“In every sorrow there is profit” (Proverbs 14:23).
How can a sorrow turn a profit? Let me relate this to my own sorrow, my battle with prostate cancer. The words, “You have cancer,” even when these words are somehow expected given the circumstances, are stunning. In my particular case, these words placed me in immediate confrontation with my own mortality. I certainly understood that life itself is a terminal condition; that one cannot expect immortality or at least a corporal immortality. I knew that I was going to die someday but suddenly the prospect seemed utterly possible.
The cancer was discovered through needle biopsy prompted by the fact that my PSA had a range of 21 to 26. The cancer biopsy found about 5% of three samples had a Gleason Score of 4+4, making the cancer itself quite aggressive. In consultation with my urologist, internist and my wife, I decided to follow the recommendation of the urologist opting for a robotic radical prostatectomy, a procedure that would provide me with the best chance for a “cure.” Since my bone scan was negative for metastasis and my CAT scan was mostly negative for metastasis (because I have a great deal of titanium shielding my pelvic area (two replaced hips and a laminectomy l-3 to s-1) the pelvic area being a question mark, the diagnosis of non-metastatic cancer was on hold until the biopsy of the lymph nodes surrounding the prostate. All that was hard to swallow especially when I had to wait a month for the prostate surgery to take place because the gland was swollen due to the needle biopsy procedure.
The instant one learns that one has a potentially fatal disease, prostate cancer is the second leading cause of death in men, the prospect of eternity becomes real. But what exactly does eternity mean? For me, the prospect of eternity means a reversal of the transition of exiting one infinity, a condition that is emergent at the very moment of birth to the transition of returning to that very infinity at the very moment of death.
This transition is one in which one moves from existential time, the lived-experience, to archival (remembered) time, the traces left behind for friends and family and possibly for others outside a direct connection to the self. The first time I heard the words spoken aloud, “You have cancer,” it was like a kick in the head. The last time I experienced such a sensation was when I heard the not unexpected words, “Your father is dead.” Everything stops, stands still, refuses reality. It is the first stage of any sorrow, that of denial. I found a quiet place to sit, to embrace the stillness, the silence that surrounded me. I wanted to be completely alone, to sink into myself allowing me to feel sorry for the loss or potential loss that is approaching. In very real terms, I found myself embraced by and embracing a deep sorrow. In poker terms, however, I had a few outs. Not all the cards were played and not all the possibilities were known.
I soon discovered the profit promised in the proverb that inspired this post. The strength I had working for me was the fact that I had some outs; that there was the possibility that the surgery would be curative so rather than facing immediate mortality, I would be safe, at least from this disease, for some time to come. This gave me the strength to rethink the ethics proposed by Emmanuel Levinas summarized by what Hillary Putnam called the fundamental ethical obligation: I am responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocity! This fundamental obligation provides one with the ability to live in this very moment, the moment of existence, without projection and without memory in the sense that what is done is done and, without reservation, one cannot dwell on regret as a predominant emotion to the traces of the past.
The sorrow imposed by prostate cancer provided the opportunity to profit from the knowledge that Here I Am! responsible for the welfare of the other, the fundamental ethical obligation, as a call to live ethically in this very moment. Living in this very moment is both exciting and freeing. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.