My friend Susanne facilitates a circle of women, each of whom has experienced a cancer in her body. Last week Susanne read to them a poem I’d written recently, and it sparked the day’s conversation: how is it possible to sustain the feeling of every moment being precious when one is not “actively” dying?
I was immediately intrigued when Susanne brought that question back to me, and I was inspired to write a poem about it. But it seems that I have too many thoughts for a single poem to hold – my response is becoming a blog post instead. In fact, I’ve realized that the question is larger than just a single blog post. So I’m starting with the second part of the circle’s question, the part about “not actively dying.” Next month I’ll write about the idea of sustaining our awareness of precious moments. And in the meantime, I hope your comments, added below, will spark new thoughts and conversations as well.
So: beginning with the back end of the circle’s question, the part about not actively dying . . .
Probably the question for the women of this circle assumes a sequence of: cancer diagnosis and prognosis; then a chosen form of treatment; then revised prognosis, and the passage of time in some definition of “remission.”
But does any step of this sequence really determine whether or not one is “actively dying”? For all of the medical expertise behind it, all that “-gnosis” stuff is still just informed guesses. Treatment may slow the progress of a terminal disease – then there may be a revised prognosis, called a “remission.” However, the fact is that we have all been in a “terminal condition” since the second our father’s sperm pierced our mother’s egg. The real issue for us is that we have become a death-denying culture; we have forgotten that life is an STTD – “a sexually transmitted terminal disease.”
A terminal disease is one that is progressive and incurable. It is, by definition, irreversible. The “disease” called life may be more protracted, more like a chronic disease, but it is still progressive and incurable. We are mortal beings, and life is fatal.
With or without particular diagnoses, parts of us are dying continuously. The largest organ of the human body is the skin, an eight-pound organ that keeps us from evaporating. A skin cell lives two or three weeks, and then dies and is sloughed off as a new one takes its place. Cells of the colon live only about four days before they die and are replaced. White blood cells live about a year. The bottom line is this: there is no time when we are not “actively dying.”
For millennia religious monks, stoics, and philosophers have practiced meditating on impermanence. They have repeated, taught, and pondered the words “memento mori,” a Latin phrase meaning “remember death.” This phrase reminds us to be present to who we are and what we have in this moment. Live life fully, it says; don’t waste precious, limited time.
Which brings me to the first part of the cancer circle’s question: “how is it possible to sustain the feeling of every moment being precious?”
That will be next month’s blog post topic. I’d love to have you share with me your thoughts and questions between now and then.