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.