As I continue to reflect on my experience of dealing with cancer and cancer treatment, I keep coming back to the future. Sure, there were delusional moments in the hospital when I truly believed that my molecules would be disassembled and later reassembled - in Star Trek transporter fashion - to a conference in Los Angeles. But that's not what I'm referring to.
What I mean is my experience of the future, the advice to live in the present, to take one moment after the other, and to relegate the future, and its obvious anxieties, to the past. After surviving radiation, surgery, post-surgical complications, and chemotherapy, as well as a real threat of recurrent cancer, I actually embraced a life philosophy of celebrating the moment, letting worries slip off my back, and taking it easy.
It was only gradually that I realized how much I sacrificed by that stance. Sure, people liked me better. Colleagues found me to be less of a threat and family members were relieved that I was less argumentative. But the price I paid was being less human. Yes, there were and are all kinds of "authority figures" who talk about meditation, relaxation, emotional therapy, and the new-age flavour of the week as ways of dealing with cancer and cancer survival. And while I understand and often respect the motives such purveyors of self help, I've come to also appreciate just how much cancer and self-help treatment threatens that which makes us unique in the landscape of evolutionary development.
Anxiety and planning are the hallmarks of what it means to be human. As Daniel Gilbert discusses in Stumbling on Happiness, it is the human brain's frontal lobe which sets us apart from other forms of life, precisely that part of the mammalian brain which keeps us worrying about and planning for the future. In fact, in normal, healthy individuals, approximately 12% of our waking life is devoted to thinking about the future. So when gurus and pundits tell us to Be Here Now and forget the future, we are doing something that is intrinsically a backwards step in our journey from homo habilis to homo sapiens.
I've responded recently to inquires about how it feels to be declared free of any evidence of disease that I now have the luxury of thinking about the future. But I guess what I really mean is that I have slightly less worry about my health when I contemplate the future. I have, in a way, more future to anticipate now. I can worry about other things, things like how to kick start my career again, about whether to rebuild my part-time business, about how my sons are doing with their own career planning and education, about vacations my wife and I might take together, about doing all those odd jobs to maintain our house and property, about whether the religious right is making progress in destroying democratic traditions and institutions ... in other words, the kinds of worries and anxieties everyone else entertains on a daily basis.
Cancer, and some forms of emotional treatment strategies, take this away from us. We try instead to reach a state of equilibrium and calm in order to deal with the sometimes overwhelming pain and anxiety, but in doing so we surrender the life lived not here, not now, but in the dreams of what might come to be. I don't know about you, but I'm thinking that I want to grab the horns of the future with both hands, wrestle with it, and, in the process, remain as human as possible.