All that is past and that is future draws near to the present. Time shrinks, the line between the eternities disappears, only the moment lives and the moment is eternity.
Martin Buber, Hasidim and Modern Man
Suffering Mask by Carl Milles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Existentialists find life itself absurd, that suffering, that feeling of dread and woe, is the hook upon which absurdity hangs. Through suffering one comes to the very profound conclusion that even in an absurd life one must still live a life of responsibility; to behave in an ethical and moral manner toward one’s fellow man. Briefly, assuming responsibility for one’s actions toward the other.
I would like to take a different approach to the very notion of suffering, one that centers around choice and action. Let me start with the very idea that suffering is nothing more that an overload of external (or internal) datum experienced as a turning inward to the exclusion of the rest of the world. An escape from the real into the depths of despair In this sense, when faced with such an overload of phenomenological sensations one is, in reality, faced with a choice; turn inward, thereby derailing one’s ethical compass or embracing the sensations yet projecting those sensations outwardly as an empathy for the suffering of the other. Self pity or empathy are the choices when facing potential suffering in one’s life. Nothing lies in between.
Suffering is born of projection into the future emboldened by fear that is coupled with a profound regret of the past. When one complains of pain, real or imagined, or hurt, or loss, or any other thing one is truly embracing the experience of self-pity and seeking attention from others. “Oh woe is me,” is really a cry for sympathy, a cry for understanding of those fears and for the guilt of the past, whether deserved or not.
So, with this in mind, I could ask about my cancer, “Why me?” But I am savvy enough to understand that whenever one asks a “why” question the only reasonable response is. “Because!” As I understand the universe we live in , the only place we have direct knowledge of, pretty much everything is based on probabilities. Once born, for example, the only outcome of life is not life or death. When not life occurs, however, is a matter of probabilities (if this were not the case all life insurance companies would necessarily go broke because of the inability to create reasonable actuarial tables). I like, then, to think of the universe as a random number generator complying with the mathematical laws of probability. The simple fact is, that I got cancer because the probability meter pointed toward me. It is as simple as that. I cannot dwell in the past trying to think about why or what I could or should have done differently to prevent this disease. If I did, I would be suffering needlessly; needless suffering is self-defeating because it only turns one more deeply inward leaving little room for escape. I also cannot project into the future a myriad of possibilities that hinge on fear and lack of knowledge for that is also self-defeating. I must, therefore, choose to live in this very moment.
Learning to live in this very moment is a difficult journey. For me two things are required. First, I make time for sitting quietly every day to clear my mind of wandering thoughts and just sit comfortably listening to the silence of the universe. Sometimes I chant a repetitive OM sound over and over until my brain hears nothing but my own breathing, while other times, just sitting quietly will do. Secondly, learning to let go of those things I cannot control, to not think about those things where I have no dog in the fight, where I have no interest whatsoever in reasons for or outcomes of, to accept the absolute worst outcome of those things that absolutely effect me, of things for which I have some level of control and then work for a better outcome; one might call that acceptance; I prefer to think of it as living in this very moment.
I cannot control the absolute fact that I have prostate cancer nor can I control whether or not it is metastatic at this very moment. I can, however, control what I will do about it when presented with choices for treatment. As readers know, I have opted for surgical removal of the prostate two days from now. Surgery and, then, pathologists will then determine what the next options will be. I have no reason to project beyond the surgical procedure and all I can do about that is anticipate the operation itself. The closer I stay to living in this very moment, the less I think about the procedure.
At the same time, I have accepted the worst possible outcome of the consequences of this disease; death. By acceptance I mean to eschew denial, recognizing that this is only a possibility among an finite number of possibilities but I refuse to deny that it is a very real possibility. In terms of probability I currently have a 15% possibility of dying in the next ten years from this disease (a bit more than a 5 to 1 chance of death). Should the biopsy of my lymph nodes prove positive the probability will increase to around 2 to 1, a near coin flip.
Yet, what do I have to complain about? Absolutely nothing! I am grateful for all those little things that make life worth living to its fullest up to and including this disease. Why, in other words, should I spend my time in unproductive suffering? I think the answer to those questions is that I should not. Rather than suffer, I choose to continue to live, to live for rather than to live with this disease, to live for rather than live with others. In short, I choose to be present in the world at the very moment of eternity contained within the immeasurably brief time represented by this very moment rather than to sink into the unproductive world of suffering. It just isn’t worth it!