Hello everyone, this is the latest news and wisdom from Sr Rita, who is on a journey with cancer. You will find the nine previous “Wisdom Companion” pieces from Sr. Rita by searching this site.
In this reflection, Sr. Rita talks about what it means to find oneself at a place in the journey where there is no choice but to confront and accept one’s diminishment. It’s a place we all come to eventually, and these past few years have taught me to become comfortable (or at least a little comfortable) with my own diminishments. Bad joints. The shift from a public persona to more private life. A decision to step back from publishing. The loss of a beloved pup (we miss you, Bailey). Sigh. Changes both physical and mental. I’m also aware that the coming years will bring more of the same as I get ever closer to the Great Transition. Along with the not-inconsiderable challenges though there are also glimpses of Grace, and of peace, and of things being right just as they are.
I first encountered the concept of “Life on Life’s Terms” when I got sober back in 1995; Sr. Rita’s reflection reminds me of the tremendous power and healing in that wisdom.
Thanks for your prayers, healing energy, and care. The medical update is both reassuring and unremarkable. I have completed the 4th cycle of Taxol. The tooth extraction is healing with no complications to date. The blood clot seems to have resolved itself and Eliquis is the drug that will lessen the chances of another one. Ironically, I feel neither well nor sick. I am slower, wobblier on my swollen ankles, with occasional numbness and pervasive tiredness. There is chemo brain that makes it hard to concentrate or think clearly. These side effects are mild and benevolent, more annoying and frustrating than painful. Sometimes I have an idea for writing, but I have no energy. Other times I have energy but my mind is nothing but cobwebs.
The temptations are two-fold. The first is to try to force things. Many spiritual paths have traditions of ascetical practice – that is choosing deliberate practice based on deprivation or self-inflicted pain meant to give the spirit mastery over the body. The second temptation is to collapse in defeat at not being able to return to the desired state. There is a middle way best captured by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ: refusing to be defeated by diminishment and at the same time living realistically with that which is not in my control. Chardin calls it the ‘divinization of passivities.’ (See link below for a glimpse into Teilard de Chardin). The 12-step program simply calls it living life on Life’s terms.
At the heart of this practice is getting clear on what I have power over and what I don’t. I do not have a say in how my body reacts to this disease and the medical treatment. I do, however, have power in how I choose to respond. Most frequently the invitation is to eschew drama and do the ordinary. My ascetical practices include extended dental rituals and using skin creams, pausing frequently while trying to cook, shower, and dress, especially socks and shoes. It involves living into a new rhythm: S L O W and S L O W E R. The surrender required is the surrender of resentment of the change, surrender of the judgement about what is more and what is less. Trusting the wisdom of what IS.
I am reminded of the play “Mr. Roberts,” which recounts life aboard a supply ship during the war, the shenanigans of the crew and Robert’s desire to get off that “bucket” and get into the real war. He finally does and writes back to the crew of the supply ship.
- (Jack Lemmon) “Doc, I’ve been aboard this destroyer for two weeks now and we’ve already been through four air attacks. I’m in the war at last, Doc. I’ve caught up with that task force that passed me by. I’m glad to be here. I had to be here, I guess. But I’m thinking now of you, Doc, and you, Frank. And Dolan, and Dowdy, and Insignia and everyone else on that bucket. All the guys everywhere who sail from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony. This is a tough crew on here, and they have a wonderful battle record. But I’ve discovered, Doc, that the unseen enemy of this war is boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide. l know now that the ones who refuse to surrender to it are the strongest of all. Right now, I’m looking at something that’s hanging over my desk. A preposterous hunk of brass attached to the most bilious piece of ribbon I’ve ever seen. I’d rather have it than the Congressional Medal of Honor. It tells me what I’ll always be proudest of: That at a time in the world when courage counted most, I lived among 62 brave men.”
My Catholic tradition supports my best choices. Inherent in my situation is the invitation to the same solidarity Jesus lived – one with each of us in our humanity — all the workers showing up for daily, unexciting (often under-compensated) but necessary service, all those living with diminishment of any kind, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.