As I've prepared for Teddi's surgery next week, I've spent time reviewing our 2013-2014 blog entries, archived webpage material and packing lists from that period. This has come about during a time where I've also been reaching back into pictures, video, journaling from the past several years of my life during a highly introspective two week holiday down at Broulee (NSW, Australia). This combined experience has led to some synthesis, some distillation of these life experiences into life principles and personal realizations.
When I say, "realization" - I define this as a deep understanding, an epiphany of sorts. Not merely a philosophical thought process, but a re-programming of one's belief systems. Something, that when absorbed and processed, results in a different way of thinking about life, one that results in action, and resides in emotional conviction on a topic.
I've come to several key realisations in my reflection over the past four years of this cancer journey, here I'm ready to share three of them...
Realization #1: We are not in control.
The problem here, is that prior to truly realizing this, we really try to be in control. We even largely think that we are able to be. This control gives rise to "should" and "should not" style division of the world, where we create resistance to life's unfolding. But life's unfolding is actually a process far beyond our very limited ability to control it. Therefore, in these efforts we are destined to be disappointed. In fact, we are bound to create more upset, more problems, more internal turmoil, the more we believe we can control and the more we try to exert that control.
This realization is an important one for me, as I used to be the type of person who wanted control life. Schedules, to do lists, plans, or the ability to adapt myself and my actions to control the way others felt about me, even into forcibly controlling my emotional reactions and responses to events. But I’ve come to realize, through this cancer journey, how very little control we have over life, and so I've had to dig deep within myself to find a different energy. That energy is best referred to as surrender. Yielding to life's unfolding instead of resisting it. Saying “yes” where I'd like much prefer to say "hell no!".
This choice can be as simple as accepting the cold, frosty walk to the caravan park shower stalls on a cold, foggy Canberra winter morning - letting the freeze be just as it is, biting my fingers and stinging my toes. Or as complex and nuanced as accepting that my wife has to have another peritonectomy. To change my attitude from one of control, to one of surrender, releases me from the real source of difficulty in these situations – the inner turmoil, the inner angst and frustration, stress and anxiety, even the rage and anger of “why?!”.
Of course, the paradox here, is that one's response (note I differentiate “response” here from “reaction”, meaning one actively involves their conscious thought patterns into the situation) to a situation like the frosty shower walk, or a car accident, or spilt coffee or the mother of all surgeries is the only thing one can control. And the best choice to make, is to forego the resistance, the struggle against what is, and let it be. Let it go. Don't force anything. Life's unfolding is beyond you. Whether you like it or not!
From here, we actually become self-empowered, collected, calm. "Okay I cannot change this, so I accept it, what now?” - this decision to surrender creates release with in us, release from the ickiest parts of it all - the angry parts, the upset parts, the hopeless parts, the “this is unfair!", "this is terrible!”. The continual onslaught of "life should/should not be _____" ongoing in our brains.
With this decision to surrender, we can come back to the present moment, come back to life, as it is before we obsessed with changing or resisting that which we cannot control. This allows us to then look within ourselves, to find peace in our hearts, to process our true feelings and beliefs about the situation. From this space, gives rise to creative energies that actually reveal to us what we can do about the situation we can't control. Such as seeing opportunities to transmute our suffering, or the suffering of others into powerful lessons about life, or messages of support to others going through similar life challenges!
So, Realization #1: We are not in control! We need instead surrender to life's unfolding.
Realization #2: There is no answer to “Why?!”
In the first realization, I came to understand our fundamental lack of control. This was neatly paired wth the inability to understand “why?!". Why is this happening to me? Why is my beautiful athletic, strong, health-conscious wife struck with such a terrible disease? Why does my son have to see his mother in such a state of pain and incapacitation? When Teddi's recurrence was revealed to me by Prof. Morris in April 2016, the “why?!" question was front and center. As I looked over my sleeping son and wife on the evening of his birth, after the trauma of discovering cancer during his C-section, “why?!" was understandably on my mind.
While in 2013, my mind was filled with more thoughts of action than contemplation, my 2016 experience was different. The recurrence was a different type of blow – it struck deeper, it communed with the years of angst dreading follow up CT scans, as well as flashbacks of the trauma and terror of those five weeks in Sydney last time around. As I processed that news from Prof. Morris, as I communicated it to Teddi shortly thereafter, “why?!" resounded.
After delivering this news to Teddi, she headed across the street to talk things over with her friend and neighbor, at that time I found myself screaming “why?!” into a pillow, with tears of sadness for Teddi's pain, and of anger, denial and frustration that we had to do this all again. “Why?!”. Shortly after those screams, I actually found myself on my knees in a prayer, in prostration to the Universe asking this question. In that moment I had a profound experience, that I did not expect, I saw, at a deep level of understanding that the mind was completely and forevermore devoid of answers to this question.
While my planning, scheduling, control-loving left side of the brain could come up with heaps of answer to "what to do about it", I found my mind empty of answers to the question “why?!”. I saw then, that for the deep answers of meaning, purpose, understanding of existence – the mind could not save me. Silence, was the only answer it could give me. The resulting emptiness of the universe the only reply. In that moment, not a single thought arose. My mind, empty, open, thoughtless, as I waited for an answer - but the only answer for “why?!” was that silent mind.
I saw then, that this next challenge was all part of life's unfolding, not just out of my control, but also outside of my realm of comprehending. It is all as it is, and will be as it will be. There is no answer to “why?!”, as it is really, a silly human question. A silly human question whose answer, if it does exist, is so large, so complex, so voluminous, that I would never be able to fit it into my puny, finite brain.
Realization #2: There is no answer to "Why?!", at least not one we can comprehend. So stop asking
Realization #3: Don't wait for “someday" to chase what’s in your heart.
When it comes to life, we have no guarantee that tomorrow will be there. This is said so often that it's almost cliché, but I cannot overstate how profound this is as a realization – As in, when that message becomes a part of your programming, when it is believed, and acted upon (as defined above!). For us, it took appendix cancer to reprogram our brains, our hearts, to really "get it" on this point.
Both of us were in our late 20s when it struck. Cancer was not on our radar – it was that "maybe when I’m older" thought at most (note that two of my other close friends in their 20s got cancer in that same year!). But when it struck, it came with an acute sense of our mortality. Shit - we are not invincible, we are but mere mortals, and these bodily vessels have a limit to their use. An expiry date that can be unpredictable (beyond our control a la #1 above) – and strike for reasons bigger than we can understand (back to realization #2).
What's remarkable about our experience from 2013 – 2014, is just how deep that lesson sunk in. With it clear we had no guarantees, our mortality was acutely felt, and a transformative process was triggered in our lives. We no longer had the luxury of "someday", that elusive future state we all conveniently store our dreams up within, expecting we'll get around to opening it at some future date. The fundamental problem with this container of future possibility – is that it is just that – in the future, always. And our minds have a known evolutionary bias with that state of affairs - our future self stays in the future, our presents self stuck in perpetual inactive, half-assed pursuit of our dreams.
From this experience of cancer, what did we learn? To “do it". To get started. To write the checklist, create the goals, articulate the dream. NOW. We realized that one should even take one step backwards - to a psych surf of your feelings, values, and deepest desires to figure out – what do I want from life? And how do I want to feel each day I have left? – And then go for it. Relentlessly. No excuses. Now.
As a result of her cancer, Teddi has made incredible life changes since that March 2014 5 week stint in the hospital. She started a successful business, she quit her day job, she enrolled in art school. All part of aligning her present self with that "someday" version - for her, an artist, a palette in her hands and paint covered pants.
Myself? I learned, somewhat vicariously, the same lessons - to go for it. For me, that meant to go BIG. To take my crazy, ambitious ideas and make them happen. That experience pushed me aggressively into finishing my PhD, and from there, building up a #BIGideas research project for solar energy, even creating a start-up company to drive my research out into the real-world. I found myself using the courage I learnt from our cancer journey to drive forward with bold ambition, with the absurd idea in my head of making a dent in the Universe with this short little life of mine.
As a family, we've also acted collectively upon this realization. We have taken the ski holiday we always wanted, the dream vacation to a tropical island in the Whitsundays. We even sold off 95% of our belongings in a minimization frenzy driven by a family desire for peace and freedom. In relentless pursuit of living a life aligned with our values. All of this made possible and driven by this third realization - that "someday" isn't guaranteed - unless you bring it to the "Now". So take it from Teddi – don't wait to chase your dreams – learn from our experience, if you can! Because, if you've been paying attention (and I know you have!) - Life is out of control (#1), inexplainable (#2) and unpredictable (#3). A trifecta of 'get 'er done' messaging, if you ask me.
I've learned to live my life in recognition of these realizations & that has been completely transformative - in ways I think are really just getting started. I hope that they will benefit you in your own journey. Please feel free to share and/or comment below
More from me on these topics soon - I'm not done yet! :-)