This is the question that was asked:
I’m 29 and dating a man that I adore; we’re planning to move in together soon. I have a stable job that I hate, but I hope that I’ll one day find something I enjoy. I have family and friends and hobbies and interests and love. So much love. And I’m desperately afraid that I’m going to have cancer.
I’m terrified that sooner or later, I’ll be diagnosed. My mother had breast cancer when I was in college. She survived hers, but in some ways, she didn’t. It broke her, Sugar. My father died of liver cancer when I was in high school—he was never lucky enough to be counted “a survivor.” My grandmother had a brain tumor when I was a newborn; she didn’t live to see my first birthday. As much as I take care of my health, as much as I try to be careful, I have this niggling doubt that my genes are setting me up for failure.
I know you can’t tell me whether or not I will have cancer, and I know you can’t tell me when. But what I’m struggling with—what I need help figuring out—is how to make the decisions in my life while keeping this possibility in mind. You know the decisions I mean: The Big Ones.
How do I decide whether or not to get married? How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it? I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself? How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through? How do I prepare myself?
Scared of the Future
And this is the answer I would have given:
Dear Scared of the Future,
Those questions you asked are REALLY good questions—or can be—if—if—you don’t let them make you totally neurotic. Meaning, if you can achieve and maintain some precious *balance*—accept the wisdom and perspective and appreciation for life that these questions bring, but refuse the neuroticness and craziness and shrinking from life that they also tempt us with.
And it’s very a tough balance to find and maintain.
Most people don’t think too much about death, and so they tend to make decisions without much perspective, clarity, and or wisdom: they live and love as if life goes on forever—or if it’s at least supposed to go on for a very very long time into the future.
And living in this way invites people to live rather badly and superficially—to skim the surface, to take themselves and others for granted, to consume and shop and buy and spend, to live for themselves, to become greedy, to lust for power, prestige, status, et cetera. In short, to live in denial, and in a way where they are forced to limit and guard their awareness and what they will permit themselves to think about. Only the safest and superficial things are permitted to be thought about and talked over.
And then if they’re lucky, they get some sort of wake-up call at midlife or soon thereafter—some sort of brush with death and their own mortality. And if that wake-up call actually wakes them up, then they live better, make changes, rethink their life, have a metanoia, live with more grace and appreciation and kindness and perspective. Death does that. Or at least it can.
But this is not your lot, SotF. Living in denial is not your predicament. You’ve been touched by death—by the death and near-death of those nearest and dearest to you. Losing your father in high school? Unbelievably tragic. Your mother’s battle with breast cancer while in college? That was strike three. The verdict: Life can’t be trusted; life is tenuous, fleeting at best; we are fragile, I must be next.
You are wrestling with some pretty profound questions and realizations, SotF. Questions that wise people have wrestled with and become wise for having had the courage to wrestle with—while not letting themselves lose their passion and wonder for life.
The Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” Sickness, old age, death: these things cannot be avoided. But most people try—try desperately, try to avoid these, try to avoid thinking about these dark shouters, these inevitables. It’s called self-preservation: and it’s hard-wired into our DNA; we’re riddled with it. Yet because of this—because of how avoidant most people are in terms of facing their own and other’s mortality—most people wind up impoverishing themselves, leading lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation. Leading lives where they try to distract and anesthetize themselves in a myriad of ways—addictions, relationships, sex, shopping, impulsivity and fanaticism of every kind, mindless reading, elaborate new age metaphysics and soft-minded mumbo-jumbo. And they live and love poorly, badly, superficially, because of it. Because they lack courage. Because they are afraid—and too afraid to face (and really *feel*) how afraid (and lost) they are. There are numerous ways in which we human beings check out from the full intensity of living and loving. There are numerous ways we humans have devised in order to try and avoid suffering and feel like we have some control over our fate and over death.
“There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” – R. D. Laing
“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” – Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”
But, again, this is not your lot, SotF. Your situation is different: How do you find (and maintain) balance between the lessons that having death over your left shoulder is teaching you (“carpe . . . carpe diem . . . seize the day, make your life extraordinary . . . !”), and not letting death and the uncertainty you feel in terms of your own remaining life-span make you totally skittish? How do you live and love well and fully amid all of this uncertainty and fear? For you, the question is not: How would I live if I knew I only had one year (or 5 years) to live? It is: Now that I know not to take anything and anyone for granted in life, what do I most want to experience, and who (if anyone) do I most want to experience that with? Who do I want to go through time with—whatever time I have left and he has left? How do I most want to spend myself and my time?
Death is certain; the time of death is not. This is true for us all. Maybe (perhaps even likely, I don’t know) because of the history of cancer in your family, the odds are a bit increased that your time may be up a bit sooner rather than later. But death wins and life loses if you go too far and swing to the opposite side of the equation—if in ways you don’t even realize you are shrinking from living and loving and refusing the gift.
“How do I decide whether or not to get married?”
If you love this man deeply, if knowing him has changed your life in ways you could not imagine and still cannot fully fathom for the better and vice versa, if knowing each other is bringing you both more alive, then you look him in the eyes and promise to love him with all that you are for as long as you can and then you go out and do this. Every day. That is the essence of carpe diem.
Read Schweitzer’s essay “Overcoming Death” in “Reverence for Life” (pp. 67-76), read chapter 14 (“Sex, Love, and Death”) in Schnarch’s book “Passionate Marriage,” read C. S. Lewis’s words in the chapter on “Charity” in “The Four Loves.” And watch “Shadowlands,” watch “The Notebook,” and if this is how you feel about your beloved, if this is who you are and who you aspire to be at your core, then marry him, give yourself fully to him, and LOVE him with all that you are and aspire to be.
“How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it?”
If he loves you, if he truly loves you, he will consent to all of this; he will sign on for it. Love is not about sparing someone else inevitable pain or trying to shield them from the brute inevitable facts of life. Love is about facing reality bravely, courageously, with grit, resolve, kindness, compassion, depth, understanding, openness.
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” ― C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”
“I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself?”
Then death may have already won and claimed you. Consider that. Consider with what you are saying here whether death may not have already won. Consider that.
“How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through?”
It’s not your job to prepare your spouse or to protect him from your death. Every person has to prepare themselves for their own death and for the death/loss of those they love. Every person has to do this for themselves. No one can do this work for anyone else in life. And having to do this work and prepare for one’s own death and for the deaths of those we love is a horrific thing to have to do; but the alternative—trying to avoid this and spare ourselves and others this—is even more horrific. It leads us to live superficially at best and badly at worst.
“How do I prepare myself?”
Be gentle with yourself, treat yourself kindly, and read (Pema Chödrön’s books would be a great place to start), think, write/journal, contemplate, talk, listen, love, live, walk, observe, participate, develop a spiritual practice, meditate, appreciate, be grateful, cry, weep, be open, smile, laugh, breath. Most of all breath. Be good to yourself, be kind to yourself, let yourself love and be loved—yes, this most of all—let yourself really love and be deeply loved.
Nothing is guaranteed. This is so difficult to accept, and like everyone else you are having difficulty accepting this, but you are approaching this from a much different starting point than most. But the crux is still the same: to accept that life does not offer guarantees, and thus to learn how to live and love on life’s terms, and not your own. Acceptance means surrendering some of the control you are so desperately craving; it means relinquishing this, easing up your grip on the proverbial wheel; it means learning to live and let live—it means to let yourself live and truly live.
And this is the answer that Sugar gave:
Dear Scared of the Future,
There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth.
Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in ration and reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?
Is there credible evidence that my friends secretly don’t like me very much or were they all simply deep in conversation when I walked into the room and it took them a beat to say hello? Was the acquaintance who said, with class sizes that big, I’d never send my son to public school, actually saying that I was a second-rate mother, recklessly destroying my children because there are thirty kids in their classes, or was she simply sharing her own complex parenting decisions with me? When I receive letters from people who disagree passionately with a particular piece of advice I’ve given in this column is it true that it would be absolutely impossible for every reader to agree with me on every point or that I’m a stupid piece of know-nothing shit who should never write again?
If you asked me to draw a picture of myself I’d draw two. One would be a portrait of a happy, self-confident, regular-looking woman and the other would be a close-up of a giant gaping mouth that’s ravenous for love. Many days I have to silently say to myself: It’s okay. You are loved. You are loved even if some people don’t love you. Even if some people hate you. You are okay even if sometimes you feel slighted by your friends or you sent your kids to school someplace that someone else would not send her kid or you wrote something that riled up a bunch of people.
I have to cut the crazy lady to the quick rather often. Over the years, my emotional well-being has depended on it. If I let her get the upper hand my life would be smaller, stupider, squatter, sadder.
So will yours if you let it, sweet pea.
You have my deepest sympathy and my most sincere understanding, but you’re not thinking clearly on this. You’re granting the crazy lady way too much power. Your sorrow and fear has clouded your ability to be reasonable about your mortality. And if you continue in this vein it’s going to rob you of the life you deserve—the one in which your invisible inner terrible someone finally shuts her trap.
You do not need to look into your lover’s eyes and “explain to him what he might have to go through” should you be diagnosed with cancer. Tell him about your family’s experiences with cancer and about how you made it through those difficult times. Share your fears with him, and your grief. But don’t make the illogical line from your relatives’ real illnesses to your nonexistent one. Only the crazy lady is pretty convinced you’ll get cancer and die young. All the rest of us are entirely in the dark. Yes, you need to be aware of your risks and monitor your health, but do so while remembering that in most cases a genetic history of any given disease is only one predictor of your own likelihood of getting it.
Any of us could die any day of any number of causes. Would you expect your partner to explain what you might have to go through should he die in a car accident, of heart failure, or by drowning? Those are things that could happen too. You are a mortal being like every human and June bug, like every black bear and salmon. We’re all going to die, but only some of us are going to die tomorrow or next year or in the next half century. And, by and large, we don’t know which of us it will be when and of what.
That mystery is not the curse of our existence; it’s the wonder. It’s what people are talking about when they talk about the circle of life that we’re all part of whether we sign up to be or not—the living, the dead, those being born right this moment, and the others who are fading out. Attempting to position yourself outside the circle isn’t going to save you from anything. It isn’t going to keep you from your grief or protect those you love from theirs when you’re gone. It isn’t going to extend your life or shorten it. Whatever the crazy lady whispered in your ear was wrong.
You’re here. So be here, dear one. You’re okay with us for now.