In 1912 Japan sent more than 3,000 cherry trees to America as a gift of friendship. Most were planted around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. They bloom every year and are at their peak in early April. Tens of thousands of visitors come to see this magnificent and transient show of beauty. If the trees were in full blossom throughout the year, we would not be so deeply awed by their splendor nor would so many travel so far to view their display. Their beauty would be taken for granted. But the show is transient. As such, it can be symbolic of our mortality. If we lived forever, each day would lose the quality of the remarkably wonderful and sacred gift of life that it truly is. It is this background of mortality that reminds us how precious life is. Yet, mortality becomes a concept rather than a reality for most of us. And so we forget the miracle of being alive. We take it for granted.
Over the past many years, I’ve had the privilege of being a facilitator of support groups for people who are suddenly confronted with life-altering illnesses. I have often seen the multidimensional dynamics that unfold when we are informed by our physician that we have cancer, serious heart disease, or that a risky surgical procedure is required for a newly diagnosed problem. Initially, the impact of this announcement may well result in fear, anger, and depression. As we move through the complex medical procedures that we often must endure to establish the diagnosis, plan a treatment strategy, and become immersed in that treatment, we may feel helpless, without hope, and dehumanized.
Modern medicine, solidly based in the scientific paradigm, has made incredible advances in surgical techniques, e.g., robotic and laser surgical procedures. The results of chemotherapy for some cancers have worked near-miraculous cures. New drugs are on the near horizon that may well establish genetic manipulation as a common treatment for some illnesses that are currently incurable. Yet this medical paradigm concentrates almost exclusively on quantity rather than quality of life. Its objective is to cure the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible and to return us to “normal” life as soon as possible. Little to no consideration is given to the impact of the illness upon the psychosocial and spiritual dimensions of our lives.
Our medical model is focused on cures and not on the much broader reality connoted by the word healing.
It is important that we remember that health is much more than physical well-being. We all know people who, after extensive tests and rigorous physical examinations, are declared in “perfect” health. Yet these very same people may be suffering from severe stress, toxic personal relationships, poor self image, or deadening work. In the broader sense of health, these people are not healthy!
Along with the fear, anger, and despair that are commonly experienced when we find that we are faced with a life-altering illness, there can also be a dramatic shift in our priorities. The amount of money in our account, that new car we were hoping to purchase, plans for renovating the home — all these “things” become secondary. Our attention is shifted to relationships, to our spiritual life, to the importance of being alive and enjoying this very day which we suddenly realize is a wonderful gift that comes with no guarantees for yet another. We are mortal after all! I have known many people with severe chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, life-restricting pulmonary problems, and even cancer, who, nevertheless, are living happy and productive lives. They are enjoying loving relationships, meaningful friendships, are involved in occupations or projects that are deeply rewarding, and doing so with the knowledge that their remaining life may be limited to months or weeks. Physical health is a means to an end and not an end in itself!
We all come into this world as unique persons. And we all have in common certain important needs: to love and to be loved; to touch and be touched; to be happy in our relationships with loved ones and friends who will see us, hear us, and honor our presence in their lives. Still, no two of us are exactly alike. And in our differences lies a special gift that each of us brings, a quality that defines more than any other who we are. This gift can be easily lost in the course of our efforts to “fit in,” to “be accepted” by family and peers, and to achieve the goals that our culture deems important. Yet, this gift must be manifested in our lives if we are to be truly happy, fulfilled, and at peace. Two stories exemplify this well:
A dear friend was found several years ago to have multiple myeloma, a bone cancer that, even with aggressive treatment, usually results in only a 30 to 40 percent survival five years after the diagnosis is made. As his illness steady progressed, his focus upon and complete appreciation and enjoyment of each day as a special gift progressed as well. He knew his time was very limited, and he spent as much of it as possible with his friends and made a host of new ones. He accepted with gratitude the love and help he was offered and threw himself fully into the completion of a history book that he had been working on from time to time for the past 20-plus years. He lived to see his book published and to sign a copy and place it in my hands. And even in the hardest of times he felt a peacefulness that came from being fully committed to living one day at a time. He exemplified the quality of life that a person can have when they listen with open hearts to the message of a life-altering illness. Investing one’s self fully into this very day, allowing neither the fears and anxieties of tomorrow nor the anger and guilt of yesterday to intrude, we can joyfully accept each moment as a precious gift. This shift in our attitude is transformational for us and all those around us.
A colleague, Jim, was a successful and very busy cardiologist. He was involved in a program for heart disease prevention that included a group support meeting. He decided to “sit in” on a meeting and was so moved by the personal stories of the participants that he continued to come to the meetings as a participant himself. He realized that he’d become an excellent doctor of illness, but had abandoned his initial dream of being a healer of people. He began to develop personal relationships with his patients which he said added perhaps an additional five minutes to an office visit, but the return was a richer and more rewarding practice experience. He returned to his initial goal and his gift of caring for people, and was happier in his work than ever before.
When the “wake-up call” of our mortality comes, our attention can shift dramatically. As we age, such “wake-ups” are more frequent. It need not be a diagnosis of cancer. It can be the loss of a close friend or a significant illness in a loved one. It can even be the gradual and inevitable loss of our physical abilities: having to have a knee replacement, giving up tennis because of arthritis in our shoulder, the slowing of our mental faculties. It is never too late to hear the message of our mortality. Rather than ignoring this message and trying to escape from its reality by diving even deeper into the work and ambitions that have not brought us real happiness, we can seek within the discomfort of these events the voice of the illness that says, “You really are mortal! Now is the time to pay attention to what is really important! You don’t have time to squander on such foolishness as anger, spitefulness, and grudges, or to remain unforgiving of yourself and others. When we can hear this, we can begin to focus on healing relationships, allowing ourselves to love and be loved, really appreciating the glory of one more day of life as a precious gift, even when, or especially when, we realize that the prospect for longevity is improbable.
When initially diagnosed, Tony already had advanced cancer which had spread to his bones. As a child from a poor family, in a gang-infested part of Denver, he had been abandoned by his father and suffered physical abuse from his brothers and their friends. He had searched for his father most of his life with no success. In spite of these problems, he had risen to become an executive for a major national news service. But he had become chronically angry and had learned to protect himself by shutting himself off from any emotional access. He refused to open his heart to the love of a woman who was caring for him. During the course of coming to terms with his illness, he realized he had pushed away others and made himself a lonely and isolated man. He decided to allow this woman’s love in. It took courage and faith to do so, but the result was a happiness he’d never experienced before and which brought joy and meaning into the last years of his life. In a talk I was giving to our local medical staff about the importance of support groups for people with life- altering illnesses, I asked if there were any comments. Tony stood and said, “Thank God for cancer! It opened my eyes to what was missing in my life and gave me the courage to open my heart!”
Bob was a member of our support group. He had been found to have prostate cancer and had undergone an operation that had apparently resulted in a total cure. There was no evidence of any lingering or recurrent malignancy. But from his experience he had learned that his priorities were not in harmony with the more important desires of his life. He had drifted apart from a brother and hadn’t spoken to him for years. He announced one evening in our meeting that he was going to call him even though he didn’t know whether his call would be appreciated or not. He was going to make contact anyway. He came to the next meeting full of joy. His brother was delighted to have heard from him, and they were planning a reunion. A simple but courageous and mindful act brought great joy into the lives of two people. And it may never have occurred had it not been for Bob’s ability to listen to the “message” of his experience with illness.
The cherry tree is still in bloom. Its transient beauty calls for us to turn away from the unimportant and fully indulge ourselves in its loveliness — to be present right now! — and to revel in the splendor of this day.