I thought I was ready for death. After all, the thought of death is part of my daily spiritual practice. The mystical imagery of my Sufi tradition is filled with quotes from dervishes who say, "Die before death and live forever!" Or the words of poets like Rumi who say, "Now you must be annihilated in love." This is the good kind of death, the death of what the mystics call the false self. The old self is supposed to shatter like an eggshell, making room for a new self, one that is made in the image of God. This transformation is the essence of the spiritual path.
Still, I never felt as if I were in battle with my disease. My struggle was for understanding. My deepest feeling throughout my illness was a sense of loss, but not the "I lose" of a fight. Mine was the loss associated with grief, and the loss of a sense of well-being that I took for granted. I felt that my body had betrayed me.
The thought of death continues to be part of my meditation practice, but I am much more humble in claiming that I understand. I am so glad to be alive that having a false ego is not high on my list of worries. Cancer turned out to be a spiritual catalyst. Something I had been sensing for years became concrete. It is hard to put into words. Maybe it is the experience of the spirit made into flesh. Life is borrowed and exquisitely precious.
|Cancer turned out to be a spiritual catalyst...Life is borrowed and exquisitely precious.|
I hold in my heart all those with great spirit and determination, like my brother-in-law, who die of cancer. Or people like Carol's friend who died of lung cancer, an effervescent woman who worried that her fighting efforts were not good enough.
Some research studies suggest that a "fighting spirit" may prolong life. Whether or not this is true, it does not guarantee a cure. The concept of "fighting spirit" has a dark side, especially when we say someone "lost her battle." It leaves open that terrible door to believing that if she had fought harder, she would still be alive.
There are other, more positive metaphors for disease. The poet Rumi writes that being a person is like being a guesthouse. Joy, depression, illness, and fear come as unexpected visitors. Our job is to welcome every guest, even if they are a crowd of sorrows. Each may be a guide to some further understanding.
If I die of cancer, I do not want my obituary to say, "She lost her battle with cancer." Instead, please write, "She welcomed every guest." And that she lived--and died--in the best way she knew how.
Reprinted with permission from "Speak the Language of Healing: Living with Breast Cancer without Going to War," by Susan Kuner, Carol Matzkin Orsborn, Linda Quigley, and Karen Leigh Stroup. Copyright 1999 by the authors. Permission granted by Conari Press.
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