The Prequel to the “Last” Christmas

I’ll start with the punch line:  The doctors were wrong and I’m still alive.

But, they could easily have been right and the terminal diagnosis they gave me finally made me walk the walk of the philosophy that I had embraced in every major aspect of my life but one:  Off and on (but mostly on) ever since I was fifteen, I had smoked.  I could not possibly have done anything more antithetical to the way I lived and approached most of the rest of my life.  Well, except for food but that’s another sad tale, though it does play a part in this one.

So, there I was, minding my own business, trying to see a new doctor about some middle aged menstrual hijinks I was dealing with, when the doc ordered a chest x-ray because I was smoker.  Let’s call that x- ray the first domino in the cascade of medical encounters I was about to experience.  It came back showing a suspicious lung nodule.  The subsequent CT of the suspicious lung nodule came back showing a suspicious kidney mass consistent with renal cell carcinoma.  Put the two together, the kidney mass and the lung tumor now consistent with metastatic disease, and they equal a cancer that is considered incurable.

I was told that I had six to eighteen months to live.

So, I went for a walk.  Fortunately, I had recently begun a campaign to improve my lifestyle habits mainly because smaller fat women were starting to orbit me.  Walking and healthy eating had become my weapons for improving my life.  I knew smoking and overweight were interferences that had prevented me from remaining healthy.  The irony is, even as my new doc was telling me that I had incurable cancer, he was also telling me how healthy I was because my blood work looked fabulous, I had low/normal blood pressure and was completely symptom-free.  How mind bogglingly insane is that?

My understanding of health – an understanding we at Life University call vital health* – was already serving me well because, as a fat smoker with cancer, I understood the fact that I was unhealthy as hell.  On the other hand, the doc’s way of thinking allowed him to tell me I was a dead duck in one breath and how healthy I was in the next.  It was clear to me that, in my doctor’s mind, all my “health” would do for me would be to extend the inevitable for a few months – I had no chance to survive.  At that point, there was little chance for survival in my own mind.  I did know that if I had any chance at all to survive, I would have to remove the outrageous interference from cigarettes.  My understanding of vital health told me that life could find a way but I surely had given death a head start.

Smoking had interfered with the expression of health in my life and now I was determined not to let it interfere with the expression of health in my death.  Vitalism had always told me that death is a natural part of life and has its own wisdom, just as life does.  In order to die a healthy death, I would not be one of those people who pull poison from a cigarette with her dying breath.  I would walk and be as active as my performance status allowed.  I would give my dying body the best foods in their most unprocessed state.  If doing all that allowed me to survive, it would be a gift.  But, I was more motivated by the desire to not interfere with the natural process of dying.  If my body’s life was designed to express health without interference, I trusted that death was designed the same way.

So, facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, I stopped smoking.  I’m told now by many ex-smokers that a terminal disease would be like a ticket to smoke again.  I’m told by current smokers that there is no way they could stop smoking under that kind of stress.  For me, the possibility of dying a healthy death finally congealed the vital health truth I’d always known but had been unable to live.

As a spectacularly slow learner, I salute each and every one of you who are able to live your lives free from self inflicted interference with your innately engendered health.   And to those of you who have come to your health through the side door, welcome.

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*Vital health” is a model of health care that includes modern vitalism or neo-vitalism, which Life University defines as the “…recognition that the universe itself is self-conscious and, as such, continually creates itself as a dynamic system wherein living organisms are self-developing, self-maintaining and self-healing.”

Post Script to the Prequel:  After several weeks, from Thanksgiving to the end of January, I underwent a multitude of doctor visits, tests, scans, consultations, culminating in surgery on February 5.  I had simultaneous thoracotomy (removing a lung tumor) and nephrectomy (removing the cancerous kidney).  Pathology showed that the lung tumor was benign, meaning my kidney cancer was not Stage 4 Renal Cell Carcinoma that had spread to my lung, as the doctors had thought.  It was actually Stage 1b and thankfully still confined to the kidney.  I am starting on my eleventh year in remission – still trying to learn how to be so grateful for my life that I can be grateful for all its lessons, even death.

Post Post Script to the Prequel:  How is this about the Happy LIFE and the year of living positively?  Well, for one thing, after this experience, you’d think I’d be the most grateful person on the planet, wouldn’t you?  And, I believe that I was indeed thankful to God and every person who graced my life during that time.  Ten years later, a simple little program of “happy habits” has made it clear that gratitude cannot only be something that we feel; it must be something that we do.  One of the simplest actions of gratitude is to count our blessings and, by committing to writing down three of them each day, I learned how much richer my life could be.  And, just so you know, I count each person who reads this far as a blessing.  Thank you.

(Note:  This post, aside from the countless postscripts and notes, was adapted – only a little – from one of the “Vitalism Signs” columns I had the great privilege of writing for Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyles, a publication of Life University.)

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Shoot for the Moon

What would the world be like if we didn’t have ideals?  What if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had never had a dream?  How dark and low could we go?  If there’s an alternate reality bereft of ideals and dreams, I’m supremely grateful to be living in this one, for all its flaws.  And, science seems to be revealing the idea that gratitude for what we have is the catalyst for creating more of what we would like to have, especially when it comes to having the kind of compassion for ourselves and for others that supports collaboration and richness – if not always riches – in life.

What if, each and every day, we all focused on finding a piece of the dream that was real?  And then focused on being grateful for that piece?  How many more pieces might we then find along the way?  And, how much more effectively and creatively might we use those pieces?

As I understand it, that’s the idea behind idealism, a philosophy that holds that the matter making up our universe sprang from consciousness, not the other way around.  In other words, the “Great Consciousness” had a thought and then “spoke” (acted) to initiate the matter that continues to create the universe in which we live.  This idealistic view respects that there is a higher intelligence operating at the heart of the universe even if we are not able to fully grasp it from where we float, spinning on a tiny speck in the backwater of a galaxy that occupies the hinterlands of the universe.  The prior, Victorian scientific view, was rigidly mechanical and assumed that matter randomly contrived and evolved – after billions of years – to create consciousness.  In brief and, again paraphrasing generations of scientists and philosophers wildly,  Victorian intellectual thought held that the Universe was not complete or fulfilled until we showed up.  Could be.  But, to not-so-wildly paraphrase Carl Sagan in Contact, if there’s no other intelligent (conscious) life out there, it would be an awful waste of space.

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The idea of embracing an idealistic philosophy also touches on Life University’s basis in modern (not the old dead French kind that you’ll see if you Google it) vitalism, which says that all living things are part of a conscious universe and are therefore self-healing, self-maintaining, and self regulating.

If there’s anything that sums up Life University’s ideals, it’s the phrase from our mission statement preamble, which says:  “We maximize the expression of the perfection within.”  We approach everything we do (ideally, of course) with the idea that we are removing the interference to the optimal expression of our potential, which allows us to thrive and even flourish.

So, how cool is it that LIFE’s philosophy is now intersecting with the growth of positive psychology, a model for human consciousness also based on fulfilling potential and creating possibilities rather than on finding problems and treating dysfunction?  It’s so cool, that we’re engaging in the Happy LIFE.  It’s also so cool, that the course I’m able to take this quarter, on my way to completing the prerequisites for a soon-to-be-offered masters in positive psychology, is “The Psychology of Excellence.”  I can tell you, being part of a psychology class that will explore how human consciousness and performance can consistently reach new heights – rather than all the ways they can consistently malfunction – is making me Positively Happy.

Public Speaking

Nothing along the positivity path as part of The Happy LIFE has surprised me more than the fact that it has led me to the opportunity to speak to a group of people in New Zealand who, for the most part, don’t know me.  I’m also feeling profoundly grateful to the people who do know me, especially those who’ve heard me speak and haven’t booed me out of the front of the room.  Because of your generosity, I’ve managed to scrape up the nerve to invite myself to speak in front of people who don’t know me.

It’s also because, six years ago when I said “Yes” to doing work I’d never done before at Life University, I never dreamed that I would find a way through crippling stage fright to public speaking.  I have my friend, Brian M., to thank for the opportunity to say yes to a job that scared the soup out of me and learn that, if you work really hard and continue to say yes, you’ll amaze yourself at what you can learn to do.  After all, in the age of information, ignorance is a choice.

I have another dear friend, Jennifer V., to thank for the first opportunity to discover that, if you know and care about the material – and infuse your PowerPoint with the same kind of goofiness you have in ordinary conversation – it’s OK if your stomach’s in your throat, you can hardly breathe and your hands are shaking so bad you can barely work the clicker.  It won’t kill you to put yourself out there and you’ll probably discover that people are more accepting and gracious than you think you deserve.

Thanks, also, to all the poor, unsuspecting brand new LIFE students who have listened to – and even laughed in all the right places- the ridiculous Croc(k) Pit story as part of their Orientation.

The Marietta Kiwanis Club and its members’ generosity played a role as well when Pat H. invited me to give the “Sunshine” address that the members so warmly received.  I’d like to think it was the brilliance of my “Top Ten Reasons Kiwanis Decided to Include Women” but I think they’re just an easy crowd.  Clearly, they are as generous with their laughter as they are with their hearts.

I’m also learning a few other things, with the help of gracious people like my friends Chris N. and Shelia W.   Foremost among them is this:  It also won’t kill you to ask for help, especially when you enjoy being helpful “yourownself” (as we say down home).  Why do we so often think it’s OK to deny others the pleasure of doing something for you that you would so gladly do for them?

I’m also grateful beyond words to Guy R. for the Happy LIFE and to the entire psychology department of LIFE U for reinforcing what positive psychology has to teach us:  that the more we understand about our inherent negativity bias, the more we open ourselves to focusing on the positive.  And, finally, many thanks to the dear and darling Phil M. for providing me with the ability to soon say, legitimately, that I’m an “international speaker.” Let’s just pray no one expects an extensive list of international engagements to back up my claim.  It only takes the one time to be accurate, right?

Most of all, I’m grateful to Phil (and scared) beyond words for saying yes when I invited myself to New Zealand to share my passion for living authentically as a function of trust in the perfection with which we were created.

Thank you, one and all.

Duckling

What does it take to make us grateful? 

I heard today about a group that puts on what might accurately be called “Homeless Camp” for kids to experience what homelessness is like.  The kids are outfitted, just like homeless people would be, in donated (usually secondhand) clothes and footwear, given a blanket and 80 cents a day, and they sleep in a public park.  They eat in soup kitchens, which may or may not also provide limited restroom facilities.  These 14-16-year-old kids, of course, do have “camp counselors” looking out for them but, essentially, they are living as homeless people do.  Talk about your experiential compassion learning!  And, not surprisingly, the kids report being a lot more grateful for what they have in life after completing the experience.  I guess you could say it’s a gratitude immersion experience.  I’ve had one of those myself that made lasting impressions on me – both positive and negative.  I’d like to share a bit about how the Happy LIFE helped me flourish today, as I continue to navigate the aftermath of my own immersion experience.

In my case, nearly ten years ago, a terminal cancer diagnosis and surgery – followed within four months by another major surgery – created a major immersion experience in my life.  If there’s anything that anyone out there who has had a medium-to-major medical condition knows, it’s this: from the time of discovery to the end of treatment, treatment becomes your whole life.  It’s all you do – doctors, tests, scans, procedures, examinations, preparations, follow-ups – and eventually, treatment for the condition just takes over and becomes the sum total of your existence. 

I can’t adequately express my awareness of – or my gratitude for – how fortunate I was that my cancer was not as advanced as it was initially believed.  I’m also thankful to have greatly benefitted from (then) state-of-the-art procedures performed by highly skilled surgeons.  Still, the whole experience left me feeling marginalized, patronized, utilized and, yes, sanitized on more than one occasion.  There was precious little humanity in it.  Dignity was in short supply in the medical marketplace, too.

Except for one shining beacon:  Dr. Johanna Whalen.  I have used her real name so as not to protect her from my appreciation.  I am still likely to cry at the very thought of how much she meant to me, in treating me like a person who had feelings.  Moreover, she treated me like a person who was capable of asking intelligent questions and educating herself enough to form valid opinions about treatment options.

Flash through the intervening nine-plus years to the present and you find a woman who had yet to discover another doctor who actually seems to like people or, perhaps even more challenging, to like me, especially as someone whose opinions are based in vitalistic (or, more accurately, a “neo-vitalistic”) philosophy.*  Let’s just say that I’ve been like a little lost duckling who imprinted on Dr. Whalen and who has been looking and looking for another one just like her.

Today, I am feeling very grateful – like a little duckling – to have finally found a doctor who likes people and who, to all appearances, likes me.  We made jokes, we traded mild barbs about the recommended wellness exams and tests that I’m not convinced are necessary or helpful and, wonder of wonders, she even let me keep my clothes on while we met and got to know each other a bit.  At this point, I am willing to believe she is so saintly that she will not die but will descend bodily into heaven.

I think that my newest doctor is indeed different from most of my old ones and, thanks to the Happy LIFE, I’m different, too.  More accurately, thanks to the Happy LIFE, I did something different today.  Because my previous medical immersion experience left me with more than a little stress at the thought of breaking in new medical professionals to me and my “stuff,” I knew that I needed to find a new approach to medical visits.  So, while I was sitting out in the waiting area, I decided to practice the “happy habit” of meditation.  It had already occurred to me to do it in the preceding day or two – so I guess I’d steeled myself a bit against the self-consciousness I felt at the thought of meditating in public.  Plus, I’m kind of old so it’s easer to not give a fat rat what people think.

Here’s what I think happened:  In true vitalistic fashion, meditation allowed me to express a more authentic version of myself by helping me remove the interference of anxiety.  By meditating, I was able to put a bit of space between me and the stress I was feeling.  It helped me stay in the present and keep out of the future where anxiety, fear and doubt live.  Seth Godin, social marketing guru, “define[s] anxiety as experiencing failure in advance.”  I’m thinking that meditation may be the antidote – and gratitude may be the reward.

*I’m using the terms “vitalism” and “neo-vitalism” a la Life University (www.life.edu) to refer to a philosophy that honors the wisdom of life.  It’s a view that respects both birth and death – along with the life that happens in between them – as natural processes that nature has been developing over millions and millions of years.  As a vitalist, I prefer the most conservative, life-respecting and life-affirming choices in health care.  In short – I trust that, when it comes to running itself and healing, my body is smarter than I am.  It knows when and how to run a fever.  It knows how and when to make new cells to heal.  And, when something goes awry, it’s usually from some interference that is preventing my body from operating as it’s designed to.  My vitalistic view suggests that I always start with the most conservative intervention option, addressing disease and/or dysfunction by identifying and removing the interference(s) to my health – with the least invasive option – before going to more radical or invasive options. 

Vital Positivity

If you’ve ever wanted to a) enter into extensive psychiatric or psychological therapy, b) get on some psychoactive drugs, c) be diagnosed as bad-moonshine-crazy, or d) all of the above, you may be interested in a career as one of the Desperate Housewives of Tootertown Trailer Park.  Or, you might try simply flipping through the soon to be released “DSM V,” the newest revision and fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for the mental health profession.  I’m pretty sure you won’t have to look too hard to find yourself in there somewhere.  I, myself, am mentioned on several pages, featured in one appendix and have been asked to play myself (and a host of all the other characters that live in my head) in the movie version.

Speaking of having more than one person living in your head, having multiple personalities (or, more correctly, dissociative identity disorder, aka “DID”), was once viewed strictly as an aberrant accident of brain chemistry.  Then, once more became known about DID, it became apparent that DID was actually an elegantly – though bizarrely – adaptive approach to enduring unspeakable abuse on the part of children who developed it.  This understanding of DID as an adaptive strategy may have been one of the seeds for the sea change that is happening in the field of psychology.  

The danger with the traditional view of psychology and the new diagnostic standards, though, lies in the fact that it appears intent on making mental health patients of everyone.  Are you feeling sad because you’ve you lost a loved one?  You could have a Major Depressive Disorder.  Is your three-year-old having a spell of pitching temper tantrums?  Could be Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder.  Careful.  You’re walking in treatment territory – the land of traditional psychiatric therapeutics, a condition-based landscape, which only provides views of symptoms to be treated, even in the most normal adaptive responses. 

That’s not to say that we can’t use some help with our psychological wellbeing.  Even though Americans and citizens of other “First World” countries have more material wealth (for now) than at any time in previous history, we are also less happy, more dissatisfied and suffer from depression in greater numbers.  Soon, if we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated into dissatisfaction with what we should see as great good fortune, it may be that no adaptive human behavior or condition will escape being classified as a disorder.  I promise you, this is not going to get better as long as there are people out there who profit from selling us on the idea that we aren’t happy.  We are creating a culture of people who believe that they are free to pursue happiness without knowing it’s going to take some work on their part to catch it. 

Now, though, after thirty years in the making, the science of psychology is in the process of fully embracing what is essentially a vitalistic philosophy in the form of a field that’s going by the name of “positive psychology.”  Rather than focus on the constellation of pathological deviations that make up the universe of the human mind, positive psychology focuses on the idea that all human beings are creative, resourceful and whole – that we are innately endowed with everything we need to function optimally.  This is a powerfully different view of the psychological landscape.  It presumes that each of us is capable of our own insights toward solutions, adaptation and growth. 

The view of positive psychology also recognizes that the way we live in the world, as evolving and adapting beings navigating tremendous leaps of social and technological advancement, sometimes results in interference to our optimal functioning.  And, best of all, because positive psychology presumes that we are created to be mentally and emotionally healthy, it has concluded that there are specific steps we can take to remove interference to psychological health.  These steps are not magic or wishful thinking.  Positive psychology – or positivity – is not putting on a happy face or denying that we are experiencing psychological pain or distress or pretending to be happy when we’re not. 

Positivity, as a mindset, is the practice of choosing to see opportunities rather than, or perhaps within, threats.  Just as the vitalistic view of physical health allows us to see an earache as an opportunity for our immune systems to adapt and grow stronger, positivity allows us to see heartache as an opportunity for our psyches to adapt and become more resilient. 

The choice is ours.  The time is now.  Do we want to be a people who recognize that life isn’t always a bed of roses – but that we’re more likely to have roses when we do the work to turn the soil and prune the canes back to the ground?  We can choose to believe that even devastating loss can be overcome if we do the work to grieve and grow and become grateful for what the loss can teach us.  The alternative is to believe that every emotional setback creates a pill-shaped hole in our hearts. 

 

Note:  This is a “reprint” of my column, Vitalism Signs, found in the current issue of Today’s Chiropractic LifeStyles.