Wednesday, July 16, 2008

July 16, 2008 - Certainty Lost, Wisdom Gained?

There are many losses associated with cancer, but among the most slippery to deal with is the loss of certainty. Such is the observation of Glenna Halvorson-Boyd and Lisa K. Hunter in Dancing in Limbo: Making Sense of Life After Cancer (Jossey-Bass, 1995). It’s a book I half-finished reading some months ago (see my April 18 blog entry), and have only recently picked up again. Here’s what these two cancer survivors say:

“We assumed that we had a future; now we don’t know. We assumed that we were safe in our own bodies; now we can’t be sure. We assumed that we had more control over our own lives. If we did the right things, we would be all right. In general, we believed in a more certain world.” (p. 88).

Most of us, in our younger years and well into middle age, live our lives based on certain assumptions. They’re irrational assumptions, but still we hold them dear. We know, intellectually, we’re going to die one day, but we really don’t believe it in our heart of hearts. By the same token, we may know that a certain percentage of the population will fall ill with life-threatening diseases, but we really don’t believe we’ll be numbered among them. We believe that if we do the right thing – or try to do the right thing – a beneficent Providence will reward us with life, liberty and a happiness we scarcely have to pursue.

We work hard, at times, to keep this irrational belief-structure in place. When we see neighbors get sick, many of us believe – consciously or unconsciously – that somehow it must be their fault. Maybe they smoked, or drank to excess, or gorged on some carcinogenic food we ourselves are wise enough to avoid. To believe otherwise – to acknowledge that many cancers and other life-threatening illnesses just happen, and scientists can’t say why – is too uncomfortable a thought to hold. And so, we search out a reason, a cause for the catastrophe. We leap on every rumor that the latest artificial sweetener or food additive is carcinogenic. We line up to protest the new cell-phone tower, because of course everyone knows those radio waves can’t be good for us. Before we know it, we’ve transformed those rumors into rock-solid certainty in our minds, based on scant scientific evidence. Flimsy logic, to be sure, but it will do in a pinch, if a whole belief-system is at stake.

Here are Halvorson-Boyd and Hunter again:

“Americans in the United States in the twentieth century hold some basic beliefs about life: that illness is caused by a known agent and can be cured; that if we follow the dictates of a healthy life-style, we are protected from sickness and even death; and that we can choose when and how we die. As cancer survivor Neil Fiore says in The Road Back to Health: Coping with the Emotional Aspects of Cancer, ‘The expectation of an understanding and controllable world is so deeply embedded in the modern mind that when horrific events occur we tend to attribute them to a logical, cause-effect relationship, rather than acknowledge that some things are still beyond our human understanding and the control of our technology.... As attempts to explain uncontrollable events, blame and self-blame are particularly damaging to one’s ability to cope with cancer.’” (p. 108)

We cancer survivors are mourning a multitude of losses. Few areas of our lives have been left untouched by the disease. Of all these losses, the loss of our cherished, irrational certainties may be among the most debilitating. Cancer has bestowed on us younger survivors a kind of wisdom, wisdom most of our peers won’t gain until they’re much older and facing health challenges of their own. Once we were relaxing in the soft candlelight of old and comfortable certainties. Abruptly, cancer turned on the overhead lights, and now we’re left blinking in their harshness – wiser, perhaps, but not necessarily happier.

In ancient Norse mythology, Odin, chief of all the gods, is offered the gift of wisdom. The gift, however, comes at a steep price. Odin must give up one of his eyes in exchange. So eager is Odin to obtain wisdom that he reaches into his eye-socket and plucks out his own eye. He undergoes terrible pain and lifelong disability in order to become wise.

Those ancient Scandinavian people were onto something. Wisdom never comes cheap. Always it demands something of us, by way of sacrifice.

None of us cancer survivors chose this kind of wisdom. But we do get to wear the eyepatch.


Stushie said...

Carl, I highlighted your blog today over at presbyterian bloggers - I hope that you get many visitors to your important blog.

God bless you.

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Thanks so much, Stushie, I sure appreciate it.


macbear1 said...

Assume Blackhawk Presbyterians know you as Carlos.
Your graphics, editing & erudition are awesome & sublime.
Our granddaughter Alethia is a 6 yr acute myloid leukemia (AML) surivivor thnx to God's grace born on the wings of 1,000's of prayers & the backs of St Jude Hospital.
More another time.
May the blessings of God's grace continue to manifest themselves to you & yours. George McIlrath

Carlos ("Carl") said...


Nice to hear from you! Yes, I'm going my Carl now, the name I was always called as a kid, growing up. I still answer to Carlos, though.

Sounds like you've been through a siege with little Alethia's illness. There's so much hope for childhood leukemia survivors these days, and I'm glad to know that, with lots of prayers and hard work on the part of her caregivers, she's doing so well.

Grace and peace.