During our conversation, we talked about choosing the attitude with which we confront life's twists and turns. As I had just been reading Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning, I named that choice as Gordon Allport did in the preface to the 1984 edition - "ultimate freedom". Frankl himself, in the second part of the book's discussion of logotherapy, says,
"every human being has the freedom to change at any instant." (p.154)
It takes very little for anyone to confirm that freedom, at least experientially (I'm not making any claims about the biochemistry involved). Whenever you are self-aware and something happens, if you pause for just a moment, you will realize that there are several alternative responses available to you. Even if it is simply to control the "heat" of the response by mildly increasing or decreasing the intensity of your thoughts, emotions, or behaviour, you'll see what I mean. With practice, that choice to respond by modulating intensity may build the "muscle" and eventually give way to alternate responses in kind.
There is, of course, a whole self-help literature out there about neuro-associative conditioning and neuro-linguistic programming. But what I'm really talking about here is a very simple, yet profound, realization. Cancer takes away so many of our freedoms, much in the same way that the dehumanization described by Frankl did in the concentration camps of the Second World War. But ultimately, neither brutality nor disease can erase that essential freedom each of us has to choose our attitude, our response, or merely to modulate the intensity of the response which comes instinctively.
My youngest son and I were talking today about how all his first-year arts and social science courses keep coming back to the concept of "freedom". I mentioned a course I did in my fourth year of philosophy on action and determinism that ended up being a course with just me and my professor. At the end of the year I distinctly recall becoming persuaded that agency was a fundamental precept that preserved the ideal of human freedom. I can't remember any details now, but the point is simply that when faced with one of life's cruelest diseases, there are philosophical, psychological, and experiential resources available to each of us to support the notion that cancer cannot steal our freedom away completely.
And if it is true for the end of life under extreme duress, then how more much important that we live our lives now with this principle in mind. As Frank (played by Jack Nicholson) says when another character in the movie The Departed states that someone is "on her way out", "We all are; act accordingly."