Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Why Me?" Versus "Why Not Me?"

“Why me?” is a common outcry of the newly diagnosed. As I have sat with this question for more than 5 years, I have explored many alternative answers, and they all lead me to the realization that I don’t take my life so personally. This doesn’t mean that I am in any way detached or not caring, in fact, this underlying assumption allows me to thrive within the limits imposed upon me.

My cancer experience is one common to humans. Almost everyone dies of cancer or cardiovascular disease. A few die from a few other diseases (infection, diabetes, neurological conditions), accidents, violence, and suicide. What I am experiencing is quite mundane in the realm of human experience.

There is a difference between my biology and my biography. Emilie Conrad loved to explore what she called, “The Three Anatomies.”

  • Our personal anatomy carries our life stories and the specifics of our bodily experience within the context of our families and culture. 
  • Our biological anatomy is the field of expression that is shared by every human. In this domain there is no identification with individuality, race, class, nationality, or religion. Our existence as part of the natural world can be explored through this biological lens. 
  • Our cosmic anatomy encompasses the energetic or non-material aspects of our existence – the unknown and the unknowable aspects of living in a vast mystery. 
I can view my life through any of these filters (and a variety of others too) and draw very different conclusions, and yet, they are all simultaneously true. 

Cancer may be an entity that has integrated and assimilated itself into my body, but I do not identify with it as part of my “essence.” I don’t deny its existence or power, I just try not to be enmeshed with it. I approach living with cancer like a difficult relationship that needs good boundaries and a lot of attention. I believe I am the same person as I was before I lived with cancer. This belief allows me to put a little space between what I perceive as “me” and “it.” On a day when I feel good, this is easy to do. But when I'm not feeling well, I can be tempted to sink into identification with the disease process. This magnifies my suffering, which is the last thing I should want to do. Why am I tempted by the dark pleasure of suffering? (That's a rhetorical question, please don't offer advice or potential cures!)

I'm learning to recognize when I’m caught in this loop of thinking. I try to be aware that I’m doing it, and this awareness decreases it’s charge and the power it has over me. Two sayings from different teachers help me in these challenging moments. Jim Jealous said, “when you find yourself in a rat’s nest, don’t play with the rat.” Emilie Conrad used to warn people to not get intoxicated by "inhaling their own noxious fumes." Both these thoughts motivate me to shift something in my inner scene when I catch myself going down a dark hole. I have come to realize that there is a big difference between being informed by my experience and being identified with it. 

I understand the natural history of the living human body and I try to differentiate normal aging from the experience that is superimposed upon me by medications and their side effects. Aging is an internally generated experience and I accept that it is not about me personally; it is a normal part of being human. A medication side-effect is externally imposed, which helps me not take it so personally. I accept that I choose joint pain rather than to die soon from spreading cancer, so I take my medication and have gratitude for how it contributes to my being alive, even if it does so in an imperfect way.

My situation is not my fault. If any fault could be assigned it would not change my experience, so why waste the energy trying to discover the unknown or unknowable? I cannot do anything about genetics, the environment, random mutations, or any other putative cause. I refuse to abuse or punish myself for anything. Even if my situation were someone or something else’s fault, it would not change anything or help me to be angry, bitter, or wish for revenge.

Immediately upon asking, “why me?” I am led to the obvious next question, “why not me?” When I immerse myself in the contradiction posed by those two questions, they seem to collapse into each other until there is no duality. I discover freedom and peace in the stillpoint in the center of this paradox, in which two seemingly opposite questions have the same answer.