Sunday, July 13, 2014

No rules

Morning clouds
I keep coming back to one line from the movie of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel Zorba the Greek. Zorba’s young companion turns to him at a certain point and inquires, “Zorba, have you ever been married?” to which Zorba replies (paraphrasing somewhat) “Am I not a man? Of course I've been married. Wife, house, kids, everything . . . The full catastrophe! “
—Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness

Reading Kabat-Zinn’s book about stress reduction, I was taken by this excerpt from its early pages, which accounts for the book’s odd title. It nicely captures an attitude I find really satisfying about dealing with cancer. It recognizes that the rose-garden ideals of a life led in the pursuit of happiness are poor preparation for life itself.  What we can be sure of (besides death and taxes) is that we will face trials and frustrations pretty much without let up.

Despite our best efforts, little truly turns out the way we expect or want. That’s the human condition. The choice we have is to surrender to disappointment or make the best of it—even welcome the opportunity to relish what comes our way to be fully human instead of constantly fighting it, hoping for and expecting the impossible—smooth sailing, despite the certainty of stormy seas.

I found myself this week developing an appreciation for rebelliousness as a useful attitude in dealing with cancer. Rebellion chooses not to be fearful or cautious or to feel weakened or powerless. It says, give me all the advice you want, but I’m going to take what I need and leave the rest. Thank you very much. Most of all, I’m going to do what feels good, and as little as possible of what feels like a chore.

Storm clouds
I’ve led a life of shoulds and shouldn’ts, of making “healthy choices,” planning ahead, avoiding risks, keeping up my credit rating (with both Experian and the Almighty), and here I am anyway, with wavering blood counts, a tumor in my head, three prescription meds plus chemo, and a skull cap for my bald pate. Following the advice of others hasn’t kept me from that and a long list of other unexpected outcomes.

And I’m not complaining. The lesson, though late in coming, is breathtakingly freeing: Do what you want. Nobody can live your life for you. No one knows who you are. Not even yourself. You’re an alien, a stranger in a strange land, the brother from another planet. All you have is right now and that levels the field in the pursuit of happiness just fine.

This next part will sound hokey, but the hand one gets dealt with the cancer card in it is also full of hearts, and you can start learning all you ever or never wanted to know about love but were afraid to ask. If God is love (apologies to atheists and agnostics; no offense intended; we’re all in this together), then love moves in mysterious ways, along with about every other human thing.

Morning walk, San Jacinto
What can I say? I can only pass on here what I’m noticing. Much of which may seem hallucinatory: There will be no quotes from Scripture. (Though I share a joke with a more devout friend about wanting a Bible with “just the good parts.”) A fresh understanding of the Good Book was forever compromised by eight years of parochial school indoctrination in my youth.

But the lessons come anyway from whatever I happen to be reading. In a recent New Yorker, a long account of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground a while ago, slowly starving, but lovingly caring for each other until rescue released them—only to begin surrendering then to self-interest and the corruptive influence of the media, politics, and other worldly temptations. But demonstrating before and after a deeply experienced humanity that was in Zorba’s sense a full-scale catastrophe.

Or I’m reading the New York Times and finding an op-ed argument about motivation. Based on their research the writers found that love of a chosen profession is a surer predictor of achievement than the expectation of benefits or personal profit (higher pay, travel, greater recognition, advancement, etc.). Or I pull a card at random out of the Zen koan deck given to me long ago by a friend and colleague from work, which says simply, “Great understanding comes with great love.”

Bean bin
Lastly (and there isn’t a real end to this), in my bean bin (see journal entry for April 6 ), the item I have come to most enjoy finding, touching with numb fingers, and holding with eyes closed, is the polished stone with the word LOVE carved into it, given to me by my wife. I like the weight of it and the edges of the letters as I press my thumb over them.

And I begin to feel resistance melting away under the influence of writers I’m reading, who are willing to dip into age-old spiritual traditions to find again connection to the love beyond the reach of reason that enters us through our wounds. In my case, a cracked cranium thanks to a team of neurosurgeons at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California.

Anyway, I should have guessed things would take a turn like this way back when my first get well card came with a poem from the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz. Called “Dropping Keys,” it celebrates rebellion against the prison of rules and limitations. In one translation, it goes like this:

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Rowdy Prisoners.

Previously: Radio Ron


  1. Sending you very best wishes from a reader in So. CA,

  2. Trials and frustrations without let up. So true. For years I said that all I really wanted was "peace of mind." Not very often I've gotten it, and then only for a very short time.

  3. Another thoughtful, inspiring post, Ron. I admire your spirit. Like I always say ... Persevere.

  4. Your comments are of great interest to us all, Ron. Please continue.

  5. Ron, very deep and interesting thoughts here. Your lines "Despite our best efforts, little truly turns out the way we expect or want" reminds me of the spiritual wisdom that everything is exactly as it should be. I think it means we have little or no choice but to accept what comes our way. I fail to see the wisdom in the life of one who is suffering. This is followed by the sage advice that the Almighty will give us only as much troubles as we can bear and that He will see us through it. Sometimes I don't get that either. But, as I believe in divine providence, I believe in the (curative) power of prayer, from which springs hope and all that is good.

  6. I really do enjoy your self-discoveries because you set them out for us so well. I think, though, that you've always been thoughtful - you're just delving deeper now.

  7. Thanks everybody for dropping by, listening, and leaving your thoughts. They keep me going.

  8. "The full catastrophe." What a great line.