Friday, August 16, 2013

The Grief of Grieving

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted the seasons that
pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the
winters of your grief.                                    
-Khalil Gibran

It there is one statement that summarizes most of the therapy sessions I've had with clients over the past twenty-nine years it would be, “Help me make the pain stop.”  Very often this experience of pain, mostly psychological and emotional, but sometimes physical, is associated with some type of loss.  It can be the loss of a loved one through separation, divorce, or death, the loss of family pet, the loss of a job, social standing or status, and even the loss of a cherished dream or belief. As all cancer survivors know, it can also be associated with being diagnosed with a life-altering illness.  The experience of this suffering is what most of us refer to as grief. 

Conventional wisdom tells us that grief, from the Latin gravare, "to make heavy,” is a part of life.  It’s normal, we are told, to feel sad and heavy-hearted when we experience loss.  However, under the sheer weight of this burden, very little seems “normal” and many of us worry that we will be unable to hold up and carry on.

While all grief is connected to loss, not all loss leads to grief. We can all look back at our lives and count numerous losses that did not lead to grief responses.  How is it that certain situations create such deep pain and emotional scars, while others leave barely a scratch? 

The answer is that we experience suffering in direct proportion to our level of attachment—a felt sense of connection—to a person or thing. This connection is a uniquely personal perception and helps explain why people vary in their responses to losses.  For instance, the loss of a job for someone who perceives that his or her sense of self-worth is defined by what he or she does for a living will likely feel catastrophic. The same job loss for someone who has little sense of self invested will feel much less devastating.

Traditional grief work seeks to help individuals understand and work their way through the stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross as denial, depression, bargaining, anger, and acceptance.  Those grieving are advised that these are not sequential steps and that there is no set time-frame for moving through the stages. Mourners are encouraged to seek support, express their feelings, and be patient with themselves while they find ways to adjust to the loss.

Common expressions during this adjustment period include, “Nothing seems real,” “My heart is broken,” or “I feel dead inside.” The fear that underlies these statements is that one will not survive this feeling; that the broken heart can no longer sustain a meaningful life. Grieving itself becomes the source of pain. One is left feeling like C.S. Lewis when he wrote, “I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

To find comfort during such times requires a new way of looking at grief. Instead of focusing on bringing the grieving process to an end, sometimes called “closure,” we can see it as an opening into the very nature of life. When we look through this opening with a compassionate heart we will experience not just the grief, but also a sense of relief and gratitude, or what I call gralief. 

Gralief begins by shifting our focus away from the past, before the loss happened, and the future, where the loss will remain, to the present moment. Here, there is no “life before” and “life after,” there is just life. When we are not being pulled apart by these opposing forces we realize that not only are we going to survive the loss we encountered, we will survive the grief process as well. This sense of relief allows us to look at our pain and see that it holds lessons for us which, paradoxically, are able to heal the broken heart. The wisdom gained from these lessons leads to gratitude—an appreciation for the natural rhythms of gain and loss, up and down, life and death. We are grateful to see that hiding in the shadows of our losses are unimagined treasures which are revealed after the walls we build to protect ourselves break down—or more to the point, break open—and let in the light of our awareness.

Gralief teaches us the art of letting go, thereby allowing us to discover that our losses are not interruptions in our life; they are a part of the process. It allows us to feel a very deep connection to people and things in our life, minus the need to cling to them when they move on. We are able to, as Khalil Gibran says, “Watch with serenity through the winters of our grief," knowing that even sadness, pain, and suffering come to an end in their season.

Getting some gralief:
1.   Create rituals that acknowledge the loss and honor your courage in facing it. (A good friend sends a balloon over the ocean every year with a message attached in memory of her father.)
2.   If you are struggling to accept what has happened outside of you, accept what is happening inside—allow the sadness and hurt to be there and observe them with self-compassion, as you would watch over a good friend who was suffering. 
3.   Use prayers, mantras, or affirmations during particularly hard times. (“This too shall pass,” the serenity prayer, or simply meditative breathing helps bring one back to present moment that is life.)
4.   Challenge guilty feelings and the thoughts which create them. (Too often people deepen their grief through feeling that they could have or should have done something to prevent the loss.)
5.   Keep a mental, or physical, diary of all the things in life that you are grateful for and make them the last things on your mind before going to bed.
6.   Take some time to reflect on all the things in your life that you once thought you could never live without and realize that while they have come and gone, you remain.
7.   If you are dealing with multiple losses at one time, as is often the case, feel free to place your grief on hold. (A client once told me she had no interest in grieving the pending loss of her job as she was already grieving the loss of a significant other and her health.)
8.   Remember that the word solemn essentially means "ceremonial," not "serious." It’s ok to smile, joke, and laugh when grieving.
9.  Find ways to support others who are grieving—you become the light at the end of their tunnel.
10. Forget about being your "old self" again and focus on the new you that is being born before your eyes.

Most importantly, forget about trying to go this alone. If friends and loved ones aren’t
Immediately available, seek the support of professionals. Simply finding a watchful
eye and listening ear can help ease the pain.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Battle Scars

“The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” General Douglas MacArthur

My wife and I spent the last week on vacation at Cape Cod. It’s impossible for me to walk their wonderful beaches without thinking about the classic movie Jaws. There also was the ever-present reminder at every beach entrance:

No wonder I kept thinking, "We're gonna need a bigger boat."

One of my favorite scenes from the original Jaws is when the shark hunters are killing time on their boat by comparing battle scars. click here for the scene. It’s the old salty dog, Captain Quint, who takes the prize with the tale of his wartime tragedy of being thrown into shark infested waters. After pointing to the tattoo on his arm of the USS Indianapolis, Quint tells of how he and fellow shipmates had to fend off the dark eyed monsters of the deep (this actual true story is profoundly tragic and heroic click here) . When he has finished, his current shipmates are in silent awe until the good Captain breaks out in song, to be joined by the eager Mr. Hooper, and the seasoned Chief Brody.

Like many cancer survivors, I have my own battle scars. I have the seam running down my chest from thoracic surgery to remove the tumor. I can also point out body parts that were altered. I even have the tattoos that mark me as a member of the radiation club (these permanent ink marks are used to accurately aim the radiation beam to prevent unnecessary tissue damage). I have to confess that there are times when I see these as badges of honor; reminders of a journey into the dark night of my illness, and the emergence back into the light. I also feel a kinship with other survivors, whose bodies have similarly been imprinted with the telltale marks of their being tossed into the uncertain waters of a life-altering illness.

I find, however, that the urge to tell the story associated with these body alterations, fades with every passing year. Retelling the tale gives glory to something that, I find, is better off left in the dusty corners of memory. The, “My scars are deeper than your scars,” contest is one where the winners are often left with a shallow victory.

Regardless of their appeal, stories about the dramatic events in our lives are still only that; stories. As narratives, they seem to give meaning and a sense of coherence to otherwise random and painful events. The danger lies in confusing the story of what happened to us with who we really are; the ever present, one life that is untouched by the scrapes and bruises of a bodily existence. To drop the identification with an illness, a tragic circumstance, or suffering opens one up to experience the fullness of Life. Or, to put it in terms that would appeal to Captain Quint, “You ain’t your head, you ain’t your tale, you’re the whole damn thing."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

How Do You Spell Relief?

"Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing." -Williams James
In a word, "Whew". My scan came back negative, and I'm positively out of my mind with joy. It's next to impossible to explain the sense of relief that comes from getting this good news, but I'm going to try anyway.  It’s like being back in Elementary school and the biggest of all bullies tells you, with a menacing look, to meet him on the playground at recess and when you get there, rather than giving you an atomic wedgie, he hands you an ice cream cone, tells you to have a great day, and that he's "got your back" for the rest of the school year. It's like that, only better.

However, in the yin and yang of our world, even this news comes with a reminder that a life lived with humility, gratitude, and even a touch of indifference, makes more sense than living as a conquering warrior.

While sending out the requests for energy, prayers, and good vibes to my army of faithful supporters as I headed for the CT machine, I learned that one of them had recently been diagnosed with cancer. He was just starting down that road of uncertainty that cancer survivors know all too well. I immediately felt the pull toward the reflexive, "Damn this disease," response. My hands were being drawn to type out some Patton-like encouragement. Instead, I was able to corral my fingers and coordinate them to write a more empathetic reply. This particular friend is a kindred spirit, a pacifist of the highest order, and my ranting about his need to “fight the good fight” would be meaningless.

Knowing full well that there was nothing I could say that would make it all better, I chose the response that seemed to work the best for me in the early days of my illness. I told him that he already has within him all the resources he will need to meet this challenge and to know that when he needs extra those of us who care for him will lend him ours.

I then silently offered him the Pacifist’s Prayer:

Letting go, I am care free
In surrender, I am cared for
In the hands of Life I bear its grief
With an open heart I find relief

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Grace Under Pressure

Ernest Hemingway wrote that “Courage is grace under pressure.” As a pacifist in the war on cancer, I often find myself lacking in both, but somehow I still manage to do the brave thing. This is particularly true now that I’m only three days away from my yearly CT scan to see if my cancer has returned. (Gulp!)

This will be my sixth time entering into the Star Trek-like capsule and I have to confess that I normally go in less like the brave Captain Kirk and more like Major Weenie. “Boldly go where no man has gone before?” I think not.

Unpredictability is par for the course when it comes to a life-altering illness, however, I have adopted a very reliable pattern when it comes to preparing for these scans. It goes as follows:
1. One year out. Receive the news that my last scan was negative, schedule the follow-up scan, and rest easy thinking, "365 days away, that’s a long time."
3. Six months out. The date for the scan has Freudian-slipped my mind, and it still feels a long way off.
4. Three months out. I start thinking I should probably find my appointment card that has the date on it and put it on my calendar. I convert months to days as ninety feels better than three of anything.
5. One month out. The appointment is officially on my work calendar and I’m careful not to schedule anything too mentally draining that day. Previous experience tells me I will only be ¼ present that day.
6. Two weeks out. Every bump, every body ache is surely my cancer returning, I can feel it growing even as I sleep. What's that large lump? Wait, it's the dog.
7. Three days out. I can barely feel my fingers as I ttryyy tooo typppe!
If history repeats, I will gracefully keep my appointment this Friday. I will think of all of those other survivors who have bravely returned and felt the strange sense of déjà vu, all over again. I will probably make an awkward attempt at humor to the technician who is going to give me the iodine dye push that, ironically, makes me feel like I have wet myself. (Or was it the iodine?) I will put on my best brave face and when it’s all over walk out as if waiting for the results is just another thing on my "to do" list. No one will be buying it, but that’s what I’ll be selling.

Between now and then, I will rest easier knowing that my beautiful wife, Kathy, will be sending positive energy vibes my way (these have proven to be even more powerful than radiation) and that other family members and friends will be there in spirit. I will think over what Hemingway said about courage and come to the realization that I have no idea what he really meant. I will then call to mind the words of the "Duke," John Wayne, who said "Courage is being scared to death...and saddling up anyway." Now that I get. Giddy up!

Monday, June 24, 2013


"You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one"
John Lennon

I have to confess that I was surprised to learn that the War on Cancer was started by, none other than, Richard Nixon. Actually, it's more historically accurate to say that in 1971, while taking a break from promising to end real war in Vietnam, and dabbing his sweaty lip, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act.

The introduction to the Act reads as follows:
Findings and Declaration of Purpose
SEC. 2.
(a) The Congress finds and declares:
(1) that the incidence of cancer is increasing and cancer is the disease which is the major health concern of Americans today;
(2) that new scientific leads, if comprehensively and energetically exploited, may significantly advance the time when more adequate preventive and therapeutic capabilities are available to cope with cancer;
(3) that cancer is a leading cause of death in the United States;
(4) that the present state of our understanding of cancer is a consequence of broad advances across the full scope of the biomedical sciences;
(5) that a great opportunity is offered as a result of recent advances in the knowledge of this dread disease to conduct energetically a national program against cancer;
(6) that in order to provide for the most effective attack on cancer it is important to use all of the biomedical resources of the National Institutes of Health; and
(7) that the programs of the research institutes which comprise the National Institutes of Health have made it possible to bring into being the most productive scientific community centered upon health and disease that the world has ever known.
(b) It is the purpose of this Act to enlarge the authorities of the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health in order to advance the national effort against cancer.

A worthy effort for sure that has clearly helped create more survivors like myself. It also turned the nation's attention toward what was the "leading cause of death in the United States" in 1971. Unfortunately, 40 years later, in 2011, cancer was still the leading cause of death in adults ages 45-64*.

Despite never using the term "war on cancer," the tone and imagery certainly hint at an all-out assault. The "attack" was going to be unleash the National Institute of Health, which was given carte blanche to use any means necessary in their fight against the "dread disease."

It's not hard to imagine the upbeat, can-do, spirit that must have been a part of putting together this Act. After all it was 1971; we had conquered space, Walt Disney World conquered Florida, Tony Orlando and Dawn conquered the pop charts with Knock Three Times, and Richard Nixon conquered common sense by installing a tape recording system in the oval office.

Yet, despite the "full-steam ahead" attitude, I can't help but wonder who the pacifist was that snuck in item number two, and referenced the possibility of coping with cancer. The idea that we might have to pull out of another war could not have been popular. However, the insight that resources should also be devoted toward "therapeutic capabilities," certainly sets the stage for a quality of life that includes cancer.

I was eleven years old the day this war began. Of course I had no way of knowing at the time that thirty-eight years later I would be counted as a victim, warrior, survivor? (I not even sure what to call myself anymore.) I am sure, however, that my pacifist roots were already growing strong, even back then, as I clearly remember groovin' to John Lennon's album Imagine; take that Tony Orlando and Dawn.

* source CDC 2011

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Out of the Mouths of Babes

"All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
When one adopts a pacifist stance toward the war on cancer the idea of telling "war stories" takes on a new dimension. From the heroic to the horrific, cancer survivors can tell stories that will melt the heart like any Mitch Albom novel, or send Steve King-like shivers down the bravest of spines. The challenge is communicating a healthy sense of respect for the trials and tribulations encountered when facing a life-altering illness, while at the same time honoring the miracle of life, even if that life includes a serious illness.

I found myself facing this challenge this past weekend during a visit with our granddaughter, Elizabeth Grace. Inquisitive like most five-year-olds, she was engaging my wife in a conversation about health and illness. This, on the heels of an in-depth discussion about the wonder that is chocolate milk. Oh to be five again. While quizzing my wife about her health history, Elizabeth asked if she had ever had chicken pox. When my wife responded yes, Elizabeth went on to ask is she had ever had cancer, because chickenpox and cancer are something you don't want to get. Kathy responded that she had not but "Grandpa did, remember?" This started an avalanche of questions that Kathy handled with grandmotherly care.

Tipped off to the conversation, I was prepared as I drove Elizabeth down to the dock for a boat ride. The questions came quickly, “How did you get cancer, how do they treat cancer, will it come back?” Then the heart wrenching, to the point, comment of, "I glad you don't have it anymore."

I learned from our brief, yet very meaningful, conversation that there is a Charlie Brown episode in which, in the words of Elizabeth, "Charlie Brown's girlfriend gets cancer and has to wear a scarf because she lost her hair." I also learned that good ol' Charlie Brown takes up for his girlfriend when other kids make fun of her bald head. This seemed like a good opening for the cancer pacifist in me to respond with some pearl of wisdom regarding how we treat others, even those that hurt us. When asked what I would have done if someone had made fun of me when I had no hair, I replied that I would confront the person the way Charlie Brown did and point out that it's not nice to make fun of other people. Elizabeth agreed, but added that if someone had said that to me she would probably "beat them up."

The conversation left me reflecting on the impact of cancer, and any serious life event, on our loved ones. I thought about how the reflex to defend, and sometimes avenge, the hurt we watch people we care about endure seems so ingrained. It's clear to me that the response of anger comes out of a loving place; which is why I understand that a pacifist's approach is not for everyone and would never suggest that anyone drop the fight instinct unless it felt right for them. It made perfect sense to me when, after counseling a recently diagnosed cancer survivor, (the American Cancer Society tells us that we become survivors on the day we receive our diagnosis) she said, "I've told my oncologist I want a better name than cancer survivor, something more along the lines of Cancer Warrior or Cancer Ninja.

So it was that I spent the rest of the day that day with my granddaughter with a huge smile on my face; picturing my little darling, Elizabeth Grace, beating down some mean-spirited bully in defense of her grandpa's bald head. Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Triumph of Tragedy

“The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.” John F. Kennedy

Our culture seems to have the habit of marking time by the occurrence of tragedies. The question “Where were you when . . ?” is meant to point out how powerful the imprint of disasters, natural or man-made, is on the human psyche. The series of traumatic events that make up that list has grown quiet large, even over my own relatively short (relative to human history, that is) life span. Sure, on the positive side, there was the  Beatles landing in America, men landing on the moon, the Star Trek series landing on TV, and Cabbage Patch dolls landing in every store in the country, but what springs to mind are events whose lasting effects were not due to a sense of triumph; but a sense of fear, panic, and despair.

People touched by cancer, and other illnesses, have a similar way of marking their personal histories. Very few will ever forget what they were doing when they received their diagnosis. The start of chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgeries also become memorable benchmarks. Some are so devastated by these events that they will even attach a previous historic marker to the experience. I have heard a number of people refer to their illness as their own 9/11 or Tsunami.

I have to confess, that as a cancer pacifist, I try not to mark the passing of time by tragedies. I also have to confess, however, that the whole period from 1991 to 1994 is forever etched in my mind as the time that my beloved Buffalo Bills tragically lost four consecutive Super Bowls, thereby creating, The Years of Whines and Woeses (Apologies to Blake Edwards). The problem, going back to the cancer experience, is that there are a myriad of traumatic happenings associated with life-altering illnesses. While throwing away the calendar and living without time certainly has its appeal, it makes keeping doctor’s appointments even more challenging.

One of the tricks my wife, Kathy, and I came up with was to neutralize the event by refusing to give it more attention than necessary. It is surprising how quickly something will slip from memory when not attached to a mental Post-it Note. Another trick was avoiding telling stories around each new twist and turn. This rule was altered, due to my chemo-brain and age relate memory problems that resulted in retelling stories, to telling the story in a light-hearted manner. Then there was the blog that I started once I could feel my fingers through the haze of pain meds. Putting our experiences into neat little essays helped to encapsulate the week’s events and send them off to the caring energy fields of friends and family members.

The most powerful method for cleansing our calendar was to keep track of, and celebrate, the triumphs. Early on, these were not as easily identifiable and required a little "thinking outside the box." For instance, the day that we were freaked out by the horrific bedside manner of the first surgeon who was scheduled to do my surgery became the glorious, Day We Chose to Have Open Heart Surgery Somewhere Else. Later, there were true victories: discharge from the hospital, negative results on the biopsies of lymph nodes, the ending of radiation therapy, the ending of chemotherapy, and the first signs that my hair was not only growing back, it was coming back without the gray.

Whether one adheres to pacifist philosophy or not, marking time with events that buoy the spirit rather than sink it, is a good practice. Let’s face it, we live in a world where the tragic not only catches our attention it captures it and holds it hostage. So why not try and about-face, and hold our attention and awareness on the mystery and miracles all around us?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Behind Every Successful Pacifist . . .

The very first call I made when I left the Urgent Care Center three years ago, after being shown an x-ray of my chest with a shadow on it that was not supposed to be there, was to my wife, Kathy. I was still sitting in the parking lot, dazed, numb, in shock, stunned, (feel free to add whatever other experience you can imagine when one gets the "It might be cancer" news). I’m not even sure what I said or how I said it, but I do know that the response was exactly what I was looking for and why I called; “Whatever happens, we will get through it together,” was the reply, and then, even my ears went numb.

As the days passed, and the test results confirmed that this was not just a technician's fingerprint on my x-ray, (my secret hope) but was a tumor and there was a need for a biopsy, Kathy and I seemed to simultaneously come to the same conclusion for how we were going to go about this. We were not going to expect the worst, we were not going to expect a miracle, we were going to take each thing as it came and utilize our current interests in meditation and mindfulness of the present moment to the maximum degree. (Sure there would be Ativan, red wine, a side-order of denial now and then, but that's for another blog). Oh, and there were prayers, lots of prayers; not of the "Heal me now" variety, but more along the lines of "Give us the strength to handle whatever is heading our way."

When the diagnose of cancer was confirmed (by phone call while I was at work) concerned coworkers drove me home (I find it wise to not drive with numb feet) where I was met by Kathy and gave her the news. While I know that it was in me at the time to have one of those fall down, "Why Me, God, why me?" moments, I was surprised to find those words not crossing my lips. Instead, there were tears and hugs, then silence and Kath's reassurance of, “We can do this.”

At that moment the pacifist die was cast, and we discovered that the mutual feeling between us was that this was not a war against this illness. The focus was on wellness and honoring each day no matter what that brought. Fighting would be left for those times when, jacked up on steroids to prevent nasty side effects from chemotherapy, I would act in the manner of what Kath referred to as "a total ass."

Together we went through open heart surgery to remove the tumor, a piece of lung, my phrenic nerve, and a piece of the pericardium. Using the Caring Bridge website, Kath sent out dispatches on my condition to friends and family. Moving onto chemo and radiation therapies, Kathy stood vigil, ever-ready to fill in whatever cracks in my “Let there me peace in me” armor with a call to meditate, pray, try some yoga, do a quick Qigong exercise, or clear away the negative energy with an American Indian smudge stick ceremony. I am grateful that she had her support system to express her own fears and get release, for her tank always seemed full when it came time to refuel my optimism.

I have to confess that keeping a pacifist perspective on all of this was not easy. Anger was a frequent guest in the Verano household and sometimes it brought a full set of luggage for extended stays. The beauty of having a pacifist covering your back is that she can help dissolve the anger by allowing it to be what it is, energy, without having to feed it.

The day after I ended my last round of chemotherapy, Kathy and I participated in our first
Relay for Life event where cancer survivors and their caregivers are acknowledged for their acts of courage, bravery, and commitment. We were invited by a friend whose father is a prostate cancer survivor and could think of no better way to mark the occasion. It was close to a 100 degrees that day, and I still had the nearly bald head that chemo had given me. The joke between us that day was how ironic it would be to have survived cancer only to succumb to heat stroke while celebrating life.

As Kath and I took our “victory lap” with other survivors and caregivers it was impossible to hold back the tears. Seeing so many others, some of them children, some walking in tribute of those who did not make it through their treatment, was both sorrowful and joy-filled. The symbolism of taking this lap on a hot Virginia afternoon surrounded by friends, family members, and strangers was not lost on either one of us. This journey was clearly not over, we would come back around to face follow-up visits to the oncologist, continued recovery from the effects of treatment, CT scans to determine if the cancer returns, and the nagging thoughts of “Could we ever do this all over again?”

Despite these inescapable truths, it was a day of triumph; not of a victory over cancer, but of the human spirit to find wellness in the face of illness and serenity in the midst of chaos. As the day wore on, and the heat and humidity continued to rise, Kathy and I decided to end the celebration like any good pacifists would; we headed to a local tavern with a trusted and true friend, who had been there for both of us, and toasted to good health, good friends and, of course, peace.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dream On

And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that's the chief thing, and that's everything; nothing else is wanted--you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it's an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times--but it has not formed part of our lives!  Dostoevsky

Pacifism, rather than being an idle philosophy grounded in a “Wouldn’t it be nice” mentality, often develops as a response to the direct contact with the realities of war. Many great peace activists come from countries torn apart by conflict and have resisted the eye-for-an-eye mentality and instead sought reconciliation through compassion. This desire to spread this vision is perfectly captured by the Vietnamese peace-activist Thich Nhat Hanh; "We who have touched war have a duty to bring the truth about war to those who have not had a direct experience of it . . . we will know how to look deeply into the nature of war and, with our insight, wake people up so that together we can avoid repeating the same horrors again and again."

Those who've had close encounters with life-altering illnesses often experience a similar shift in the way they perceive themselves and the world around them. Expressions like, "It gave me a new appreciation for life," "It gave my life new meaning," or "I live everyday as if it were a gift," point to a level of awareness beyond the normal duality that divides the world.

I have to confess that my own "awakening" in no way rises to the level where I can say that cancer has made me into a modern-day Gandhi; ready to sacrifice all for the sake of peace. However, like a lot of cancer survivors, I have developed a deeper understanding of suffering, whether it be mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual. (Despite this, it still annoys me when I get stuck behind someone in the express lane at the supermarket who clearly has more than the allowed items in their cart. Peace to them, peace to them . . . breathe, Mike, breathe).

When one considers the number of people who have experienced, first-hand, the war on cancer, or any other illness, and have had even the slightest shift toward compassion, it's a wonder that we aren't knee-deep in pacifists. Unfortunately, it seems that our fixation and fascination with war trumps the call for peace, both inner and outer. This pull back to the world of "us and them" is so strong that even those whose lives have forever been altered by their experience, find the idea of the world filled with love rather than hate, turning into what Dostoevsky called, "the dream of a ridiculous man."

What if it's not so ridiculous? What if suffering is meant to push us toward compassion, toward the realization that we are all one, to understand that an act done to another is done to the self? Talk about turning lemons to lemonade, bitter to sweet, lead into gold, and pain into joy. Now that's a cause worth taking up arms, legs, feet, head, and heart for.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ode to a Pacifist

“As society progresses, not only war itself, but the love of war will diminish.”  Bertha von Suttner
The word hero, according to Webster’s, means to watch over, protect.  More commonly, we think of a hero as someone who displays great bravery, or, if you’re from New York, as a submarine sandwich heralded for its great size and, if prepared properly, its drippings, which requires an act of courage to consume if one is dressed for work.  
For all that wars have taken from us; one of things that they provide is a steady stream of heroes.  As long as there have been wars there have been stories told of the brave men, and now women, who sacrificed all, and whose acts of courage give rise to monuments, stories, paintings, and poetry.  We literally sing the praises of our heroes in songs of tribute to their war-time acts.

It should come as no surprise that most people do not think of heroes when they think of pacifists. With the possible exceptions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, we have few stories to rival the volumes stocking libraries and bookstore shelves about heroes in the heat of battle. Likewise, one would be hard- pressed to name a monument to pacifism: unless one considers the entire country of Sweden, its golden hair, chocolate producing, fondue-eating citizens a monument (as I certainly do).  

A Google search for poems on pacifists was disappointing in the lack of return. Imagine my shock when what it did turn up was this nugget from George Orwell, from his essay Pacifism and the War,* “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other.” I find it hard to see myself whistling along with that tune.

In an attempt to add one more hit to the Google search engine, and, more importantly, pay tribute to those who choose the gentle path through life-altering illnesses, or simply life, (heroes one-and-all) I offer this Ode to a Pacifist:

You’ll find no metals across their chests
No trophies adorn their dusty shelves
No banners hang to shout their names
But each a hero, just the same.
They do not beat the battle drum; still its rhythm fills their ears
They do not shout the battle cries, and still have shed their share of tears.
Their cause you may not even know
Lest you find the courage to simply ask
Their tragedies held in quiet grace
Their triumphs stored in a sacred space.
Strong and steady; peace in motion
One less war; their deepest devotion

Take that, George!
*George Orwell: ‘Pacifism and the War’
First published: Partisan Review. — GB, London. — August-September 1942

Monday, May 13, 2013


Ironically,  taking a pacifist stance does not always diminish conflict in one's life. Choosing the less popular response can create intense struggles that are often fought in the battlegrounds of moral "right" and "wrong."   As any nonconformist can tell you, the road less traveled is less traveled, in large part, due to toll exacted from those who would venture where others fear to tread.

Another reason pacifists are often target for scorn is that, despite being hardwired for fight-or-flight, our culture  holds a high opinion of the fight option. We love winners, often despite the cost of victory. Flight, on the other hand, is often met with such vitriolic condemnation that it often takes more courage to stand and not fight than to take up arms. 

Take the example of this quote from that Not-So-Teddy-Bear Roosevelt who said, “The pacifist is as surely a traitor to his country and to humanity as is the most brutal wrongdoer.”  Ouch!  Of course, it may be easy to understand how someone who was a proponent of eugenics*, short for "only the strong should reproduce," would take such a heavy-handed stance against a pacifist philosophy.  But, how do we explain the common notion held by caring, intelligent, and rational people that only war can bring peace? 

Fortunately, few people who face life threatening illnesses, and decide to seek a gentler path to recovery, will ever have to face the likes of ol' Bull Moose Roosevelt.  However, this does not mean that we do not experience conflict both within and without.

The medical profession, friends, and even family members, conditioned to believe that pacifism is the same as admitting defeat, will often send well-meaning arrows our way.  Slogans like, Cancer may have started the fight but I will finish it, Whoever said winning isn’t everything, wasn’t fighting cancer, and even Livestrong, place subtle, and not-so-subtle, pressure on pacifists to stand their ground and not cower from the enemy. It’s easy to imagine someone struggling with a life-altering illness giving in to these demands rather than be thought of as a  traitor. 

Perhaps even worse than the outer conflict with a culture seemingly addicted to war, is the internal machinations of the mind that, too often, has its own ideas about winning and losing.  Despite the obvious fact that it takes more courage to go against the norm, and stand on one’s own principles, the mind likes to play the “Don’t be a coward” card on a regular basis. Weapons used by the mind as it fights against the flight instinct include, but are in no way limited to, guilt, shame, blame, and regret.  Anyone who has ever spent a restless night with his or her own mind knows, addditionally, that it is not beneath the techniques of taking hostages and torture. Thus, the inner battleground is often more treacherous and deceitful than any external hostile territory.

The challenge facing the pacifist is to take a similar approach to these conflicts as he or she would with the cancer itself.  It’s self-defeating to attempt to make peace with cancer only to fight tooth-and-nail with those who do not understand the pacifist philosophy.  To avoid becoming just another self-hating-monger, we can become an activist for the cause of pacifism.  We can become deeply devoted to peace-making and find victory in overcoming to need to go to war.  In this campaign, we can turn to one of the greatest thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein, for our slogan; “I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.” Bully for you Albert, and three cheers for the rest of us!

*Some day we will realize that the prime duty - the inescapable duty - of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. Theodore Roosevelt to the founder of the Eugenics Records Office, January 3, 1913.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Behind Enemy Lines?

“Those who attempt to conquer hatred by hatred are like warriors who take weapons to overcome others who bear arms. This does not end hatred, but gives it room to grow.”  The Buddha

I have to confess that three years into thymic cancer survivorship I still have problems with the “war on cancer” mentality.  I fully appreciate that the diagnosis of cancer brings on a reflexive “fight for your life” response.  I find it hard, however, to reconcile the need for peace of mind, so essential to a healthy recovery with engaging in a battle against, what the author Siddhartha Mukherjee refers to as, “the emperor of all maladies.”

The other confession I have is that my resistance to the going to war with cancer is due to being a peace-loving guy, a pacifist, and, yes, even a wimp.  The idea of fighting my disease never really occurred to me and seemed to make about as much sense as our war on terror.  Fighting an enemy that was always in hiding, could strike at a moment’s notice and never fought fairly, seemed like no-win situation to me.  Additionally, wars require enemies, and enemies require hatred.  If that enemy is literally within, one runs the risk of friendly fire. It never made sense to walk around with the self-inflicted wound of anger, the ever-present shadow of hatred, while trying to recover from a major illness.

I understand the medical profession’s need to be aggressive in their approach to certain cancers. I understand their “take-no-prisoners” mentality that seeks to instill hope in both patient and loved ones. I also understand that the battlefield is my body, which harbors not only an alien invader but is also home to psychological and emotional states that are too often the casualties of not so friendly fire of cancer treatment.  I know that in my case, I often felt more like a hostage to the medications, procedures, and tests than a warrior whose heroics would surely garner a purple heart.  There were times when my panic-filled heart wanted to go AWOL and hide-out in the neutral territory of denial.  

I realized that I was not the only one whose courage often waxed and waned, during a recent cancer support group that I’m privileged to lead.  One of the members talking  about her fears, insecurities and weaknesses said, “I get tired of people telling me I’m so strong for facing this, I don’t want to be strong all the time because sometimes I feel just the opposite.”  Talk about having the guts to be honest; give that woman a medal of honor.  

As a pacifist, literally “peace making,” I decided I would enter into an emotional peace treaty with my illness. While I surrendered my body over to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, my mind sought comfort through the formal practice of meditation, yoga, Qigong, and other “alternative therapies” and found strong allies in family members, friends and even strangers. These helped to protect the borders of my sanity and conserve my energy for the unpredictable challenges that lie in wait.

Like all cancer survivors, I live with the awareness that my cancer could invade again, thereby calling me up for active duty.  I have already decided to join the ranks of one of the greatest fighters of all time, Mohammed Ali, and declare myself a conscientious objector.  I plan to stand my ground as a pacifist and a firm believer in the motto “Do no harm” particularly if the harm is heading my way.   My previous experience assures me that I will have a ready-and-willing army of supporters to help soldier me on through the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual landmines ahead.  Of course, this army will be carrying flowers, burning incense and chanting “Give peace a chance.” That’s why I love them so much.