Surviving In This Very Moment…

My Personal Battle with Prostate Cancer … And Life!

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Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

I trust science. I trust evidence. I trust questioning everything. I think that evidence always trumps ideology; when allowed to drop the ideological posturing even the ideologue will follow the evidence. Evidence cannot be self-serving. One cannot rely on one’s ideology and the documents of faith attached thereto as reasonable evidence because it leads one into a circularity of thought that refuses to admit any other evidence. The difference between science and ideology, between science and blind faith, is that scientists are always ready to be convinced of an alternative to their current position given the weight of new evidence.

What was true during the rule of the Roman Empire (Middle Ages, The Renascence, The Enlightenment — take your pick) is not necessarily true today (there are some things that remain constant in human life such as ethics, love, peace and understanding). Advances in science and in social science, in philosophy, in analytical approaches to both the collection of evidence and the interpretation of the evidence collected is the stuff of human progress. To ignore advances, to jump up and down about divine punishment if you believe in say, Darwin’s theory of Evolution, is to ignore the weight of the evidence supporting the theory itself. In fact, it also shows a profound misunderstanding of the very idea of what a theory is.

A theory is an invitation to seek evidence both for and against the position offered by that theory. Like anything else in science, the position of scientists is that if even one piece of the theoretical position is shown to be false, the entire theory collapses. When, for the past 130 years or so, biologists have always found the idea of natural selection (Darwin never said “survival of the fittest” a term adopted by Spencer in Social Darwinism) to be the best answer to the question of species development as well as species diversion into separate species. The fossil record as well as experimental evidence has never shown Darwin’s notion of natural selection to be anything but correct. This does not mean, however, that sometime in the future an even better answer can be found and if it is, the scientific community will adapt to and embrace such a new approach. That is the profound difference between relying on ideological claptrap and scientific evidence.

All this is prompted by my own desire to learn the conceptual framework for thinking in Jewish. As part of that journey I sat in a class with Rabbi Mendel last night. The discussion was both lively and productive. Rabbi Mendel works within a belief system that admits to the Torah being revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed down generation to generation until today; absolutely true and unchanging, the Torah is unable to be questioned, to be analyzed except for creating stories that help explain the contradictions contained therein. More words of interpretation have been written to explain what is held to be the absolute truth than are contained in the Torah and the remaining books of the Tanach including the histories, prophets and other writings that make up the Jewish holy scriptures.

I find this interesting on several levels. It seems that thinking in Jewish is, at once, an analytical exercise as well as an exercise in trying to explain the unexplained; the contradictions, the laws that appear on the surface to make no sense and other anomalies found in the basic sacred texts themselves. The part I find most interesting is the former and not the latter. The analytical approach to reading these sacred texts filled with humanistic metaphor is, at least as I understand it today, both universal in its approach to broader constructions of human life and is quite narrow and particular in terms of the law and the interpretation of that law. My interest is in the universal, the humanistic, the ethical and how these ancient scholars grappled with many of the same ideas that occupied the Greeks and their offspring, the philosophers of the West.

I am interested in the deconstruction of single verses, of words and their pluralistic meanings and the insights that come from said deconstruction. The difference, as I understand it, between the deconstruction of Torah sages and the post-modern deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida, is that the Torah sages had a self-serving ax to grind, they were true believers where the post-modern deconstructionists are not bound by ideology, rather they are driven by deep reading and a certain desire to reveal nuances in the text being interpreted that have never been addressed before.

At the same time, Rabbi Mendel, while an ideologue, is quite adept at zeroing in on a point to be made. While some of his points are straw-men, he nevertheless has a knife sharp point of view that wants to narrow the conversation to the point that is on the table. His approach embraces difference of opinion while, at the same time, putting his point of view sharply out there for consideration. He is a good listener and a good debater. Hooray. While I seldom agree with his faith based point of view, I admire his ability to analyze and to place his view out there for consideration. I am learning a great deal from this young man on a mission.

I am, of course, recovering from prostate cancer, retired and curious. One thing I learned through my relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous is that I am never cured, only recovering. That is an important consideration in my road to recovery. While I have overcome the worst of the disease, it is only because of early detection, fundamentally the probabilities were at work here and I drew the winning card on the river (a poker analogy for those not in the know). Had the original spike in PSA been found a month or two later the likelihood of a completely different diagnosis would be quite high. Nevertheless, it is what it is and what it is provides me with the time and the ever increasing energy to pursue the idea of thinking in Jewish. I will remain diligent in dealing with my health concerns, having PSA checked four more times in 2013 and once a year thereafter and, with any reasonable amount of luck I will remain cancer free. I will, however, always have prostate cancer lurking in the back of my mind.

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Belonging: Life Before Retirement and Cancer

Belonging: Life Before Retirement and Cancer

Belonging: Life Before Retirement and Cancer

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. As a result I bounced from job to job, always being lured back, like Homer’s call of the Sirens, to a family business that I absolutely hated. That all changed the day I walked into my father’s office and quit for the last time. “What are you going to do,” he asked?

“Teach,” I replied and I left.

What I learned was teaching is not a job, or if it is it is unlike any other job I ever held, it is a mission, a calling. Severely underpaid compared to private sector work and overworked when one considers all of the time spent grading student work, planning daily lessons and the time spent in professional development, whether school provided or personally funded earning advanced degrees; teachers work long hours and are generally not paid for their efforts very well.

While I had some inkling that this was the case, my wife was a primary grade teacher and I could observe just how hard she worked at her job, I was unprepared for the pressure and rigor required to be a teacher when I first entered the classroom. Finding my way to comfort was a matter of learning how to belong.

Yes, teaching is something like a club, one in which the classroom teacher faces many audiences. First, one faces an audience of students, each one different and each group different as well. I was a middle school teacher with a home room and three other classes of language arts (the politically correct term for English). I saw around 120 students each and every day and found that I had to plan for each group differently because each class was a different audience. I arrived at school early every morning, generally an hour before the day began, not because it was expected (as a requirement of belonging) but because it was absolutely necessary to ground me for the day. While I left school when the last bell rang, I generally went to a local library where I spent hours grading papers before I headed off to graduate school where I earned my MEd and EdD degrees. Finally arriving home at ten, I was exhausted. And that was the preparation needed to address the most important audience, my students.

Then there were those other audiences in order of importance: school administrators, parents, political leaders, and the community leadership embedded in the social and business strata in the community in which I taught. Parallel to those interests was the Union, a body to which I was also a delegate representing the teachers in my school. The Union provided an umbrella of protection from the whims of the governing school community.

Once I earned my doctorate, I left the classroom and moved to higher education. I began teaching at the university level in Lubbock, Texas at Texas Tech University. That first job was as an assistant professor in the department of reading, the area in which I earned my doctorate. Not unlike the pressures of the k-12 classroom, the university added additional requirements, specifically the requirement to do research and publish those findings as well as to do service for the university community by serving on committees for the benefit of the governance of the university community.

Given that background, brief though it may be, the issue of belonging, of becoming an insider rather than an outsider, was one of learning the rules of conduct. What was and was not acceptable. Which rituals must be followed and which could safely be ignored. What constituted being a faithful representative for the teachers I represented and what set of circumstances might allow me to follow my conscience even when I was found to be in conflict with the faculty I represented in the house of delegates (this didn’t happen too often as we tended to be a rather radical group working for a tyrant of a principal).

As a new teacher, it was enough to just learn the patterns of the school year, a process that took me a couple of years. That, by the way, was partly relearned when I went from middle school to higher education, not so much the teaching role, rather the administrative interaction had to be relearned. As a veteran teacher the goal was no longer to accommodate to the rules but to often act in spite of them by doing the ethical rather than the demanded.

As my career advanced I learned how to be more independent as a scholar, to become more empathetic as a teacher and to be a friend to my colleagues. This required me to balance many roles at once. I served as a spark for my students to think clearly, to consider alternatives and to become better preservers of knowledge than they were before they encountered me as a teacher or professor. I don’t say this in an arrogant, self-serving way, rather I see evidence of this among a small group of middle school students that have ‘friended’ me on Facebook. I see the way they think, the way they consider problems and ideas and how they interact with the world in which they live. I’d like to think that I had something to do with that.

As a retired teacher and professor, I continue to read, to write, to think about those things I thought about before I retired. The primary difference, especially since my prostate cancer diagnosis, is that I can do it all on my own terms. I am beholding to no one; I answer to only myself without having to be on any committees, please any parents, pretend that I am doing the will of the principal (in higher education there is, or at least in my experience, was far more independence given the importance of academic freedom) and I don’t have to bow down to the will of the political or business community. It seems that cancer is liberating in a way I could not have expected.

Challenges

Meditation

Meditation (Photo credit: Moyan Brenn BE BACK on 10th OCT)

These days I find myself facing unexpected challenges. The apprehension accompanying a diagnosis of cancer is, to say the very least, something I am unaccustomed to. The biggest challenge I face with regard to the waiting for surgery is one of waiting, of sitting quietly and simply listening to the silence. I find that my mind wanders away from the clarity of focus, from the silence of the universe that I am more or less accustomed to.

In addition, there are challenges that accompany my almost daily dealing with my medical team and the sense that one hand doesn’t actually know what the other is doing. Contradictory directions, pharmacy rules and the overall apprehension that accompanies the run-up to surgery interferes with my otherwise calm, rational demeanor.

I’ve written this before but I think it stands repetition; I am no stranger to surgery! I have two titanium hips, a titanium back and now a titanium left knee. In each of these cases, however, I was in desperate pain prior to surgery creating a condition in which surgery was actually anticipated. I expected a “cure” from the pain that was a constant reminder that I had no cartilage in my hips and knee and a spinal column that was shrinking due to calcium deposits causing a severe stenosis. After the first hip surgery, I could anticipate a recovery that would leave me pain free.

Not so with this surgical procedure. I have absolutely no pain, no symptoms at all. I will enter the hospital feeling just fine and will wake up with some degree of discomfort, how much pain I have no way of anticipating. There are also two potential side effects of this procedure that I must admit scare me. While robotic surgery is less invasive than other potential procedures, it still comes with risks of erectile dysfunction and incontinence. But with a Gleason score of 4+4, a PSA of 23 and no metastasis I have little choice but to get holes poked in my belly and get the cancer removed.  But I’ll go into the hospital feeling fine and wake up in pain.

My solution to these and other challenges is to do what I know how to do. I meditate for longer periods of time, just sitting quietly and listening to the silence of the universe. I have taken to measuring my blood pressure before and after meditation and I record a ten point dip in pressures post meditation. I am not surprised. Sitting quietly helps clear my mind of the hamsters running through my head that want me to expect the worst possible outcome. After 45 minutes to an hour my mind is clear and I am better able to face the real challenges of the day. Just doing the next right thing, that which is right before me at this very moment, that which must be done right now. I am also better prepared to understand and, thereby, separate that which is urgent and that which is not.

At this very moment I am headed to the gym in my basement to strengthen my knee, ride the stationary bike and see if I can’t drop around 12 to 20 pounds.

Making Right Sized Decisions Ain’t Always Easy

Sitting down with my urologist after hearing the diagnosis of adenocarcinoma of the prostate to discuss the options for additional screening and possible courses of treatment, one of the things he advised was to change my eating habits; “Eat healthy,” he observed.  That was about two weeks ago, maybe three, and I have yet to change my diet.  While I know that it is best to eat more veggies, less red meat and so on, I am having trouble making the commitment to doing so.

So what is up with that?  Here I am, making arguments for the ethical relationship with the other and I am avoiding the ethical relationship with myself.  So here is what I have decided to do…and it won’t be easy.  I decided to limit my consumption of red meat and eggs to once a week.  I figured I would start with a basic commitment rather than make an entire plunge into something I am pretty sure I won’t be able to maintain.  It would make my wife quite happy if I added fish to my diet, but I can’t stand the stench in the house after most fish is cooked so that is hardly a legitimate option unless I add fish while eating out.  In place of the protein from the red meat and eggs, I can easily substitute dairy protein in the form of cheese, yogurt and milk.  In addition, the vegetarian staple of beans and rice along with the addition of tofu in stir fried veggies seems to be a reasonable option as well.

The plan is to follow this plan of eating for the next month while committing to blog about how I am holding out.  About four weeks from today I will have my surgery which may screw up my plans a bit but who is to say.  In the long run, I am certain that this change in lifestyle will be good for me and for my family as well, if I can maintain it.

All that being said, as I write this I am cooking a mushroom barley soup with lima beans and lentils.  Now there is a marrow bone with a bit of red meat attached and two short ribs for flavor, but the meat per serving will be less than one ounce.  The soup along with a small salad should prove to be a hearty fall meal, one that fits within the bounds of this new approach to eating a bit more healthy.

Here’s the thing, I am looking to focus on eating healthier in order to positively effect the outcome of my prostate cancer.  At the same time, I know I have absolutely no control over the outcome in any real way and that if I thought I did I would be ready to become obsessive over the outcome itself rather than to focus on the moment that surrounds the actions I take in this very moment.  For me this is less about results than it is about acting appropriately, of becoming present for myself in order to be more present for others; it is an ethical responsibility that I cannot pass off to any other person; there are no substitutes.  So here I go, ready to jump off the cliff and see just what might happen if I stay focused on this moment, the one that will never be repeated, never be reenacted.  It is in this very moment that I make a decision to act or not act, to do what is next before me or to shirk.  It is a choice, an ethical choice that I am placing at my own doorstep.  Only time will tell how successful this will be.

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