In The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. I find all eight pillars are relevant to my recent cancer diagnosis and my years as a recovering alcoholic. I generally view myself as a “glass is half full” kind of person, but the Dalai Lama’s discussion of the “perspective” pillar presents a more complex and holistic approach:
We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles. This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive. – The Dalai Lama, from The Book of Joy, p. 196
Even from a simple dualistic approach, I find that considering alternative perspectives provides incredible “aha” moments.
Why me? vs. Why me?
I took to sobriety pretty much from the day I committed to a detox unit in 1984. Although relieved, I asked “Why me?” even though accepting that I was an alcoholic and unable to drink like “normal” folks. In early recovery, alcoholism became my burden to bear or my lot in life. When I was 20 years sober, I had an “aha” moment. I began to ask “Why me?” again. But now I asked the question because I maintained my sobriety for two decades where so many others had relapsed. Why was I so fortunate? I know sobriety does not rely on intelligence, depth of alcoholism, or many other factors. Since my “aha” moment, I have maintained a new perspective on the “Why Me?” question.
I can’t drink alcohol today vs. I don’t have to drink alcohol today
I vividly recall walking out of my 30-day detox program with a fear that I would be drunk within 24 hours. However, I stayed sober then one-day-at-a-time with a commitment that I “won’t/can’t” drink for that today. In the first six months of sobriety I had an another “aha” moment. I was driving home from my sobriety bowling league feeling good about being sober at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night. I thought about how I would not wake up hungover the next morning and could spend the day doing something enjoyable. Life was good. And then it hit me – if I chose to drink alcohol I would lose that good life. I no longer had to drink to escape a life I despised. I came to accept living life on life’s terms. The I “won’t/can’t” drink today changed to I “don’t have to” drink today.
I am going to die vs. I am alive today
I have stage 4 cancer with an ambiguous prognosis. The chances are good that cancer will be my cause of death. Today, I look out over the rooftops of the same neighborhood where 40 years ago I stomped the streets in anger, despair, and drunk. Today the cold snap broke with temperatures in the mid-60s. I spent the morning raking leaves and branches from our backyard, planted two trees, and began to get ready for our spring gardens. I am in no pain and my body is functioning as normal. As I sit on the back porch writing these words, I look out over our backyard which is my kingdom, my Garden of Eden, my heaven on earth. The sky is incredibly blue today. I cannot imagine a better way to live my day in my favorite city in the world. I am at peace and having cancer means nothing to me as I am alive this day.
I am not certain my oncologist agrees with me, but I believe one of the reasons my cancer has not progressed more than it has to date is because I am blessed with a perspective whose seeds were planted over three decades ago when I entered a rehab for my addiction to alcohol and drugs. Consistently since that time, I learned that feeding the solution and not the problem produces a meaningful and joyful life. Today I accept the problem of having cancer but also have come to appreciate the lessons and wisdom that my response and solution to the disease has brought me.