Tuesday, March 04, 2008

March 4, 2008 - The Uncertain Now

I’ve been reading Happiness In a Storm: Facing Illness and Embracing Life As a Healthy Survivor, by Wendy Schlessel Harpham, M.D. (Norton, 2005). Wendy discovered my blog a while back, and we’ve exchanged a few e-mails. She thoughtfully sent me a copy of her book.

I’m finding lots that’s useful in it. Wendy is a longtime NHL survivor who, her doctors told her at the time of her diagnosis in 1990, wasn’t supposed to live longer than a couple of years. She’s certainly defied those expectations. After her first recurrence, she decided to lay her medical practice aside and focus on her own healing, during which time she’s authored a number of self-help books for cancer survivors.

Here are some words Wendy wrote that express how I feel much of the time, as I deal with continued, low-level uncertainty:

“A great challenge for me was figuring out how to transform my heightened sense of uncertainty from a source of fear to one of joy. The problem was that after my cancer diagnosis, I knew – really knew, in a way that I think might be impossible without personally facing a life crisis – that all comfort and routine can dissolve in an instant. A worrisome headache, lump, or change in a mole could propel me on another medical roller-coaster ride. For the first few years of my survivorship, my heightened sense of vulnerability caused me great distress and made it hard for me to feel or be happy, even when my medical condition was on the upswing. How could I feel happy today knowing that my health might he worse tomorrow?

Some patients achieve Healthy Survivorship by denying life's uncertainty, and that works well for them. Not for me. So my challenge became figuring out how to turn the same hyperawareness that used to steal joy into a force that would enhance my joy. Consciously choosing to be grateful for life's uncertainty has changed my perception of all I have in positive ways. Clichéd but absolutely true, the only thing that is certain is today, this minute, this moment right now. This is it. Cancer gave me today, every day, in a way I’d never known before. Since I no longer take much of anything for granted, everything has an added element of happy surprise – I made it to see this, do that, stay here, and go there! The ordinary has become marvelous. Even unpleasant times are less painful, for they are proof that I am still here.”
(pp. 339-340).

Living in the now – aye, there’s the rub! Easy to say, far from easy to do.

Wendy thinks gratitude is a big part of living in the now, and I think she’s right. Learning to be grateful for the little things, even when a big thing like long-term good health is far from certain, can be a bridge to shedding anxiety and living fully in the present.

“Today’s a gift,” says the bumper-sticker slogan – “that’s why they call it the present.”

May we learn to recognize those gifts all around us, open them with childlike wonder, and be thankful!

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