Dealing with Surrender and Denial, Again

I find the words I have the most difficulty speaking – that cause me to choke – are when I talk to the oncology folks about what I have been doing medical-wise – supplements I have been taking, things I have read, trying to get answers for my back pain and other medical issues, related to my cancer diagnosis.  I think this difficulty comes in part from my academic training where I was taught to read another book or run another test to come up with a better answer.  And though there is some truth in that approach, there are limits.  I learned in Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous that I was “powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.”  The same holds true for my cancer.  In the same way there is no magic bullet to allow me to consume alcohol as a “normal” person, I have some cancer cells with a mind and power of their own.  So modern science has done wonders with cancer treatment, but limits remain.  I am learning to accept those limits.

I have wanted to believe that my back and neck pain all result from my bike wreck this past May.  I wanted to believe when my fractured clavicle was treated the pain would go away.  So I am now having physical therapy and after a couple of sessions my therapist casually noted that a good bit of the pain is likely attributable to the cancer in my bones.  Again, that lump in the throat as all of my rationalizations and denials are shot down.  After all, even before the cancer diagnosis, I was diagnosed with osteopenia a step away from osteoporosis.  My back and neck issues are not all the fault of the frat-boy who lost control of his skateboard causing me the worst bike wreck in my 65 years of living.

I know that in the same way an “attitude of gratitude” is instrumental to my continual recovery process from addiction, the same attitude will help me prevail with cancer.  In these early stages, I find it is less about the amount of time I will live but what I will do with that time, beginning today.  Cancer notwithstanding, none of us are getting out of this game alive.  I was bike riding and thought about how much I really enjoy that activity.  I cut back more of the jungle in our back yard for fall crops and planted beets in one of our raised beds.  In terms of physical activity, gardening is second only to biking as my favorite.

My oncologist has not “operationalized the variable” of what it means that I have “at least 2-3 years of a quality life” remaining.  And with the inability to find out where the cancer is even coming from, and my denial, I prefer not to ask.  But I have to assume that even with continued physical therapy, the cancer in my bones will cause more pain.  I know too, even without a cancer diagnosis, someday before I die I likely will not be able to ride my bike or plant beets in the garden.    The one-day-at-a-time approach to life that I have learned in sobriety over the years certainly suits me very well today.

Giving & Receiving in Recovery


Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

The above words are commonly attributed to the 13th century Christian, Francis of Assisi though circumstantially, the attribution does not hold up.

The first half of the prayer talks about good and right things to aspire to sow.  But I have been thinking more about the “in giving that we receive” part.  And truly, without exception, when I take part in any “service” work in recovery, I am rewarded with a more meaningful existence.  I suspect this inherent desire to do service, to be a part of, to be in community with, or to share our experience, strength, and hope is something that is hard-wired into our True Selves.

Further, consider – when I deliver meals on wheels, serve food to the homeless, give money to a person in need, I always “feel better” after the fact.  My wife and I hosted a young woman from another country in our home for a couple of years while she was in graduate school.  Several of her family members attended her graduation.  They expressed very sincere and abundant thanks to us for hosting their daughter/niece/granddaughter.  I responded that I was very appreciative of their thanks, but needed to express my thanks to them for the opportunity to do the hosting and be in relationship.  I experience a similar sense of gratitude to the students I worked with over the years.

It is in giving that we receive.

I do not write this post to allege that I exude some sort of hyper level of altruism.  I don’t think that is the case.  I do believe that when we are mindful of “in giving that we receive” we recognize that basic truth.

The reciprocal situation is accepting from others so that they can experience the in “giving that we receive” as well.  My favorite Christmas card I received this year was from a man who “receives” where I go on Tuesday afternoons to help serve a meal and provide a night of shelter to homeless folks.  He handed me the card in an envelope.  Nothing was written on the card or the envelope.  When he gave me the card, he said, “This is not much but it is in the spirit of Christmas.”  I thanked him for the card.  I wondered if he was too rushed to sign the card.  I wondered if he had never received a Christmas card before and did not know that you were supposed to sign your name.  That is all pretty immaterial.  Accepting and thanking him for the card allowed him to be a part of the in “giving that we receive” equation.

The card sits on my desk today.

How do you take part on both sides of the “in giving we receive” equation?

On Success in Recovery

soberlivingIf I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this;  Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards, of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live.  If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.   – Thomas Merton, Love and Living, pp. 11-12

I like Thomas Merton a lot.  However, I both relate and take him with a grain of salt on the above quote.  I relate because like Merton and Augustine, I spent the first several decades of my existence living fully into practicing addictions – in my case drugs and alcohol.  By the time I hit early adulthood, I was completely fried and realized I simply would not be able to continue along that path, and opted for sobriety, as Merton and Augustine opted for a monastic environment.

For me, success then became measured by staying sober and that became rather rote after a while.  Next, I opted for education for a bunch of years to demonstrate my ability to further succeed, and escape having to deal with many life issues.  I knew how to do that.  Next, for some reason publishing a book seemed like a marker of success, but after doing that several times, that measure lost its luster.

For the past decade or so, the very concept of success has taken a back seat to my striving to live a life of meaning – with mixed success, as it were.  I find today that simply being on a path toward True Self seems to be a more worthy direction than past accolades.  The starting point for me on all of this is simply being on a recovery road.  An important piece of recovery is getting out of false self (ego/persona) and more aligned with True or Real Self that celebrates the potential of being a node on a luminous web of interconnectivity with all the world.

My resolution for the 2017 New Year is to be open to the possibilities that a True Self oriented life has to offer.  I know that resolve cannot be accomplished by making a list of measurable goals in my shiny new bullet journal, except to be following a recovery path.  As my short four months of retirement and living in a new city have shown, and abundantly so – had I made plans to measure my success this past September, I likely would have failed at what I expected to happen.  However, being open to possibilities led me on even more profound and meaningful directions than I could have predicted while on that six-hour drive south after my retirement party.  This experience is completely consistent with everything about my recovery over the years.  I can never stand in the present, look back five years into the past and say “I saw that coming.” In fact, what has always come has been far greater than what I could conjure in my head.  In this sense, success can mean just showing up and being ready.  I can’t wait to see where that leads me five years from now.  I don’t really have a clue at this point!