Too many of us have been there, or will be in the future. We’re sitting in the doctor’s office, after too many tense days of waiting for the results of a diagnostic procedure. The doctor walks in, and with a solemn look and voice, says, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you’ve got cancer.”
What’s the first advice we hear from friends and loved ones when we have just been diagnosed with cancer?
“Stay strong!”; “Stay positive!”; “You’ve got to fight!” or something along those lines.
Sounds like great advice, doesn’t it? The people around us who often say things like that to us absolutely mean well. The words even sound bright, cheery like they are exactly what we need to hear when confronted with a life-threatening disease.
But what if it actually isn’t such great advice? Let’s take a closer look:
What does “Stay strong!” really mean?
It sounds like we are simply being told not to give up.
What is really going on below the surface? To better understand this I’m going to imagine that I am one of those people telling you to “Stay strong!”. Only I am going to give voice to the unconscious thought patterns that occur in a flash right before I say, “Stay strong!”.
Remember, I said unconscious, so if you ask me about this, I’ll deny it even though it came from me. I am not being dishonest. I simply am not aware of any of it.
Ready? Here we go: “I am absolutely terrified of death! I don’t ever want to think about death. And I darn sure don’t want to talk about it. Death is the ultimate tragedy.” So instead of confronting and coming to terms with my own mortality, I insist on living my life as though I could avoid death if I just try hard enough. So, I’ll tell you to “Stay strong!” as part of my strategy for avoiding death and not confronting my own fear.
Did you notice in the above example that even though I am giving advice to someone else to “Stay strong!” it is really all about me? This is a giant clue that it is part of an avoidance strategy. By that, I mean it is an attempt to deny an inescapable fact of life and simply try to pretend that it is not so.
Besides being unrealistic and in direct conflict with a primary fact of life, the advice is fear based. I am telling someone else to “Stay strong!”, but I am coming from my own place of greatest weakness. Isn’t that ironic!
How do I know that this is so? Good question. Let’s look at the actual results of receiving this advice to “Stay strong!” Let’s see just what effect it really has:
If you’re old enough to be reading this blog then you have certainly already faced some challenge in your life – relationship challenge, financial challenge, or perhaps some serious health challenge. You’ve probably had some well-meaning people around you tell you to “Stay strong!”.
Now think back to one of those times. How did it feel to receive that advice? Did it help? Did your body feel calmer and actually stronger? Or did areas and parts of your body tighten up in ways that did not feel good? Did it prompt you to expand or did it prompt you to contract?
At this point, you may be asking yourself if I am advising you to “give in”. The answer is a resounding NO!
What I am suggesting is that we confront the fact that our bodies are mortal – that we learn to dance with this otherwise uncomfortable reality. This is one of those real paradoxes in life. As long we pretend and act as if our bodies are immortal, we remain prisoners to fear.
Without getting too deep into spiritual and religious beliefs and practices, I’ll just share a way of looking at this aspect of life that has given me great peace. I believe that in contrast to our bodies, which certainly are mortal, our souls are immortal. When we begin life, our souls inhabit and make use of these bodies. Our souls reside in these bodies for as long as these bodies are viable. At some point, the body is worn out and the soul leaves it and moves on. I think of this as though my soul were “leasing” my body for some period of time. The wrinkle is that I do not know the time period for the “lease.”
When our bodies wear out and completely cease functioning we refer to this experience as death. But we usually miss an important distinction here – it is the death of the body, but not the death of the soul. So we are not being “wiped out”. We do not cease to exist. We continue to exist, but in a different form and perhaps on a different plane of existence.
How do I know this? In 1989, my body was in the prime of life. I had been a serious endurance athlete for a number of years. Then I was hit by a car, my body was severely injured, and I was not expected to survive. Rather, I should say, my body was not expected to survive.
I got a free trip down the white tunnel that most of us have heard about and wondered about. It was calm, peaceful and there was no fear. In fact, I knew that my body was dying, (my heart had arrested 8 times by that point according to the ER log), but I really was not attached to keeping my body alive.
How and why I got back into my body is another whole chapter in my life. I’ll post about it in the future. Here I’ll just share with you that when I made it back into my body, I was blessed to be able to leave an obsolete piece of baggage behind – the fear of my body’s ultimate and inevitable death.
I no longer had any reason to even try to deny my body’s mortality. This has brought me great peace, on a day-to-day basis. I believe it has been a way to experience my real strength, but from a place of calmness and freedom and not from the place of fear.
So next time you are talking with someone who is dealing with cancer, instead of reacting to your own fear of death and exhorting them to “Stay strong!”, how about simply being present with them? How about asking them what support they really need?
And if you want to find the real strength that is within you, consider investing some time thinking about, journaling about, or even discussing the mortality of your body with someone you are close to and whom you trust.
Real strength does come from acceptance of reality.
That old adage from the serenity prayer – to accept the things we cannot change so we can find the courage to change the things we can – really does make life so much better.
In the next blog post I’ll be discussing the Step 2 in traveling From Fear And Chaos To Calmness And Clarity. See you there! Cancer – From Fear And Chaos To Calmness And Clarity, Step 2
To your great health!