A new member of the cancer support group I facilitate, having listened attentively for twenty minutes, introduced himself. He began by saying how surprised his wife would be that he hadn’t started speaking at the beginning of the meeting. He went on to say that he had come “to learn from everyone in the room.” He then preceded to listen carefully to the conversations that followed. This was clearly new behavior for him. He told us that until the Fall of 2014 he had been on a long term fast track. Speed, performance, and accomplishing were his motivation. “My work was everything,” he said.
Like so many of us, this man was over-identified with his position and accomplishments. He traveled a great deal and loved the challenge of a marketing career.
All of this came to a halt in October 2014 when he was diagnosed with fourth stage lung cancer.
The man’s illness forced him into early retirement as well as a radical shift of awareness. The major change experienced was a transformed perception of himself and others. Before the cancer diagnosis, he hadn’t noticed people very much. Hurrying to catch a plane or get to an appointment, his mind was habitually focused on a goal. People between points A and B seemed superfluous. He had developed a formula of steps needed to “get the job done.”
When his wife dealt with a long term illness, he gave her advice about her needs almost as if she didn’t know these things herself. He said things were different now. He is more empathic. He is starting to understand, from the inside out, the experience and burdens of persons with serious illness.
“Since I first heard I had cancer, it has been an explosion of meaning! Before that, I had ignored symptoms and busied myself with work.” Now he has become more present to himself, his wife, and those whom he meets.
He now lives by a motto recently offered by a worker in the hospital cafeteria. This woman wears a pin that simply reads, “WIT.” When asked what it meant, she replied, “Whatever it takes!” Then added, “Whatever I need to do to help patients feel comfortable and loved.”
Deeply impressed by the woman’s kindness and zeal, he decided to take this acronym as his new life-motto. He had T-shirts printed with the letters WIT and distributed them to former coworkers.
As the meeting progressed, another man shared that he had also experienced a tremendous shift in values. Facing a new round of chemotherapy as well as becoming hairless since the last meeting, he has become more aware of his mortality. He had always owned that he would die “some day.” Now, however, he realizes it would be most likely sooner with the cancer. He said the quality of the presence he shares with his only son had deepened. “Exhaustion, enforced rest, and the need for sleep radically altered my physical stamina, yet also brought about a shift in the quality of presence in my life.”
“Explosion of meaning” comes to all of us with sincere commitment to values. The quest for meaning and ultimate meaning, is profoundly personalized. The will to meaning is not only a true mark of our humanness, but also a reliable criterion of mental health.
The persons in this cancer group had developed deep regard for compassion, empathy, patience, and a newly discovered personal brand of contemplative awareness. Real fear is commingled and giving way to hope; denial transformed into the radical power of limits while acknowledging the fragility and preciousness of life.
With or without cancer, why do we wait? As Pema Chödrön puts it: “No Time to Lose!”