Positively channeling my cancer’s energy
Imagine yourself standing on your own beach in the Game of Life. Waves come at you one by one. These waves are like circumstances of life. Some waves are pleasurable because you have learned to surf on them. Others are so menacing that they will knock you out. Finally, there exist waves that you willingly want to learn to ride pleasurably. But learning to ride those waves will be painful, and you’ve been avoiding them thereof. We are all occupied with our personal challenges in overcoming these waves.
Until seven weeks ago, I was enjoying my beach. I had just learned surfing on the challenging, but rewarding, waves of being Chorus CTO and a father. I was on the lookout for a third wave that I could gently learn on. I seldom paused to look at other people’s beaches. In an instant, my beach transformed — the tsunami of blood cancer hit and made the landscape alien. It brought two significant facets — daily vicissitudes of the body and the prospect of a shorter life. I haven’t slept well the last 17 days since one of the medications has this effect on me. Severe anemia, headaches, fainting episodes, constipation, anal bleeding, skin rashes, and minor surgeries are constant companions. I have probably become infertile for life and stand to lose my hair. Pondering an earlier end to the game of life is a more abstract exploration. There are insights brought by thinking about the game tree in that direction, but that’s not my focus here.
When my tsunami hit, my instinctual reaction was: I will learn to surf this beast. Extract helpful energy from it and build something with it. On the ten-minute tram journey from the doctor’s clinic to the hospital, I averted my wife’s eyes since I could not hide my smile at improved prospects for growth. This blog pens down a realization on how useful energy can be extracted from the tsunami. My thoughts, words and conduct may sometimes have increased the capability to send some tsunami energy to other people. Hence, they mount their new waves with confidence. This capability exists for everyone — the tsunami merely laid it bare for me.
When my tsunami hit, my instinctual reaction was: I will learn to surf this beast. Extract helpful energy from it and build something with it.
Conduct in the face of physical discomfort and death has always had the power to inspire others’ thoughts and actions in the face of doubt. Two stories illuminate beautifully- one of physical pain from the world of non-violence and another of graceful acceptance of death in the theater of violence.
The early years of Gandhi in South Africa were marked by a pattern of civil disobedience. He and his followers would disobey, individually or in groups, some civil law they found unjust. Brown people were not allowed to walk on pavements, partake in certain clubs, travel in some train classes, assemble in public, and were required to pay additional taxes. These rules were legally clear but morally unjust. There existed a pragmatic legal question of whether British subjects, such as brown Indians, could be discriminated against in another British province.
The Gandhian approach simply refused to follow the rule — for instance, walk on the pavement normally. This would bring out the neighborhood ruffians, who would progressively escalate from verbal slurs to stone-throwing to beating the errants. Under such physical discomfort, the Gandhians would either gracefully accept the punishment or offer a different part of their body for further punishment. This conduct made the difference — it led some of the oppressors to doubt the justness of their approach. Is continually hitting the meek their calling? That doubt would often de-escalate the physical confrontation and move the discussion to diplomacy, where the justness of the rule itself would become the centerpiece. This approach, ahimsa, leverages conduct during physical discomfort to sow doubt.
Transplanted from South Africa to India and scaled up through the political organization, ahimsa became a critical method by which India achieved its independence from England. At scaled-up levels, ahimsa led to questions in the minds of the ordinary British people. Was taxing commodities heavily, forcing trade one way, barring people from service, etc. the fitting reflection of their society? That inward reflection, inspired by certain conduct, was the critical one.
Now, onto an incident where the conduct in the face of probable death inspired action. We revisit the legendary battle of Troy — the Trojans are besieged by the Greek army, who have come to reclaim one of their princesses. On the Greek side, we have the hero Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors and invulnerable all over his body except the heel. On the Trojan side, the lead character is Hector, the crown prince. Dutiful, responsible, a good warrior, Hector led the military charge for the Trojans. In one of the military sorties led by Hector against the encamped Greeks, Hector succeeds in personally killing the best friend of Achilles. Achilles himself was otherwise predisposed during this sortie and did not take part. News of his friend’s demise drives Achilles fervent, and he swears personal revenge for Hector.
The next day, Achilles drives his chariot to the walls of Troy alone and challenges Hector to a one-on-one duel. Hector and his family are aghast. Hector faces a decision. If he declines, he will forever be marked a coward. It will temporarily save his life, but make it much harder to order men into battle and their potential deaths. He instinctively knew that Troy would lose and death must be faced more widely in his society. How would his wife, the princess, be a source of comfort to other grieving wives if he was saved by a decision to decline?
Hector stoically accepts his fate and takes the challenge. Rides outside the gates of Troy and fights with honor. But alas, he is squared against an invulnerable demi-god, and he does meet his end. In fulfilling his destiny with calm, he inspires Troy to defend bravely and accept their defeat in the future. For that sacrifice, Hector is the greater hero of the story. Conduct during the possibility of death often allows other people to re-evaluate their own priorities and approach to life.
Conduct in the face of physical discomfort and death has always had the power to inspire others’ thoughts and actions in the face of doubt…the way we tell our story, approach our bodily fights, find positivity, and put the ideas into words, can have more energy than usual.
I or my circle of friends are no Hectors or Gandhis. Other cancer patients aren’t either. However, the way we tell our story, approach our bodily fights, find positivity, and put the ideas into words, can have more energy than usual. And sometimes, just by chance, we can succeed in bringing positive change that allows someone to ride their wave. I realized this when a friend of mine told me he would learn all about cryptocurrency and finally make a career switch. It’s a decision he knew to be correct for the past couple of years, yet the magnitude of change felt too large. Possibly, the transience of life he now perceives makes it easier — I don’t really know.
That, in turn, made me realize — it’s time to reach beyond my own challenges. Understand other people’s beaches and the waves that paralyze them. Some of them have more enormous tsunamis than mine. Others have gentle waves, but so numerous of them that they make navigation difficult. Still, more have good beaches, but some internal thought pattern prevents them from making the best out of them. I can listen to them and ponder about how I can supply some of my tsunami energy constructively. It won’t work most of the time, but who knows, there are people somewhere that do need my tsunami energy. I have more of it than I could make use of. I will listen as much as my bodily energy allows.