What can we do to regain a sense of equilibrium in these troubled times?
“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
…a heart full of joy and gladness
Will always banish sadness and strife
So always look for the silver lining
And try to find the sunny side of life
–Jerome Kern/B.G DaSilva
Aren’t we are all looking for the silver lining these days? So many of us walk around with incredulous expressions as though our daily inner chatter has been diluted down to simply, “What the hell is going on??”
So, what can we do to regain a sense of equilibrium in these troubled times?
The truth is, I have no idea. Still, with that question in mind, I happened to remember a story to tell you, a story from my own life which perhaps contains a hint of an answer. It is the story of a minor miracle. And in these fractious days, even minor miracles sound good, don’t they?
A miracle happened to me, and it happened to me because I had cancer.
(And here you hoped this story would begin “…once upon a time!”)
“Once upon a time, 14 years ago, in fact, I was diagnosed with Stage Four lymphoma. A month before the diagnosis, I had discovered a lump on my neck while taking a shower. Why hadn’t I noticed the lump the day before, or the week before, or six months before? Because I was living completely outside of my body, filled with rush and dread, envy and conceit and much of it job related. Did my job cause the cancer? Well, there is no cancer in my family’s medical history so I think it would be reasonable to infer that job stress certainly played a part in the cancer’s development.
Until I moved to Park Slope from California I had never experienced stress at the level I did on the east coast. I didn’t call it stress at first. I called it excitement. I called it getting ahead. I called it simply living in New York! I felt a thin skein of anxiety running through my day to day life which mushroomed in the two years before the diagnosis, a period of time I called “SUCCESS in Chicago, CHICAGO in Toronto.” My theatrical producing job had me nursing the out-of-town production of the Broadway bound musical SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS in Chicago, and then jumping to Toronto where our film CHICAGO was about to start shooting.
It all sounds very glamorous and exciting but the allure was lost on me; though my colleagues probably would have reported that I always seemed laid back and on top of the job, I was, in fact, terrified every moment of each day. I had taken the old adage “Remain silent and be thought a fool; speak and remove all doubt,” to heart which probably helped me manufacture the incorrect impression I made on my co-workers.
Fast forward a year after the diagnosis. I’d been doing heavy duty chemotherapy for nine months. I now worked only part time and felt oddly reinvigorated. I’d lost all the hair on my body. I’d gained 60 pounds; for whatever reason, I was ravenous all the time and would eat anything not frozen solid or nailed down to the kitchen counter. I couldn’t wear my nice Armani and Ralph Lauren suits; I was a prisoner of elastic waist banded sweat pants and oversize T-shirts.
I didn’t resist these changes. In fact, I loved them! Solomon’s words came back to me as, one by one, my outer “selves” dropped away; “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” Indeed!
I owned a house in the country around this time and since I wasn’t yet to be trusted behind the wheel of a car, I decided one day to take the bus. I huffed and puffed my way down to Port Authority. I had always loathed the terminal and, yet, now as I slowly made my way to my bus’s gate, I saw it anew; I suddenly enjoyed the mobs, the loud voices, the gasoline fumes permeating each concourse, the birds circling inside, the smell of rancid popcorn and overcooked hot dogs.
“I’M ALIVE” I thought. “I’M ALIVE AND I STILL GET TO BE A PART OF ALL OF THIS!”
I boarded my bus and discovered there was only one seat remaining… next to a morbidly obese woman. She took up all of her seat and half of mine. She stared determinedly ahead, defiantly refusing to meet my eyes, almost daring me to take what was left of the seat next to her. I knew I wasn’t yet strong enough to stand for the whole 2 hours to my stop so I situated myself as best as I could on the rim of the last seat.
Ordinarily, I would have been outraged; outraged by her size, by her greasy hair, by her food-stained mumu. “I paid for a seat, you cow!” would have been part of my inner tantrum. I would have imagined her dingy studio strewn with empty pizza boxes and discarded Coke bottles, an unmade bed and a sink full of dirty dishes.
I would have resisted everything about her. But lately, cancer and chemo had rendered me beyond resistance. Over the past year I had become more and more an internal creature, accutely aware of my heartbeat, my breath, my now. And I realized that my own XXL t-shirt had plenty of its own food stains, thank you very much.
I imagined being 200 pounds heavier than I was already, and pondered on what possible course of events had brought this woman to her current size and what circumstances continued to hold her there. I held her in my mind’s eye in a kindly way. I felt a growing care and concern for her. I felt compassion for her, a compassion which extended out to include myself along with everyone else on the bus.
The place in my chest where resistance had once lived gave way to something else, something sweeter, a feeling of expansion rather than contraction. (Bear in mind that I still had a massive amount of drugs whirling around in my system and I always swore in retrospect that my chemotherapy drugs reminded me of the several times I took MDMA in my post college days… still!)
Miraculously, I began to discover I had more and more room to settle in on my seat. In fact, an hour into the trip I realized I was finally sitting completely on my half of the bench. I noticed how the places where our bodies rubbed up together–both of our bodies at first hard and unrelenting–had softened and become downright cozy where we pressed together. We still hadn’t spoken and yet I felt a fantastical dance of concern and empathy occurring on the airwaves between us.
When we finally arrived at my stop, I gathered up my things and turned back to her; “I hope the rest of your trip is safe.” At which point, she turned to me with a beatific smile, her face luminescent, her eyes glowing. “Thank you,” she nearly sang. Then she took my hand. “You must get well soon.”
“Thank you, I will,” I replied. And that was it. I never saw her again.
What did I learn from my “miracle?”
Resistance to change brings pain. Letting go of resistance lessens the pain. And where resistance once lived in my body, a space opened in me where a more loving world vision had slipped in.
How does any of this relate to our current national hysteria? I’m still not quite sure.
Martin Luther King said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” And if our love doesn’t seem to move our enemies, he also added, “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”
I do know that releasing my resistance, in part, saved my life. What might releasing a bit of our political resistances do—whichever side of the political fence we occupy—to help to save the nation?
…so always look for the silver lining
And try to find the sunny side of life.