow approach to learning is consistent with apprenticeship during which novices spend ten, twenty of even 40 years slowly mastering their art or their science, patiently waiting for their paths to open. When they do, they are ready to make important contributions to the world.
I don’t know what the future will bring. I do know that patience shows us the way to a path that opens to the world. On the open path we understand how to proceed. With a clarity of purpose we take small but confident steps. Along this path we understand what we can do in the world. Comfortable in our skins we savor a measure of well-being. That profound feeling leads us to expressions of deep gratitude, which are, answered, in turn, with the embrace of human warmth.
For me, that is path worth following.
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