This is a letter I wrote to a dear friend who's sister had just been diagnosed with cancer and was beginning chemotherapy. It was directed specifically toward her and my perception of how she was experiencing it, the particular relationship between her and her sister, her and her family, her and the suffering of others, her and her calling to be a social worker, etc. As such, it may or may not apply to you or someone you know, nor may it help in any way. I'm sharing this personal note here, publicly, with the hope that it might be of value to anyone struggling with these difficult issues.... I offer some of my own experiences, and the relatively unique perspectives/beliefs which have evolved out of those experiences, for whatever they might be worth--tho, I certainly do not mean to imply that they're any substitute for emotional support. Ultimately, they're just options to play around with...but, they are options which I found powerfully liberating in the face of these extremely challenging issues....
11/19/01 - ...:: Two Seeds ::...
Please feel free to blow this off if it's not what you need at the moment, if you just can't take it in right now, etc.... Of course, this not some divine gospel I'm espousing: These are just my own personal opinions/experiences...those of someone who cares about you and is trying to help. It certainly does not mean that I won't continue to support you in whatever ways you choose, even if you don't agree with the views I express here. :-)
I am not insensitive to the immeasurable trauma, pain, debilitation, disfigurment, loss of bodily function/control, and suffering of chemo, cancer and death. I have been around all of it intimately--several times. I've lost a best friend, 3 of 4 grandparents, both my aunt and uncle, and my father. There was never anyone more dear to me than my grandma, and she spent over two years battling cancer, doing all the chemo...and then again...and eventually passing. After 10 years of battles with different cancers, my Aunt Judith just died from it this July. You know how empathetic and sensitive I am. You know I *feel* the trauma, pain and suffering of all those involved--deeply. I have cried many, many tears which were not my own...and many of my own, too. So, I in no way mean to diminish what's happening with your sister, what it means for you and your family, or anything like that. I have learned along the way, however, some things which allow me to be even closer to the pain of others without being washed away by it...thus allowing me to be *more* compassionate, clear-minded, present, available, and supportive...ie, more loving...while minimizing my own suffering. In this regard, I see this event in your life as a fantastic opportunity for you...one which bears gifts, yes, bears gifts, should you be open/willing to receive them....
1) While you're thinking about all you will have to do to support/take care
of your sister, your brother in law, your mother, etc, you might want to give
an EQUAL amount of attention to what you need to do to make sure that <<Name
Omitted>> gets taken care of, and that <<Name Omitted>> gets the support she needs to be the support she has chosen to be for everyone
else. You and your needs are no less important than anyone else's, including
your sister's. (Yes, even now!) In fact, I'd *challenge* you to place at least 51%
of your attention on taking care of <<Name Omitted>>, and
49% or less of your attention on taking care of everyone else throughout this.
I realize that this is not what you've been taught, how it's always been in your family, what's expected of you, what feels right, etc. It may even threaten your ego's identity and/or go against every familial instinct you have. (Possibly, for example, if you were to put yourself or your needs first as a child--rather than be the care taker you were [and have been] for your family members--it might have seemed, or you may even have been made to feel, that you would have then been a selfish burden, with no worth/value in the family, that you would no longer deserve nor have earned their love, nor the right to remain and be taken care of, and that you'd be abandoned and eventually die.... Or, perhaps you did put your needs first and something bad or painful happened as a result. Or, perhaps the child reasoned, "If I can just take care of them so that they're ok, then they'll be able to take care of me." These are, of course, just speculations on my part based on the you I know and love today. These speculations are also, of course, described as viewed through the lens of young child's best logic mixed with her subconscious fears...probably at age 5 or younger. The truth, of course, is that no child is responsible for taking care of their parents...and that all children deserve unconditional love and to have all their needs met without having to do anything to earn it. :-)
Anyway, there may well be big stuff here to overcome, and odds are you won't be able to do 51%, anyway...at least not for awhile (I can't either, yet...at least not consistently)...so, I don't think there's any danger in your really going for it. :-) BUT, you might break some new ground should you choose to aspire for this goal. Certainly, your attempts in this regard would, at the very least, send a very different message to your soul and to the little girl inside you...very different from the messages she was and has been fed previously. Further, as I'm sure you're aware, your ability to be available to them and the amount that you will have to give ("cleanly"...out of abundance; rather than resentfully...out of deficit) will be directly proportional to how well <<Name Omitted>> gets taken care of, how fully <<Name Omitted>>'s needs get met, etc. The opportunity I see is for you to learn a new way to give support...one which doesn't injure, deplete, or cause you undue suffering. The opportunity I see is for you to discover a way to do the social/support work that you yearn and are called to do in the world, and for it to have a *positive* impact on <<Name Omitted>>'s well-being, energy, and mood. That is, when you take on taking care of someone else, it means that you must first commit to taking even better care of (over-nurturing) yourself....
What would it mean for you if you could return to the social work that you feel you were born/meant to do [but left because it was too emotionally draining, depressing, exhausting, etc.], and have it be uplifting, energizing, and inspiring for you...? You might not believe that's possible, and that's fine. You might think I just don't understand, or that I'm just stupid, and that's fine. Still, I want you to know that *I* do truly believe that you are *more* than capable of creating a relationship to the suffering of others that is healthy and that works well for you...IF you are willing to do whatever needs to be done so that you can keep at least 51% of your focus on <<Name Omitted>>'s needs and well-being and, thus, keep her in abundance. (This might just mean learning to love and value yourself more than you have since before you were taught that your value was based on how much of yourself you sacrificed to take care of others [or some variation of that]. Are you ready to take this on? If not now, I wonder when? I believe that if you weren't ready to go there, it wouldn't be being asked of you. Perhaps now is the time to let go of your past and who you've been, so that you can move forward into who you might become. In your heart, I would bet that you know this, too...since you do seem to know your calling...and, from my perspective, this seems to be what stands between you and realizing your dream and calling in a fulfilling way.) This leads me to the second seed I hoped to plant with you....
2) You don't get to choose what happens to your sister, whether the cancer spreads, whether she recovers or not, etc. But, you DO get to choose how you relate to whatever happens. You CAN choose to find a way to relate to all this such that you aren't miserable and suffering through the entire experience. You DO have that power. I know how radical (and even cold-hearted) that sounds, and how very, very few people on this planet would agree with me. But, I speak from direct personal experience. Rather than running from death or the possibility of death out of fear, I have learned to embrace it, welcome it, and form a relationship to it where it no longer has that much power over me. We get to CHOOSE how we want to relate to death, just like we get to CHOOSE how we want to relate to mushrooms. (I used to hate, despise, fear and avoid mushrooms. Now I love them. It took time, but I've now made friends with them by consciously choosing to eat them, even while I despised the taste. I used to despise, fear and run from death. Now, I've made friends with death. Death really wakes me up to what's important in life. Thinking of and witnessing the inevitable death in this life is now a gift...it reminds me, makes me *really* examine, who I'm being, how I'm living, and what impact I'm having in the world. Death is truly a gift in my life, and I've learned to embrace (rather than resist) death.
You may say that's crazy. But, that's how I have _consciously_ CHOSEN to relate to death. (My previous relationship with death was not consciously chosen...it was unconsciously learned/imbibed from the fears of others.) When one of my best friends from high school (Todd Beauchamp) died at age 23 in a car crash, I spent many long, painful hours in solitude (over several weeks) trying to figure out how to make his death a positive thing in my life--to honor Todd. I knew he would want that (ie, want his passing to be a positive thing for me), and I decided that the most meaningful thing I could do to honor and remember Todd, his life and his death, was to surmount the challenge of making a positive change in who I was, one of which he'd be proud to have inspired. I decided to change how I related to death. Now, death does not mean suffering for me...it means "go get more life", "love and honor the preciousness of life--even more!", "squeeze every once of joy from it, because it could be over tomorrow". Death enRiches Rich and his life. This is a good thing!
After all, death's going to be there no matter what anyway...nothing I can do is really going to change the fact that when it's someone's time (even mine), that's that. The *only* thing I have control over is how I respond to the constant presence and inevitable arrival of death in my life. So, if death will always be present in life, I'd rather have him as my friend...like a graduation from this world into the next. When I go, I want people to say, "Yea, Rich made it...he learned all the lessons that he came to this world to learn and he's graduated to the next...good for him! Go Rich!!" If I want them to miss me and suffer, that's not love...that's about me wanting others to prove to me that I'm special, important, loved. That's my dysfunction and wounds talking. I know people care, I know I'm special, I know that I'm important and that I'm doing good work here with my life...and that I am and have been important to many, many people. They don't need to prove this to me by suffering "for me." They are free to feel a loss and grieve that loss if that's what they require. But, *I* don't require this of anyone.
Rather, I want my parting to be a celebration of my life, who I was, what I represented, the impact I had in who they are which will never die, and an inspiration to what ways they could honor the best of what "Rich" was about by making a change in their lives of which they'd be proud to know I'm witnessing from wherever I am. I want them to be able to remember Rich in the hard times and gain strength and inspiration from the sound of my name or the image of my face in their minds...calling on me and knowing that if there's any way I can help, I will send that help from wherever I am. I do NOT want the memory of my passing to be a painful burden on their lives...one which creates suffering and makes the hard times even harder.
I'm not talking about denial. I was very present for the death of my uncle last year (and through the funeral), and for the death of my aunt this year. I had to let go of "the guilt of not suffering" because those I loved were suffering or dying. I had to learn that not creating more suffering in the world (my own) was actually a MORE loving and MORE evolved way to demonstrate how much they mean to me...one of which I know they'd be proud. (And, even if not something they'd be proud of me for, it's a truth that I am proud to embody.) Further, their deaths are now fueling my attempt here to reduce the suffering in someone they've never met. I *know* that would make them proud. I *know* that would make them feel honored. I *know* they would feel loved, special and important were they looking down on me right now as I type this.
I, personally, know that I would never want *anything* in my life to cause suffering in the life of anyone--especially those I care about. But, that's not up to me...it's their choice. I know that neither my uncle nor my aunt would want me to suffer. That makes it easier for me than for you (since you feel that your sister does want you to suffer with her)...but, either way, it's still my choice...and it's still your choice. I came to realize that this was really about Rich's relationship with Rich and life, rather than Rich's relationship with the person dying. Does it make me a cold, insensitive, bad person if I don't suffer when someone I love dies? No. Does it mean that I don't really love them if I don't suffer when they die? No.
Further, anyone who says that they want me to suffer to demonstrate that I care does not really care about me (as I define caring)...and, so, I respectfully decline the request...since asking someone to injure themselves or suffer to demonstrate their love for you is not love in my eyes...it's some dysfunctional crap learned subconsciously in a dysfunctional family or society. Dysfunctional stuff which I consciously CHOOSE not to honor, even while I am very compassionate to its source.
So, who's fucked up notion did I imbibe that said that death had to be this horrible, traumatic, ugly thing which we all fear and spend our entire lives terrified and running from? I think that the fear of death was a tool created by whomever created most of the world's religions--for the purpose of controlling and gaining power over others. I CHOOSE to no longer give ANY of my power over to that.
So, step outside everything you know and believe for a moment and really ask
yourself: Who says that death has to be a bad thing...and that it has to mean
pain and suffering for all involved? Why can't someone's passing can be a beautiful
thing? There's nothing you can do about it anyway, so why not CHOOSE to embrace,
honor it, celebrate it, and have it bring everyone closer (both to each other
and to themselves)?
[Notice what voices come into your consciousness to argue with what I'm
saying here. Who's voices are they? Do you believe
them? Do you have a choice in the matter?]
I get to CHOOSE what cancer and even death mean for me. I get to CHOOSE the effect that someone close to me dying has on me. And, so do you...if you so CHOOSE. You, and nobody else, has this power...unless, of course, you CHOOSE to give that power away. The Gremlins and council of critics in your head, and all that you've been taught, will most likely object, argue, and fight this truth. But, I believe that your heart knows the truth of your own power in this. Can you find your way into that part of your heart? I invite you to take some time with this, really explore it and ask your highest, most mature, evolved and sagaciously authentic adult self if this is not true. I don't know if you will get there...that's up to you. If not, maybe this seed I'm planting will be watered by someone or something else next time you face illness or death. But, if you do get there this time, then you'll *truly* be free...and things like cancer and death will become mere storms that pass through your life.
To some people a storm means a ruined day, a sad day. Other people love and welcome the rain, and the purification, cleansing, freshness, and renewal that it brings...or the excuse to read a book or go to a movie. A rainy day doesn't have to mean a "bad" day or a "blue" mood. You get to CHOOSE how you view it. It can be a *great* day. You know how I not only love sunshine, but also that my body needs it ("Seasonal Affective Disorder," so it's labeled). I, personally, *also* love the sights and sounds of a storm (including thunder and lightning!), and the smell and the energy afterwards...and it makes me smile with joy to think of all the happy plants and trees getting all their pores cleaned of all the dirt and grime and pollution...looking so green and pretty...sprouting new shoots...getting a really good drink...and all the new life which comes from a storm. I can CHOOSE to be just as happy during a rainy day as during a sunny day. In fact, I believe that we have the power to choose our emotional response to whatever occurs in our lives...and I have first-hand, experiential evidence as the basis for this belief.... It's certainly not easy...but "difficult" does not equal "impossible"!
In short, I see this as a fantastic opportunity for <<Name Omitted>> to transform her relationship to cancer and death into something which enriches
her life in profoundly positive ways. Can you imagine what your life would be
like for you if you truly believed that death was a friend bearing gifts?
What would open up for you if you let go of all that fear...?
Can you imagine what your life would be like if you truly believed that what's going on with your sister were *exactly* what is supposed to be happening, and that everything really is unfolding in the best, most beautiful way possible? (Even if we can't see it right now, with our minds, in the middle of it, from our limited human perspective...what would your life experience be like if you *knew* this to be true?) If you can't even imagine these things, then that's the place to start: If so, I'd invite you to spend some time trying to imagine the answers to these questions...maybe even meditate on them. As I offered when you were here, I am willing to help you with this. Since I believe that you will actually see it when you believe it--rather than the other way around, and that you can only create/believe what you imagine, I have made it a priority in my life to "build the muscle of my creative imagination" through workouts in my own mental gym...and "stretch the muscles of my belief system" to be as soft and flexible as possible in my own mental yoga center. I offer myself as your "imagination trainer" or "belief system yoga master," should you be interested in exploring any of this. I admit that I live in a unique reality of my own special creation. But, I'm doing my best to create a really beautiful world (most of the time, anyway :)...one that I'm here to share with whomever is interested in taking the journey. I've spent a lot of my life suffering inside the belief systems that I was taught by my family and society...and the deepest tragedy of all this was that it was unnecessary...which is what I'm trying to convey and correct here....)
You may think I'm a lunatic, and that this is all BS or that it in some way doesn't apply to you...and that's fine--and, of course, that might even be true! Please know that these things have made such a dramatic difference in my life, however, that I'm willing to take time out of my life, and risk your opinion of me, to share them with you...and that I care enough about you to spend 4+ hours of my life typing this up, reliving all of it in an attempt to express it and word it in a way that reaches you. There's really nothing in this for me, except the pride in knowing that I intentionally dedicated this time towards planting a couple seeds which may (if not now, someday) reduce the suffering in the life of someone dear to me--even if she doesn't currently believe a word of it! ;-)
With sincere love, deep empathy, and the hope that you can receive the gifts
being offered you,
For my tombstone:
Remember, friend, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare yourself to follow me.