Tempting the Fates?
I might tick off a few people with this post, but so be it. I cannot control what or how anyone else thinks. Indeed, I can’t even control my own destiny. I might be able to exert an effect on it now and then, and I certainly don’t lay around passively awaiting its designs. But control it? I think not. I’m not that powerful, and neither is anyone else.
The ladies in this tapestry are the Fates, three sisters who, the ancient Greeks believed, control our human destinies. Clotho, the spinner, holds the spindle from which she draws the thread of life. Lachesis holds the rod that measures the length of a life. And Atropos holds the shears with which she snips the thread, thereby ending a life. I don’t know the identity of the woman laying at the feet of the sisters. In fact, I can’t quite tell whether the Fates are stepping over her or upon her. But in any case, I Photoshopped my face on her, because it has certainly felt during much of the last year or two that I was at the mercy of something or someone that was kicking me around.
I have been pondering the philosophical and etymological nature of this post for weeks now, maybe even months, so let me just say something right up front. I did not ’cause’ myself to have breast cancer. The best scientific and medical minds of this century don’t know what causes it. I was one of those people who should conceivably never have had breast cancer. I was healthy, slender, fit, and had no family history of breast cancer and no genetic markers for anything. So I think I have every right to say that I had nothing whatsoever to do with my developing breast cancer. It was a bolt out of the blue, or a decision by the triad above if you like, but it sure wasn’t my fault. And if I hadn’t made my peace long ago with the notion that we are mere specks in the universe, and that, despite our best efforts, we can’t really control a lot of the stuff that happens in our lives, I would have gone completely around the bend when I was diagnosed. But I did not. That’s where my profession as a health care clinician helped me a lot, because I’ve seen every kind of rotten luck befall all kinds of people. And trust me, most of the time it wasn’t their fault either. Illness happens.
But, oh, we humans don’t like to admit how powerless we really are. And don’t get me wrong: I’m no fatalist. No matter how huge the cosmos is, and how teensy we are in comparison, I still think we have a moral and spiritual responsibility to be good to others and ourselves, and to try to leave our little corner of the place a little better than when we arrived. But when you are diagnosed with cancer, all manner of human hubris, superstition, advice, fear and plain ol’ errant nonsense comes your way, along with the things that actually help, like validation, compassion, factual information and support. Just now, as I made myself a snack before sitting down to write this, I peeled the lid back on a tub of yogurt and found an offer for a free copy of a book that describes how we can prevent cancer by eating organic foods. Lordy. Sometimes you just wish everybody would leave you the hell alone.
People Are Not Batteries
One of the most prevalent notions that pops up when you are dealing with cancer is the idea that somehow it’s not only helpful, but crucial to your survival that you “stay positive.” Now, in the first place, the news that I had cancer was delivered to me by a doctor who said these words, “Your biopsy was positive.” So, right there, the word ‘positive’ instantly became at best an ambiguous concept for me, if not an out-and-out dreaded one. In fact, when I looked it up as I was researching this post, I discovered that the word has, according to Merriam-Webster Online, at least eight official meanings when used as an adjective, and a few more when used as a noun. The last definition on this list is “having a good effect : favorable [...] marked by optimism.” This is the one from which the various pundits and Pollyanna’s are speaking when they tell you to stay that way when you have cancer. It doesn’t matter if you’re realistic, as long as you’re positive about it. Yeah, thanks. Meanwhile, now and forever when I wait for pathology and diagnostic imaging reports, my mantra is always some version of “I hope it’s negative.” Not surprisingly, the word ‘negative’ also has several meanings, including such things as “denial, disagreeable and marked by features of hostility.” But if that initial pathology report on my biopsy had been negative, meaning “having a test result indicating the absence, especially of a condition,” it would have meant that I didn’t have cancer, and I wouldn’t have had to endure this whole sleigh ride. There are value judgments attached to all of the meanings of these two words, including the ones that are merely mathematical or electrical or scientific. Assigning a value to a result may be useful in medicine or quantum physics, but it can be harmful at worst, or inept at best to assign a value to the emotions and outlook of a cancer patient.
Delusions of Grandeur
There’s no question that being diagnosed with cancer is generally regarded as a pretty dramatic event in one’s life. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being in a lousy mood about it once in a while. Indeed, I would venture to conclude that anyone who was happy to be diagnosed with cancer might need a rubber room and an IV of thorazine. But that’s just me. Call me grumpy — and I’ve been called worse — but I don’t, won’t and vigorously object to anyone who tells me I ought to regard cancer as a blessing. Double rainbows are a blessing. Steadfast friends are a blessing. Cancer, ladies and gentlemen, is a disease, and a life-threatening one at that. But the friends I’ve met and made since having cancer, and the lessons I’ve learned as I faced the challenges of treatment, and the fact that I’m still walking and talking and able to help others, those things are blessings. A lot of good things have happened to me in the past eighteen months, but cancer was not one of them. It may have been a kind of conduit through which some of these good things arose, but had I not had cancer, there would have been other conduits, other challenges, other blessings. That’s the way this fate thing works. Shit happens, but mostly you get to choose how to respond to it. It’s never as simple as merely being positive or negative, whatever that actually means. And there’s something dangerous about thinking that our moods and thoughts are so powerful that they can affect events that we don’t even apprehend. The very idea makes me think of a two-year-old who wants her own way and thinks that she’ll get it by lying on the floor, screwing up her face, and kicking and screaming until her parents give in just to shut her up. It might work for the moment, but if her parents don’t learn to say no and mean it, she’s going to grow up without feeling that safety net known as boundaries and without learning what her real strengths and limitations are. In fact, it’s likely she’ll grow up to be fearful of all the things she can’t control, and disillusioned when she finds out that she can’t change most of them by being a good girl or a bad girl. Being a sensible girl is the only strategy that might help her navigate the shoals she’s bound to encounter.
“I never think delusion is okay.”
I’m not the only one to take issue with this notion that your attitude can change the world or at least your little piece of it. One of our Sistahs and a fellow skeptic, author Barbara Ehrenreich, talks about how damaging the myth of positivity is and how it can lead to the kind of greed, entitlement and denial that brought us our present economic crisis. In her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, she discusses the ramifications of positive thinking, including how “[o]n a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out ‘negative’ thoughts.” The quote above this paragraph is from a recent interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, during which she discussed her own battle with breast cancer and how others invalidated her experience by insisting that she be positive.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
Here’s the thing. In my travels as a home care physical therapist, I have found that ordinary people are quietly heroic about facing the challenges of illness and disability every day of the week, and it’s not delusion and denial that help them do it. It’s the willingness to face up to their challenges squarely and honestly, with good humor, persistence and acceptance. And occasional cussing. So here’s what I say to those who push what I call the “pink Koolaid:” keep your adjectives to yourself, thanks. When I want someone to pass judgment on my attitude, I’ll let you know.
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