Thursday, December 22, 2005

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0028 - Spirituality

Concentrating on the objective realities, the physical “stuff” of cancer and cancer treatment comes naturally to me. I crave information as a first line of defence in coping with cancer.

Why is this true for me? I don’t know. It could be a gender tendency as one of my friends proposed. Guys don’t want to talk the cancer out, as some women seem to do, they want to dig it out and the sooner the better. “Get me a knife and some bandages and I’ll be fine” seems to be the stereotype for male approaches to coping with cancer. But you can’t make the incision until you have the precise information you need to take action.

It may be because of the nature of the work I do. Information and technology and management of problems – well, cancer’s just another problem to be managed through good information and judicious use of technology – maybe.

Or it may be because I’m not a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and don’t say the Serenity Prayer every week at meetings.

It could be because I don’t believe in God…or to be more precise…I don’t believe in theistic Christianity. I have no problems intellectually with non-theistic interpretations of any major world religion. But the key here is “non-theistic”. You can’t pray to a God who doesn’t exist! And you certainly can’t find comfort in a basket load of Bible verses whose underlying assumption is that some divine personality is overseeing and possibly intervening in human life, even to the cellular level that is the turf of cancer.

On the other hand, I understand why people pray for me and I greatly appreciate the sentiments and generosity that implies. It’s just not for me personally. I’m not praying about my cancer. I’m not asking God to make everything better or even to give me the grace to cope with whatever comes my way. Others can do that on my behalf if they want. But it makes no sense for me to pretend that I believe in a God who intervenes.

Spirit, on yet another hand, is something else entirely – ultimate concern, the god beyond God, “God as a verb” – these all have a great deal of potential both intellectually and emotionally for me.

This attitude of mine is, I have discovered, not a common response or coping mechanism when the diagnosis of cancer has been made. Over 90% of adults believe in God and over 70% say religion is a very important influence in their lives. For some, a diagnosis of cancer is the occasion for the discovery of faith in the God of the Bible. I do not quibble with those for whom such thoughts are comforting. But for me it is not so, nor would I ever hope that I would change in the face of serious illness or death. As Carl Sagan put it in an essay in March 1996 before he succumbed to bone marrow disease:

"Many of them have asked me how it is possible to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn't been a problem. With reservations about 'feeble souls,' I share the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: 'I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I--nor would I want to--conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.'"

“Feeble souls” isn’t how I would put it, no matter how great a man I think Albert Einstein. But Einstein, Sagan, and people like Treya Wilber are the model for how I wish to approach life, illness, and death. If you want to know what I mean, then take a couple days and read Ken Wilber’s tribute to his wife Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber.

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