Thinking About Cancer: Metaphors

I’ve been blogging recently about cancer. This topic has been on my mind since I am about to have my cancerous prostate removed. One thing I have been reflecting on is culture’s dominant metaphor for dealing with life-threatening illness. I’m wondering whether this metaphor is the best way to characterize what we go through when faced with such illnesses.

What metaphor am I referring to? It’s one that comes up regularly in conversations with survivors and is often included in the life narrative portion of obituaries, e.g. “I’ve been fighting cancer,” “after a long battle with congestive heart failure,” or “she struggled with multiple medical problems.” The dominant metaphor is of a war or battle. Eugene Peterson has suggested that there are two basic types of story, fights and journeys. The stories we tend to tell about our encounters with illness are fights.

Is this the best type of story to tell, though? State writer Katy Waldman suggests that urging people to fight cancer or other serious illnesses puts an unfair burden on them. If they succumb, the implication is that they didn’t fight hard enough, and that in turn can lead to feelings of guilt or inadequacy. I will eventually die of something; I don’t particularly like the idea of being considered a loser after my last battle, the one that I had no chance of winning.

So what’s the alternative? Waldman prefers journey language to fight language. She cites the press release subsequent to the death of theater actor and director Roger Rees in July, 2015, which stated that Rees had “passed away … after a brief journey with cancer.” For her, the term “journey” evoked the image of “a man walking slowly into the sunset, hand in hand with an adumbral figure.”

Holding hands with cancer doesn’t sit well with me. That seems to be friendship language, and I don’t see cancer as my friend. Plus I don’t like an image that portrays cancer as my only or primary companion during this phase of life. An alternate image that comes to mind is being handcuffed or tied to cancer, but the element of coercion in those metaphors contains too much battle, not enough journey. How about walking alongside cancer, trying to maintain some distance but realizing that the path isn’t wide enough to keep from brushing against it from time to time?

Waldman rejects the alternative metaphor of “a journey through (rather than with) cancer. I like that better–or, to be more specific, I like an elaboration of that image. Thinking of a journey through cancer reminds me of the book of Psalms, especially the best known Psalm, number 23. God is compared to a shepherd, and his followers to sheep. The psalmist emphasizes God’s protection in times of danger:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.

Some older translations refer to the valley as “the valley of the shadow of death.” That’s cancer–the dark valley, the one where death casts its shadow. That’s where I’m walking. As I see it, the journey through this valley is not a solitary one, or one in which cancer becomes my primary companion. It’s God, not cancer, who is walking beside me. There may be a battle in store, but it is not my battle, it is God’s. Should I die, it would be in God’s presence. Such a death is nothing to fear, and is neither failure nor evil. It is the start of another journey, one of homecoming.

psalm-23v4

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When Time Flies. When It Doesn’t.

calendar

Time is measured according to physical events of a cyclical nature–the earth circling the sun or turning on its axis, the phases of the moon, or the electronic transitions of certain atoms. Time matters to us, but it isn’t these physical cycles that concern us so much as our subjective experience of time. And subjective time varies tremendously.

We are all familiar with the manner in which time seems to speed up as we age. When we were children, each season lasted forever. It seemed summer would never arrive, but when it did, it plopped down and took up residence. The seasons move faster when we become adults, and still faster when we become seniors. We older adults have learned not to be fooled by the vast expanse of time each new year promises; we know that in short order it will be December again and we’ll be wondering “Where did the year go?”

I’ve been noticing that, despite my age, I don’t always experience time as rushing past. When I am eagerly anticipating some particular date, time moves particularly slowly. I know someone looking forward to retirement who set the date a year ago; now that he is just two months out, time isn’t racing for him, it’s crawling.

I wasn’t looking forward to retirement, so for me the time leading up to my final day didn’t move slowly. If anything, the opposite was the case. After taking my leave I relocated to Michigan to help my parents, and that’s when time slowed for me. I had to rebuild my life, and it took a very long time–longer than the calendar indicated–for that construction project to be completed. Once I had made friends, established my part-time psychology practice, and got involved in a church, time stopped dawdling and picked up its pace again.

Last year, time started slowing once more for me, and it’s still lagging. In the summer, it slowed as I was eagerly anticipating a major trip. Before and after that, I was dealing with several changes in my life: the church I had joined closed, some of the relationships I formed there didn’t last, and I started cutting back on work. The year before, I had put my house in North Carolina up for sale, but at first I was ambivalent about selling it. Now I’m ready–actually, I’m at the stage beyond ready–but the house is generating no more interest than if it were located in a toxic waste dump.

So there was something I was looking forward to, some unwelcome changes, and some changes I would have welcomed that didn’t occur. All these seemed to weigh down time. There’s one more thing that has impeded time for me more than all the others. In late 2015, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was put on a regimen of active monitoring, meaning I was tested every three months for a marker that would signal that the cancer was progressing. Time sauntered slowly from one test to the next. I eventually had another biopsy and learned that the cancer had worsened. Surgical removal of the prostate now seems the best option. The surgery date is set. Time may slow when we’re waiting for something we want to happen; it goes even slower when waiting for something like surgery, I’ve found.

So why does time slow for situations as diverse as waiting for retirement, anticipating a vacation, adjusting to a move out of state, having a house go unsold, and waiting for cancer tests or treatments? Adjusting to a move and rebuilding one’s life are active, while waiting on retirement, travel, sale of a house, and medical procedures are more passive. Perhaps a feature common to all of them is that coping with each requires effort. My friend has to make more of an effort to get up and go to work every day. I had to work on rebuilding my life, and now I’m having to deal not only with preparing for surgery but with concerns about my future health and thoughts of mortality. Clock time kept going at its usual pace, but each month I had quite a bit of psychic distance to cover.

It occurs to me that in each case the psychic journey associated with time’s loitering was one that developed qualities of persistence and patience. In other words, I was growing as a result of these experiences. Perhaps the lesson is that time slows when we are in seasons of growth. I’m glad for the growth, but I have to admit that I won’t mind it when I have less to deal with, even if time resumes its breakneck pace. Time, stop your dawdling! Take flight again!

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Thinking About Cancer: Other People’s Stories

Prostate cancer cells. (Image by Dr. Gopal Murti/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.)

Prostate cancer cells. (Image by Dr. Gopal Murti/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.)

I recently posted about my cancer diagnosis. I am scheduled to have a radical prostatectomy next month, that being one of the treatment options available for prostate cancer. Deciding to have the surgery made me aware of things to which I had given little attention before.

As I noted in my earlier post, I became much more attuned to people’s stories about cancer. I know a few people currently undergoing treatment for cancer, and have learned recently that there are more people in my circle of acquaintance than I realized who have stories about surviving cancer. I also seem to hear more often than I used to about people who lost their lives to cancer and are no longer here to tell their stories. It’s not as if I had always dismissed such stories; I’m petty good at listening to the troubles of others and having compassion for them. What’s different is that now these stories speak to me personally. Before, I empathized and sympathized. Now I identify.

Some of the stories I hear are of fast-moving cancers that splash through the body as quickly as a spill, soaking into every crack and crevice. One woman went in for a chronic cough and fatigue; her diagnosis was advanced lung cancer, and she was dead in two weeks. Another was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live, though she only lasted three. These are the cancer horror stories, the nightmares, the blitzkriegs that quickly disorient and displace the person. In comparison, my cancer is more like an unpleasant dream, or, to use a military analogy, trench warfare, in which my body’s defenses will only gradually be displaced and can retreat to several fallback positions before ultimate defeat becomes likely. Like me, most of the people I know who have been diagnosed with cancer don’t have to contend with the horror-story variant.

To die from galloping cancer seems the worst way to go; the person has time to know what’s happening, but  not time to cope. I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to be in that position. What feelings emerge–despair, anger, fear? Does the urgency of getting things in order take precedence? Is there a temptation to try to protect others by holding back information or pretending you’re more at peace than you are?  How difficult or easy is it to turn to God for comfort? I hope I’ll never have to find out the answers to these questions.

Of course I’m especially sensitive to any mention of prostate cancer, the form that I have. It seems that just about everybody knows someone who has or had this cancer. Some with prostate cancer chose to have internal radiation (brachytherapy), some had prostatectomy. Some are still having the cancer monitored via blood tests and biopsies. A cousin delayed surgery for years because he was praying for God’s guidance. He eventually decided God wasn’t going to tell him what to do and went ahead with the prostatectomy. He had a good outcome, unlike a friend who had surgery promptly after being diagnosed only to learn that the disease had already spread to surrounding tissue. He now has to endure the side effects of androgen suppression therapy.

These stories and others make it clear that there is no way of eliminating all potential for future problems. A course of action that works well for one person doesn’t work well at all for someone else. And even if initial treatment response is good, there is always the possibility cancer will return. That possibility becomes a permanent feature in the psyche. I know a woman who had a mastectomy and chemo for best cancer twenty years ago but still gets quite anxious for several weeks before her annual evaluation with her oncologist.  We never know what will happen. Of course, that’s nothing new: I’m not guaranteed the future and any day could be my last.

It may well be that something entirely different from this cancer will take my life in the end. Once a thief has entered through a particular door, though, it’s only human to pay close attention from then on to that door. I may be caught unawares by something, but I probably won’t again be caught unawares again by that intruder. Such is the psychic armor donned by a cancer survivor. I hope that I’ll wear it lightly.

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Thinking About Cancer

As we age, our bodies tend to buck and sputter on occasions when they used to run smoothly. Joints ache, as do muscles after modest exertion. We can’t run as fast as we used to, or can’t run at all. We can no longer  shortchange sleep for days and still expect to function. All these insurgencies happen gradually, and most of us accept the changes without difficulty.

Besides the age-related changes that we all experience, we are more prone to be diagnosed with any of a variety of medical conditions–hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis,  elevated cholesterol. Though I have for the most part had good health, I have been on medication for cholesterol for at least fifteen years. I’ve also had an enlarged prostate. That wasn’t too much of a concern, but about two years ago my physician noted that the lab results from my PSA tests had been gradually rising. PSA, or prostate specific antigen, is a protein produced by the prostate and found in the blood. Men with prostate cancer often have a high PSA score, though other conditions can also produce elevations.

My doctors recommended a more definitive test for cancer, a biopsy of the prostate. I was biopsied in September, 2015. It’s an unpleasant test–lying on one side, mostly undressed, curled like a comma, while a probe inserted from the rear (I’ll leave to readers’ imaginations the orifice used) snips away bits of tissue. Three of the twelve samples taken contained cancerous cells. The urologist indicated that the cancer was low grade–Gleason Score of 6, the least aggressive form. “It probably shouldn’t even be called cancer,” he said, which is not the same as saying it isn’t cancer. He recommended regular monitoring of PSA but no active treatment. It took some convincing, but I finally agreed to that plan. with the stipulation that at some point my prostate would also be assessed via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnets, radio waves, and possibly other forms of magic to produce a picture of the structures found in bodily tissue. Such an image is useful in assessing the extent of cancer.

I went in for blood work every three months. The PSA level stayed around 5. That’s high, but at least the scores weren’t increasing. The promised MRI was done in October of last year. One area in particular looked troublesome to the radiologist. It would take another biopsy to determine whether there was any cause for concern, so a month later I was back on the table trying to decide what was most disagreeable about the procedure–the indignity? the pain? the doctor’s efforts at cheery encouragement?

This time, there were five samples with abnormal cells, and one of these was given a Gleason score of 7, pushing my risk level from low to intermediate. It is unlikely that the cancer has spread outside the prostate yet. However, the progression up to this point makes eventual spread more likely. After meeting with my doctor and researching treatment options, I decided that a radical prostatectomy– surgery to remove the prostate– would be the best option. I’m scheduled for surgery in late February.

It’s estimated that each year in the US there are about 180,000 new cases of prostate cancer and 26,000 deaths from this condition. It is a common cancer: an estimated 12.9 percent of men will be diagnosed with it some time in their lives. I am not alone.

I’ve been much more attuned to people’s cancer stories in the past few months. All of a sudden, those stories seem to be everywhere. Some hit close to home: my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram. She had a lumpectomy and started chemo a few weeks ago. A friend in his 30s went to the doctor because he thought his lungs harbored an infection and he didn’t want to pass it on to his newborn son. Instead, the doctor found a cancerous tumor in his chest. He will be hospitalized for five days every three weeks for high-dose chemo.

Stories like this make me think that my cancer is nothing by comparison. It’s not nothing, though, and I’ve noticed that it has influenced my thoughts in a variety of ways. I’ll write more about those effects in a future post.

blodgett-hospital

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Cheat Days

Sweets! Image from Yummydelicious.com

Sweets! Image from Yummydelicious.com

As 2017 approaches, it’s natural to think about things we would like to change in the new year. In other words, we think of ways to improve ourselves. Many plans for self-improvement require long-term self-control. Losing weight, for example, may require a diet in which for weeks or months we deny ourselves delicious but high-calorie foods and endure hunger pangs without relenting. Fitness requires regular exercise, meaning we have to get on the treadmill or elliptical machine over and over despite our aversion to breaking a sweat. Improving blood pressure may require a tasteless low-salt diet; completing projects may require reducing social media use and turning off our cell phones for periods of time.

Self-control is no fun, of course. Whatever we have decided to give up tends to become more appealing to us. We get grumpy, and our motivation gradually erodes. Often as not, there is eventually a lapse, followed by a “failure cascade.” “What the heck,” we think. “I’ve already had one cookie, so I’ve broken my diet. Why not have a few more while I’m at it?”

A recent study proposes that we can short-circuit this pattern of good intentions followed by misery, hopelessness, weakened motivation, and guilt-producing relapse by planning to cheat right from the start. A recent article in the Atlantic describes a paper by scientists in Portugal and the Netherlands reporting on three studies into the effect of planned cheat days. In the most significant of the studies, participants were either put on a  1,500-calorie per day diet or a 1,300-calorie per day diet with a 2,700-calorie splurge day at the end of each week. As the Atlantic reports, “Those who had the cheat day reported they were better able to sustain their motivation and self-control than those who ate the same amount each day.”

The study was only for two weeks, and there wasn’t a difference between the groups in the amount of weight lost, so this seems to be one of those findings that needs to be substantiated by further research. Still, even if outcomes between approaches are the same but having planned cheat days improves my mood and helps me feel better about myself, including them in self-improvement plans would be wise.

The strategy of using cheat days is probably only useful for those areas of our lives in which exercising self-control is still taking quite a bit of effort. In my case, I don’t feel any need to have cheat days in the areas of exercising or following a vegetarian (actually pescetarian) diet; I’ve done those things so long, I don’t feel tempted to do anything different. Restricting sweets, on the other hand, still is work for me, and I would welcome a cheat day now and then. As a matter of fact, now that I’m thinking about planned times to cheat, I’m starting to plan which would be the best days for me to indulge a bit!

So, dieters, exercisers, and other self-deniers! Plan to take some cheat days! You’ll be happier (though not necessarily more successful) for it!

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Identity, Purpose, and Belonging in Retirement

Older workers preparing for retirement (or those, like me, part way through the process)  deal not only with logistics and practical questions, but also with questions regarding how to live our lives. Three sets of issues that retirees face–issues of identity, purpose, and belonging–all have to do with what sort of life is most fulfilling and what kind of people should we be. Let’s take a look at each of these three, thinking especially about how these choices reveal our values:

On a recent trip to Israel. Should I travel more?

On a recent trip to Israel. Should I travel more?

Identity

When we leave the workplace, we leave behind a major source of identity. For years we’ve been teachers or accountants or executives, but we aren’t that anymore, so what are we now? We’re told we can reinvent ourselves, meaning that we can choose who we will become. But what sort of person should I become? Should I try to cultivate wisdom through reading or attending lectures? Should I develop my aesthetic side by going to concerts or art museums? Should I foster my creativity by taking up painting or writing? Should I expand my horizons through travel? Should I focus on challenges such as climbing a mountain or running a marathon? Should I become more spiritual, praying, meditating, or participating in religious ritual? Should I focus on what gives me maximal pleasure, whether that be as a gourmand, a gambler, or a golfer? Whatever direction I take will define my new identity. Choosing one direction over another is a decision as to the best person for me to be.

Purpose

When we leave the workplace, we also lose the sense of purpose that our jobs provided for us. We’re told we should develop a new purpose. Sure, establishing a new identity gives  some sense of purpose, but most retirees looking for a new purpose are looking for more than an identity; they are looking for a way of making a difference in the world. Should I try to help the less fortunate in society, volunteering in a soup kitchen or working with the homeless? Should I try to help the next generation by tutoring schoolchildren or caring for my grandchildren? Should I become an advocate for a cause–immigration reform, healthcare reform, criminal justice reform, or any among dozens of other issues that affect human well-being? Should I take a job that would again give me a work-related purpose? Should I run for public office?  Whatever I choose to do, I’m “voting with my feet” regarding what is worth doing. I’m making a choice as to what constitutes a meaningful and valuable purpose.

Belonging

Our workplaces gave most of us not only a purpose but a sense of belonging. We interacted with co-workers on a daily basis; some of them became friends, and some even seemed like family. Our work also determined in large part where we lived; many of us moved far from where we would have lived otherwise because of work. When we retire, we must again think about where we belong. In part, that is a question of where to live. Should we move closer to aging parents or grown children and grandchildren? Should we move back near our childhood home? Or should we live in a place providing opportunities to form new relationships–a resort town, for example, or a retirement community? Wherever we live, we also have to decide with whom we’ll spend the bulk of our time. With family members? With friends, whether old or new? At church, synagogue, or temple? With others who share some interest–musicians, say, or motorcycle enthusiasts or oenophiles? As with identity and purpose, deciding where to live and with whom to spend time reflects our values. In making the choice, we are selecting certain people as the ones most worth our time.

Who should I become? What should be my purpose? With whom do I belong? When we plan our post-retirement lives, we are revealing our values. We are showing what sort of life we think is worth living. These are serious choices, ones that no one else can make for us. Best wishes in determining your new identity, purpose, and belonging!

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Caregiving: Imperfections and Opportunities

bobby-wonderful

I recently read an article by Next Avenue writer Chris Hewitt about Bob Morris’ book Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents. The book is an account of Morris’ involvement with his elderly parents towards the end of their lives. As the subtitle suggests, Morris sees himself as less than saintly in how he handled these interactions. Hewitt’s article summarizes some of the shortcomings Morris describes:

“So Bobby Wonderful is candid about Morris being unable to decide whether to cut short a vacation to visit his dying mother, Ethel; about yelling at his dad, Joe, when his father’s weak heart made it difficult for him to walk and about hoping an anti-depressant prescription for his dad would get Joe off Bob’s back.”

Morris’ struggles make me think of the past four and a half years in my life. My father, who has since died, had dementia, and my mother, who was his primary caretaker despite having multiple medical problems of her own, couldn’t do all that needed to be done so that he could remain at home. I left my full-time job and moved in with them in order to help. I remain here because, though dad is gone, mom’s limitations have grown and she would have difficulty living independently if I didn’t give her some assistance.

Those who hear what I’ve done sometimes think I’m selfless and noble. As with Morris, the reality is more complicated than that. I did give up much of the life I had in order to help, but I still held onto some things. I maintained my professional identity, for example, continuing to work part-time as a psychologist. I continued to read, to blog, and to spend time with friends. So, no, I didn’t sacrifice everything. I gave up just enough to meet a need, and that’s still what I’m doing.

For a couple years I helped dress dad, took him to the bathroom, assisted with meals, and provided him with reassurance when he was anxious. Mom provided much more care than I did, and towards the end of his time at home we had a paid caregiver three mornings a week. I didn’t particularly enjoy providing physical care. Doing that seemed all wrong, as if some mistake had been made that kept dad from functioning as he should have. I was irritated at times–when he woke us up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t settle back down, for example, or when he was overwhelmed with anxiety concerning imagined problems and couldn’t be reassured. I did pretty well at containing my irritation, though. When impatient, I still acted patiently. Most of all, I was reliable. I was there for him.

Here’s a quote from Morris:

“Most aren’t perfect and selfless children who want to move their parents in with them and have their ashes scattered at the ballet. They don’t have the vision to see what only the selfless and enlightened can know when in the middle of it, and what I only know now that the experience is behind me, making it easy to say: Caring for your parents is an opportunity.”

On March 21, 2014, about twenty months after I came to help my parents and less than three months before my dad had to be transferred to a nursing home, I wrote the following in my journal:

“It occurred to me yesterday that caring for dad is really a gift; not a burden, but something provided to teach me patience and attentiveness to human need. Help me receive the gift with gratitude.”

It took me quite a while so see the opportunity that Morris alludes to, but I did see it. With God’s help, I was finally able to receive the gift that had been there all along. Now, I’m grateful for every minute I had with dad.

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Regret

I have written before about regret, that dreadful emotion that drones on like a mosquito in the room when you’re trying to sleep. Anyone over the age of about five knows the feeling, but those of us who are in older adulthood are particularly prone to feel regret.

I recently read an article on regret by Julie Beck at the Atlantic website. Beck cites some interesting psychological studies on the topic. For example, one meta-analysis (that’s a statistical analysis of previously published studies) found that the three areas of life where people experience the most regret are education, career, and romance. So if you’re bothered that you didn’t get that degree when you had the chance, or that you took the wrong job, or that you picked the wrong partner, you’re not alone. Whatever the area of life, regret follows opportunity–if you had only one practical option, you aren’t likely to regret the direction you took, but if you had many choices some of those you passed over may well seem pretty desirable in retrospect.

Education is one of the main areas of regret. Image from Methodist University.

Education is one of the main areas of regret. Image from Methodist University.

Another interesting thing about regret is that we are likely to regret actions soon after we took them, as in thinking “I never should have eaten a whole bag of candy” while still chewing on the last piece. With time, regret over our actions fades and what bothers us more are our failures to act–the things we didn’t do but wished we had. Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, explained to Beck that we fairly quickly forget our foolish deeds, but “the mistakes of inaction may only become clear with time.” Thus, it often takes years to figure out that we would have been better off had we gotten more education or left one job for another. When you put work ahead of your children, at the time it may seem for the best, but years later the missed school plays or soccer games can be seen more clearly as missed opportunities.

Another study, this one by Neal Roese of Northwestern University, found that people tend to have more intense regrets for mistakes that they still have the opportunity to change. Thus, during my years as a college professor I regretted not finishing a research project I had begun. Now that I’m retired and the opportunity is gone, though, I don’t think about it anymore.

Another point that Beck makes is that regret is helpful. It involves thinking about what we might have done differently. Even if it’s too late to redeem the particular situation we’re having regrets about, such thoughts help us prepare for the next time we find ourselves facing the same issues.

Gilovich makes much the same point when he says, “To live is to have at least some regrets, and if you don’t there’s a concern that maybe you aren’t learning sufficiently.” The suggestion seems to be that, if we reflect on our behavior at all, we’ll at times recognize that something we did violated our standards or took us further from achieving our goals. We’ll learn from that experience and be less likely to make the same mistake again. Regret is the emotion that accompanies this learning process. As we follow the path to maturity, it’s inevitable that we sometimes find ourselves wading through a swamp of regret. There are two possible dangers; getting mired in that swamp or detouring around the muck and thereby not learning from it. So, may you have just the right amount of regret, and may it be your tutor, not your tormentor.

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The Benefit of Almost Dying

Photo: excella-worldwide.com

Photo: excella-worldwide.com

Within the course of a couple days I had conversations with two people who had nearly died recently. Each of them was hospitalized in critical condition, and in each case family members were summoned because the patient was more likely to die than not. Each managed to pull through, but when we talked each was still quite weak and still needed a good deal of medical care for the condition that nearly killed them.

I have thought for a while that there are benefits from occasionally stopping in the middle of our busy lives and reminding ourselves we are going to die eventually. In the middle ages, there was a spiritual discipline called memento mori, Latin for “remember you will die.” The idea is that calling your eventual death to mind will help you be grateful for your life and evaluate your daily activities from the perspective of eternity. What if you don’t just call death to mind but are suddenly confronted with impending mortality? Do you still benefit?

It seems that these women did. One woman had been abandoned as a child and was depressed much of her life; she had often thought that she would just as soon die as go on living. When death was imminent she realized that she didn’t want to die but wanted to live. This was a revelation to her and is already changing how she looks at her life. The other woman is quite religious and believes in the afterlife. When she nearly died she didn’t feel fear, confirming how she thought she would react. She was reassured that she felt peaceful when confronted with the possibility of death.

I asked each of them what changes they had noticed in their lives since almost dying. Relationships were one area of change. One woman had previously questioned whether her husband and adult children loved her. Two of her three children spent considerable time with her at the hospital and the third, who lives far away, didn’t come but called constantly. “I realized how much they cared,” she said. There was an even bigger change in how she came to perceive her husband. He was distraught about possibly losing her, and this convinced her that he was with her not out of obligation but because he wanted to be there. She had harbored unforgiveness her whole life towards her mother, who had abandoned her as a child. She now has told her mother she forgives her, and feels the burden of resentment lifted.

The second woman also found that the near-death experience revealed things to her about relationships, but the revelations weren’t always favorable. On the positive side of the ledger, her husband stayed by her side and did everything he could to help. In contrast, her children started fighting over property they hope to inherit from her. She still is shocked by what they said and did during the time she nearly died.

Almost dying affected the women in other ways as well. One of them said she had always felt guilty, as if whatever she did for others wasn’t enough. That feeling is gone. She also began having positive childhood memories; she had previously thought nothing good happened to her as a child. The other said that she sees her daily activities differently now. She has more clarity about what’s important in life and what isn’t. This has helped her to focus on the important and not be concerned about the rest.

So, are there benefits to be had from almost dying? The experiences of these two women suggest that there are. Not that I want to go through what they did in order to reap the rewards! I’m hoping that practicing memento mori will provide benefit enough.

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“Sit In Your Cell As In Paradise”

I recently ran across the Brief Rule of the Camaldolese order, part of the Benedictine family of monastic communities. The first Camaldolese community was established by St. Romuald, an Italian monk, about a thousand years ago.  I was particularly struck by the first line:

“Sit in your cell as in paradise.”

I have traveled a fair amount this year. I’ve been to Israel and to several states in the US. I’ve seen some places that have some semblance to paradise, especially the desert waters of En Gedi, the tree-burdened hills of the San Juan Islands, and the peaceful perfection of my friend Collette’s suburban meditation garden. I don’t spend time regularly in any of these places, though. None qualifies as my cell. Of course I don’t have a literal cell equivalent to a monk’s residence, but I do have a room where I sleep, read, write, and pray. What would it be like to regard that place as paradise?

Peter Wenzel, "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden"

Dictionary definitions of paradise emphasize two aspects. First, ‘paradise’ can refer to a special place created by God where humans receive blessings not available in everyday life, particularly the Garden of Eden or heaven. Neither a monk’s cell nor my room meets that standard. Perhaps an element of paradise as a special God-given place can be present in these mundane locales, though. Perhaps St. Romuald was expanding the notion of paradise to refer to any place where the monk could feel God’s presence and experience spiritual betterment. That sort of paradise certainly can take place in my room–in fact it does so regularly. Every morning I take a little time to reflect on the previous day, focusing on where I felt the divine presence, what concerns that presence brought to my attention, and how I responded. I write a paragraph or two describing whatever this examination of the day brings to mind. The few minutes I take to do this are time spent in paradise–time spent with God that edifies me.

Second, dictionaries define paradise as “a place or state of bliss, felicity, or delight,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. I’m not particularly prone to experiences of bliss, at least not ecstatic ones. For me, felicity and delight occur more often. Felicity can be a synonym for happiness, and can also refer to any condition that produces happiness. When I am too busy to spend time alone in my room–remembering, reflecting, and meditating–I feel out of sorts, as if some part of me is missing. Retreating there for a half-hour or more is felicitous for me; it results in contentment and happiness throughout the day. As for delight, that emotion occasionally occurs during my time in my room, especially when my review of the previous day brings to mind memories that are joyous or exhilarating. I may have had some delight when the event I’m remembering originally occurred, but in the moment delight is usually fleeting. I savor such things more when I’m alone, in my room.

So, “sit in your cell as in paradise,” whether in God’s presence or in the company of your own thoughts and reflections. Be at peace, and take that peace with you throughout the rest of your day.

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