Surviving In This Very Moment…

My Personal Battle with Prostate Cancer … And Life!

Archive for the tag “Martin Buber”

An Infinite Sphere of Responsibility

Each man has an infinite sphere of responsibility, responsibility before the infinite. He moves, he talks, he looks and each of his movements, each of his words, each of his glances causes waves to surge in the happening of the world: he cannot know how strong and how far-reaching.
Martin Buber

Restraint (photo credit: Roger Passman)

Restraint (photo credit: Roger Passman)

In Buber’s terms, one is responsible before the infinite but what exactly does this mean. As I came face to face with my own mortality, it became clearer to me that this responsibility Buber talks about is closely related to the responsibility Levinas talks about with one immense difference. Buber is addressing the ontological nature of being while Levinas disregards the ontological in favor of the ethical. Both thinkers, however, are honing in on a point that cannot be taken lightly; as human beings we are required to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst without reservation and without considering an obligation to reciprocate.

It is, for both men, an obligation one has as s/he seeks the infinite; the absolute unknown that is represented in any number of ways within theist and non-theist cults. Levinas goes a step beyond and argues that even if there is no god or gods that one has an obligation to act as if there is one. Learning to approach the infinite, one need only approach the other without reservation. By doing so, at least in Levinas’s terms, one has the opportunity to see a reflection of the infinite in the face of the other. In Levinas’s ethics, the approach to the other is made without expectations and is made without reservation. In Buber’s ontology, engaging the other depends on reciprocation; it depends on a conversation between the self and the other that is engaging and filled with reservations and expectations.

In both cases, one is able to come face-to-face with the infinite through the voice of the other. One seeking the infinite through the ethics of proximity, the other through the I-Thou conversation, a conversation guided by mutual respect and understanding. The point is that coming to understand the infinite is accomplished in any number of ways. For me, my connection to the infinite is one that is born from the proximity of the self and the other. I find Buber’s approach to be conditional, demanding reciprocity and fraught with expectations for performance. Buber creates distance while Levinas provides the comfort of proximity.

My bout with prostate cancer may be effectively over. We won’t know for sure until mid-week, around Wednesday, when the pathology report is due. But my commitment to fighting this disease is just beginning. If things go as my urologist thinks they will, I will be a survivor. I found myself doing those things that mirror the absolute other, the infinity from which we all came and will all return some day, as represented in the face-to-face contact with the other.

On Suffering

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

Mask by Carl Milles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!

Here is not an Indifferent Place

Here, for example, is not an indifferent place.
Jacques Derrida

Reflection

Reflection (Photo credit: martinak15)

Happy Thanksgiving to anyone reading this piece. Yes, it is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. For some it is a day without work unless, of course, you count the interaction with relatives work. For others, Thanksgiving is a day for reflection set aside to contemplate all of the things for which one is grateful; it matters little whether one is grateful to a deity, a gaggle of deities, or that one eschews religious or theistic connections to find a place for gratitude. It is not necessary to be grateful to something rather one is grateful for something. As a modifier, grateful stands on its own two feet without the necessity for an object to which one is grateful. I am grateful for something is as clever a use of the modifier as being grateful to something or another is. The distinction between “for” and “to” is one worth exploring; it is not indifferent nor is it neutral, rather it is a distinction that marks the boundary between ethical responsibility and social compliance.

Let me announce two things for which I am grateful: First, I am grateful for my wife (tomorrow we celebrate 26 years of marriage) without whom I would not be the man I have become. Secondly, I am grateful for my diagnosis of cancer without which I would not have had to explore theoretical ethical obligations with the object of discovering practical applications for otherwise theoretical platitudes. I suspect these two items on my list of gratitude are deeply connected. Without Susan, I might have continued to live a life of wandering from pillar to post “with no direction home, a complete unknown” and no focus. I became a teacher because she opened the door to teaching as a real possibility and that, in turn, opened the door to an examined life in which thinking about things and discovering ideas, both old and new, was engaging and, even more importantly, fun. But all that exploration was just that, exploration, until I heard the words “You have cancer.”

There is little else that focuses one on one’s own mortality than facing a life-threatening disease. In my case, that focus turned to that which I know, that which I learned from Emmanuel Levinas, that which Hillary Putnam calls the fundamental ethical obligation in order to find a practical application, one that would allow for the deeper practice of an ethical life. The fundamental ethical obligation is the obligation to be available for the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. Substantially different from Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship primarily because the I-Thou requires reciprocation, Levinas’s ethical obligation proposes that one announce one’s presence to the other, thereby creating a proximity, a nearness without the barrier of space or time, while, simultaneously, waiting for a response that may never come. This is a responsibility for and is, therefore, quite unlike Buber’s responsibility to, the other.

On this Thanksgiving Day, it occurred to me that writing this blog is not an indifferent act, rather it is one of announcement, of “Here I Am!” made without reservation and without any expectation of reciprocation. I invite others to join in this conversation through comments but I cannot expect people to accept that invitation. It is quite enough to make the announcement, create a proximate place, and then wait, to sit quietly and listen to the absolute silence of the almost infinite universe.

So Happy Thanksgiving…Take some time to reflect on what you are grateful for! You may find unexpected surprises buried underneath the rubble of the lived-experience. I certainly did!

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