This excerpt on "Spirit" concludes our series from "Speak the Language of Healing: Living With Breast Cancer without Going to War," in which women give voice to five stages of transformation while facing this disease: Impact, Chaos, Choices, Community, and Spirit.
[Spirit, the fifth stage of transformation] is the stage of integration, of looking back and at the same time looking forward. How can I find peace of mind when I'm living my life over the edge? What have I learned? This is the time when we digest the intense experiences that have come before, and in doing so find inner strength, hope, and, most of all, appreciation for the sacredness of life. Whatever happens in life is our spiritual path. With this wisdom, we can gently guide others through this terrain. What can others do at this time? Listen and learn from us.
: I understand why in some Eastern religions, it is considered to be a high spiritual practice to meditate in a graveyard. Confronting our mortality puts our everyday stresses and strains--and even our extraordinary ones--into broader perspective.
: One of the hard truths of life is that it ends for each of us. I have said it before and I will say it again: In America, we try to forget that fact; we try to pretend it is not true; we do everything we can to postpone it. Having traveled the road I have, I must say I think we have it completely backward.
It is the very transience of life that makes it precious. If we all expected to live forever, life would not amount to much. It would become very cheap. In fact, I suspect this is just what has happened in our culture. We have convinced ourselves, as a society, that death does not exist. We are in denial.
But this philosophical/theological matter is not the question here. I should be speaking much more practically: Given the reality of death, how do I find peace of mind?
The first and most important thing I had to do to live peacefully was to stop denying my death. Cancer forced that on me. Even when I was first diagnosed and going through what I hoped would be my only treatment, I was struck by a surprising new thought: "Even if the cancer doesn't get me, something will. And it could happen any time." There are ways to learn this and believe it without having a terrible physical diagnosis.
Getting over our denial of death is a constant process. Even I, The Terminal One, fall back into denial on occasion. Given my situation, something usually reminds me, even if it is nothing more than my monthly treatment. Folks who are simply terminal in the way all of us are will probably have to be more intentional about staying aware of death.
It sounds odd to say, but I believe that a true awareness of death gives us most of what we need to deal with its reality. Along with that awareness come wide-open eyes, a pressing need to decide what we believe about life after death, and eventually, a sense of peace.
The fact is that we all live "over the edge," and it is counterintuitive to imagine that peace can come out of living in awareness of that reality. But knowing that I will die--perhaps in a year or two, perhaps this afternoon--is exactly what makes me savor life. I have stopped fighting awareness of one of the most important aspects of my existence, and after that struggle was over, I found peace at the center of my soul. The way to live over the edge with peace is simply to go ahead and face the truth.