Uncertainties of Life: Part Three

This post is sixth in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part Three: Uncertainty Becomes Certainty

My biopsy was performed several weeks after the previous tests had suggested its advisability. The results came back and the diagnosis was made. The pathologist’s report showed I did have prostate cancer. I had it for some unknown period of time, even as my test results had been slowly rising for several years. I had cancer six months before my biopsy, when the screening test first showed a significant doubling in the PSA reading. And I still had cancer after the biopsy. But finally I knew for certain cancer was in my body, a reality to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Obviously writing about my cancer in this blog will make more people aware of my situation. However, at the time of my diagnosis the results were only known to my close family members and the medical professionals I had been seeing. I knew more people would become aware of my new circumstances and I did not look forward to some potentially difficult conversations. People often don’t know how to react when someone says, “I have cancer.” They aren’t sure what to say or do in responding to such an unexpected announcement. I know people have different beliefs and ways of dealing with events in their own lives and the lives of others. I don’t disparage anyone’s means of coping with the difficulties of life. If it works for them, I’ve got no cause to argue, but the same approach does not necessarily work for me. I’ve observed various responses when people learn a friend or acquaintance has cancer. It’s quite common for people to quickly offer prayers, encouragement for fighting the coming battle, or assurances that all will be well.

Anyone reading my earlier posts knows I don’t believe in praying to an all-powerful god who makes decisions regarding the details of life and death, determining what happens in our lives. Even if I did believe in such a god, I wouldn’t expect the natural functioning of the universe to change because of the number of prayers (or lack thereof) offered on behalf of a particular outcome. If someone has such beliefs and it makes them feel better to offer prayers on my behalf, of course they are free to do so. I appreciate their apparent concern for my well-being. But they need not tell me, “I’m praying for you,” or indicate they will ask others to pray for me. Those words have no real meaning for me. I’d rather hear a simple expression of caring and support such as, “I’ll be thinking of you as you deal with this. Let me know if I can help.”

I also don’t need or want to hear the all-too-common expressions such as, “You’re tough; you can beat it,” or “Just fight it; I’m sure you can win,” or “Everything will be all right.” Dealing with cancer is not a matter of fighting a battle or a war. Cancer is a disease to be acknowledged, engaged, and treated as one might deal with any other problem in life. It doesn’t really matter if I’m tough or if I think of this experience as fighting with all my might. What matters is that I face the reality of the disease, seek out appropriate resources and potential treatments, and then do the best I can making decisions, taking actions, and doing the same with whatever results follow. Being tough or fighting offers me no more assurance of ‘beating it’ than someone’s well-intentioned offer of prayers would give. And surely the uncertainties of cancer rule out proclaiming, “Everything will be all right,” if by those words one means cancer will have no negative impact on my life.

Did knowing I had cancer really change anything? There were still many unknowns about my cancer and the effects it would have on my life. Various treatments might remove cancer from my body, but there was no assurance of a positive outcome. The treatments themselves might have complications and side effects; they would also need to be dealt with if they occurred. The realities of life with cancer could change my outlook on life and my manner of living, but I hoped any changes would be for the better. Cancer could shorten my life, but so could any number of other diseases or accidents or events, any of which might or might not occur.

I was still the same person I had been two weeks before the diagnosis, but now I had an additional bit of knowledge about myself. How did I feel about the fact cancer was a part of my body, a part of my life? Quite honestly, at the time I didn’t feel significantly different than I had before. I wanted to go on doing the things I would normally have done, engaging in activities as I usually would have, caring about the things which had been and continued to be important to me, loving and being loved by those dearest to me. In other words, I wanted to get on living my life as I had been here on our quiet homeplace on this mountainside at the end of our road. From the beginning of life, each of us is moving into a world full of uncertainties, going toward death which each of us will face, but also advancing into life filled with possibilities and wonders and joys to be embraced. Cancer was one of many things which had become part of my life and my world. I trusted I could and would make the best of the new challenges and opportunities my cancer brought.

More than two years have now passed since I had the biopsy described above. Much has happened during the intervening time. The biopsy showed my cancer was more aggressive than desirable, as if any degree of cancer is desirable. The Gleason score, which evaluates the likelihood of the cancer growing and spreading, was 7 out of a possible 10. That result meant there was an intermediate risk of aggressive cancer. After consultation with my local urologist we determined the appropriate next step was surgery. I was referred to a specialist in robotic-assisted surgery in Winston-Salem who agreed with the diagnosis and plan. I had the surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in early October of 2017, about two months after the biopsy.

Recovery from the surgery went well and I was able to return to my usual activities fairly soon. But another period of waiting in uncertainty followed the surgery. The post-surgical pathology report showed my cancer was actually even more aggressive than the biopsy had indicated. The Gleason score was 9 out of a possible 10, meaning my cancer was even more likely to spread rapidly. Follow-up PSA testing to determine the cancer status is done every three months after surgery for a year and then every six months if the tests show undetectable levels of remaining cancer cells. My surgery had either removed the cancer from my body or the disease was still there. The PSA tests would provide the answer regarding that big unknown, but I had to wait another three months before I could know the result. Nothing I could do while waiting would change the reality the test would reveal. I simply wanted to continue living my life as I had before. On October 21 of 2017 I wrote the following:

“Two and a half weeks ago I had major surgery for prostate cancer. Thanks to modern surgical techniques and treatments I’ve been able to be up and around, mostly free of pain and side effects, and able to start getting back to my usual activities. I’m not supposed to do overly strenuous work or heavy lifting but otherwise I can mostly do whatever I feel able to do. Today I felt like going out into the garden. We had gotten some Jerusalem artichoke tubers recently and they needed to be planted; I could do that task.

“What a joy to be out in the garden again, digging into the soil and preparing the spot for planting. Covering the tubers with the loose soil I could imagine the excitement of the next spring; this would be a new crop, one we had not grown before. The current growing season has mostly ended now, but I could see with satisfaction the remnants of what had been there throughout the previous months: a few beans, strawberries, blackberries, and ears of Indian corn still lingering for their final picking. Weeds had grown up in the midst of the crops and obviously needed pulling, so I was able to spend an hour or so weeding, rewarded with the sight of clean bare soil, loose and ready for another year. There were also some pawpaw seeds we had saved from a recent treat; I planted them in a large container, hoping for sprouts next spring that I could plant around our homeplace, another new crop, for us and probably for the raccoons and possums as well. And those European mountain ash seedlings which had sprouted from the abundance of berries not consumed by the birds also got put into beds where they might grow stronger with better care and attention. What a great way to spend an afternoon here on the mountainside!”

Uncertainties of Life: Part One

This post is fourth in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part One: Sitting Without Knowing

Not very long ago we happened to discover Carrie Newcomer, a singer-songwriter, author, poet, and seeker of truth among many other things. One of her beautiful and meaningful songs begins with the lines, “Learning to sit with not knowing, When I don’t know where it’s going.” Those words aptly describe what I believe is needed when trying to deal with the uncertainties of life.

My previous posts about my changing physical appearance over the years, my wide variety of jobs throughout my working life, and the development of my religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs led me to think about all the unexpected twists and turns we face in our lives. In my post about God and prayer I quoted from a message I delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in Boone many years ago, one of several during a period of about four years. In looking back at the words I wrote in one of those messages, I realized that the ideas centered around the theme of the unexpected. I wrote the following:

“The unexpected. The words don’t fit too well into our lives. They feel threatening and uncomfortable, something lurking in the dark to catch us when we aren’t looking. We feel the need to plan everything, to be sure that everything which happens is expected well in advance, scheduled and recorded in our Day Planner. But the unplanned and unexpected may be the most important of all the things which comes into our lives. Between the boundaries of birth and death, our lives are filled with almost nothing but the unexpected, even though we would like to believe it is otherwise. The one thing we can expect with absolute certainty is the unexpected. We don’t know what it will be or when it will happen or how we will handle it. It may be standing there in front of any one of us at any given moment. We simply have to be willing to see it and respond.”

Many unplanned and unexpected events have occurred in my life, and I’m sure in the lives of everyone else. Some of those I’ve already written about in my blog posts. A major one came when my evolving religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs culminated in my leaving the seminary and institutional religion to pursue a different path.

At that time we anticipated moving to the familiar territory of North Charleston. Some informal discussions had indicated a teaching position in the school system would be available to me. But the job possibility collapsed very unexpectedly. The 1968 photo in my recent blog post shows why. The Sixties had just ended and the school officials decided I must have been adversely affected by the culture around me. My hair was long and, even worse, I had a beard. Obviously I was a radical and a hippie and, therefore, was unsuitable, a likely bad influence on impressionable young students. I was informed I would not be considered until I cut my hair and shaved my beard; even then, there would be no assurance of a job. Since I recognized those conditions were likely to be followed by additional restrictions, I ruled out North Charleston. We accepted the uncertain future and looked for other employment options in Louisville.

Much has happened during the years since we were in Louisville. I’ve written about some of those events in this blog and anticipate I will write much more. In 1994 when I delivered the message quoted above, I was about to make some changes in my life. I was thinking a lot about the uncertain path ahead and how to deal with it. I have generally not approached uncertainties as many people have—setting goals, determining strategies, making detailed plans. I’ve sought to decide what would be the most meaningful action I could take and then I’ve stepped out into the unknown, trusting in my ability to cope with whatever I found there. Things have not always happened as I anticipated they would, but they have happened in a good way. I am not at the place I thought I would be, but I absolutely am glad I am here.

One of the things carried over from my Baptist background is the idea of ‘God’s will’ for me, redefined because of my changed understanding of God. Since I don’t accept the idea of an all-powerful God intimately involved in every aspect of our existence, I also don’t believe there is a plan for our lives made by God. Meaning and purpose for my life must come from within me and must ultimately be brought about by my own actions. Finding meaning and purpose in one’s life is not a simple task. Life frequently confronts us with uncertainty, the unexpected, the seemingly meaningless. But those unplanned and unexpected events and encounters often turn out to be the best parts of all, the most important, the most meaningful. The things which have come to matter most to me are the commonplace, the unexpected everyday entities and experiences transformed by seeing them for the wonders they really are. In every moment of our daily existence, even when we seem beset by uncertainty, there is wonder and meaning to be found.

We shouldn’t be surprised when uncertainties are a part of our lives. We probably should expect them every day. In learning to expect the unexpected we can relax into life, respond to situations as they arise, and then move on. Too often we try to live our lives in front of us, calculating and planning and dreaming, imagining we are in control. The only certainty, however, lies behind us when the decisions have been made and the events have actually occurred. Only in hindsight can we see the pattern which has been developing throughout our lives.

It occurs to me that navigating through the events of life is like tubing down a mountain river. Looking at the river from the bank, you can get a general feel for what it’s like and see how others are navigating the currents. Once in the moving stream the perspective is quite different. You can only see the part closest around you. You’re in it and it moves you along. Some sections are slow and gentle and allow some maneuvering. But most sections move swiftly, taking you where they run, whether you want to go there or not. You can paddle and attempt to steer, but mostly it’s a matter of watching out for the rocks you’re rushing toward and signs of others hidden just below the surface, the unexpected ones. Sometimes you see other people getting a good ride in a current you missed. Sometimes you see someone caught in a spot where they can’t move forward. Sometimes you experience those moments yourself. Now it’s fun and laughter, now it’s slow and almost boring, now it’s exciting, now it’s shocking as you crash against the rocks and are thrown into the deep water, now it’s wonderful. Then suddenly it’s over.

As in tubing down a river, the joy of life is in the ride, whatever it brings. If I’m busy thinking about the part that has already passed or anticipating what lies ahead, I don’t fully experience what is happening right now.

This moment—right now—is the only one I really have.

Thoughts About God and Prayer

This post is the third in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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I do not have very traditional beliefs about the existence, characteristics, and actions of God. They certainly do not coincide with the image of the God about whom I was taught in my early years. The things I’ve written in my previous posts about the development of my religious and spiritual life probably make that obvious. The ideas that make sense for me have come from many sources: philosophy, science, religion, valued and trusted teachers and other individuals, and ultimately my own personal experience of the world. Beliefs about God that are incompatible with those guides do not fit within my world view. I have no argument with beliefs held by other people; if those beliefs work for them in understanding and navigating through this world we share, that’s fine with me. But it’s not acceptable when others attempt to convince me of the correctness of their deeply-held beliefs.

People can believe what they choose. But it is important to recognize that there is a difference between a belief and a fact. It’s also important to recognize that there are differing views about the basis for knowing that something is a fact, but I won’t go into that discussion now. Some of the many definitions of ‘fact’ are: something known to have happened or to exist; a truth known by experience or observation; a thing known or proved to be true; a repeatable careful observation or measurement. I also found many definitions of ‘belief’ including: confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof; an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists; a feeling of certainty that something exists, is true, or is good; an idea one accepts as being true or real. To complicate things further, even within these definitions, there is the idea of Truth. The definition of ‘truth’ that I found most appropriate was this: a fact or belief that is accepted as true. The act of declaring something to be Truth also involves the act of accepting it to be true. I can accept something as true for me and you can accept something as true for you. Neither of us by our acceptance can make something true for someone else. So any beliefs I express are my beliefs, my truths.

Over twenty six years ago I delivered a message to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in Boone, my first such presentation since I had left the seminary more than two decade earlier. My words touched on a wide variety of ideas and experiences, but, in looking back the main theme of the message was the importance of communication. By communication I didn’t mean just talking or writing. Instead I meant direct contact with someone or something on a much deeper level. I wrote about experiencing and knowing the incredible wonder of the existence of everything in this amazing world. And then I said the following about knowing and communicating with the people and other things that make up the reality of our world:

“To know something as it is right now you must be willing to be with it fully at this moment, and then again in the next and the next. Passing attention won’t do.

“This ‘knowing’, this ‘communication’ is at the heart of life’s meaning for me. Martin Buber wrote about what he called the I-Thou experience and used the term ‘meeting’ to refer to this deep level of knowing or communicating. This experience goes beyond the expression ‘a meeting of the minds’; it is a meeting of the total being of the ones involved. These times of ‘meeting’ are the times I feel most connected with the world around me. In these times I am able to look at all that is around me and experience the wonder and the interrelatedness of myself and the universe and feel that I am indeed a part of it, one with it.

“I want that feeling all the time, not just in scattered moments. It can come in the presence of other people, in moments of intense sharing with someone in an ongoing relationship, or it might even come in a brief encounter with a stranger passing in the store or a client at work. …We meet and we speak to each other, perhaps with words, perhaps with looks, perhaps with silence.”

My message included the idea of knowing and communicating with God. However, my understanding of God was not the traditional one of an all-powerful being who created and ruled over the universe from a heaven somewhere apart from this world. So I began with the following brief statement summarizing my view of God:

“I do not frequently use the word “God”; it is so subject to misuse and to different understandings. If I use the word “God”, I use it to refer to that which underlies all of reality as I perceive it, that which is. The source of existence. Existence itself. If I see God as being the source of all that exists, then I also see God as being part of all that exists and all that exists as being part of God. God is me, God is you, I am God, you are God, all things and all people are God.”

This image of God is not that of a being controlling the day-to-day operation of the universe and intervening to make adjustments and alterations moment by moment as deemed appropriate. My understanding is not that there is a supernatural being who is intimately involved in our lives and in the existence of everything within our world. My idea is that God is the totality of existence. In other words, God is the universe, since the universe is the entirety of existence insofar as humankind has been able to determine. And the universe certainly appears to operate according to a multitude of natural forces.

Science has been able to discover many of these forces and to understand the principles of their operation. Many things are still not fully understood and possibly never will be. Much within the universe often appears random, chaotic, unpredictable, and even mysterious. Over eons of time people have sought to understand and explain the world around them. As we look back at some of those explanations, we may see them as simplistic, unbelievable, amusing. And in the distant future, if humans or other beings are still around, they may well consider our own understandings in the same way.

People always appear to be trying to make sense of the world, attempting to determine the meaning or purpose of our existence. Perhaps there is no sense to it. Perhaps it is a random world which does not have meaning or purpose within itself. Perhaps the only sense to it all is that which we impose upon it, the meaning and purpose we attach to our lives and the events within them. The process of seeking meaning and purpose in life is no doubt different for each of us depending on the experiences we bring to the task. My approach is to see the apparent randomness in the world and live with it—not good, not bad, just what is. I recognize joy and beauty where I see them, but also realize the harsh and painful and ugly are part of the whole and are to be acknowledged as a part of the reality in which we exist. I do not seek to impose an explanation for events primarily for the purpose of making myself feel better about what is happening in the world. The horrible things that happen don’t have to be explained as the result of innate evil in the world and the good things don’t have to be caused by a beneficent God. Perhaps they just are, even as we just are.

My message also included thoughts about communication with God as I understand that concept. Since my view of God is non-traditional, so is my view of prayer. The word ‘prayer’ seems to be the usual term used in our culture to indicate the act of communicating with God. Having been raised in a church-going family, I was in church several times each week from the time I was an infant. Prayers were plentiful, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of all services and classes. Family meals were usually preceded by a prayer as were many community and school events. Most prayers included a mixture of thanks for various positive things and requests for assistance from God in achieving some desired outcome in life. That approach to prayer fit with the traditional understanding of God as the hands-on power over life.

The practice of prayer which I am now exposed to most often (primarily on Facebook) is somewhat different. Many people speaking of their own prayers or requesting the prayers of others are asking for something quite specific. Much of the time they want an intervention by God to change something undesirable that has happened in their lives or to bring about something good for themselves or for people they know. It seems odd to me that the same people who are inclined to say, “not my will but thine, Lord,” often appear to believe repeating their own prayer requests over and over and asking others to join them in praying for some particular result will somehow sway their God to grant the prayers because of the sheer numbers of requests. It’s like a contest in which the person with the most friends and the most votes is expected to win. And this doesn’t appear to even recognize or care that the granting of one person’s prayer request might necessarily negate the outcome sought by the prayer of someone else.

When I was looking at some definitions of prayer, one (saying it was the “biblical” definition of prayer) referred to conversation with God and not just meditation or contemplation of God. The writer of that definition in effect excluded contemplation and meditation from the idea of prayer, but I would not. Recalling my understanding of God as being part of all that exists and all that exists as being part of God, then God is everywhere and everything. The communication I have described above and in other things I have written, the connectedness, the meeting, are all acts of prayer. Essentially all of life can be thought of as prayer, a conversation with all of reality, an openness to that which is, a meeting with all that is other than myself. Here in my place at the end of the road I frequently find myself engaged in prayer of this sort. Walking in the woods, looking at clouds or stars in the sky, gazing out over ranges of mountains, listening to the sound of water spilling over rocks in the creek, talking with the plants and animals around me, sitting and sharing with family or friends, all these things are moments of engagement with God as I understand God. There is no need to ask for more when in prayer of this sort. There is appreciation for all that is and gratitude for each moment of being part of it all.

In the act of prayer I see an effort to communicate through all of one’s life with all of existence. If I were to verbalize my communication into the more common form of ‘a prayer’, then it would be an expression of thankfulness for all that is, belief in the oneness of all that is, and my feelings of hopefulness for all that is. With this understanding I share a verbal prayer with you. I closed my message long ago by quoting the following combination of four prayers from the book The Prayer Tree by Michael Leunig. I continue to find it very meaningful.

“Dear God,

“We rejoice and give thanks for earthworms, bees, ladybirds, and broody hens; for humans tending their gardens, talking to animals, cleaning their homes and singing to themselves; for the rising of the sap, the fragrance of growth, the invention of the wheelbarrow and the existence of the teapot, we give thanks. We celebrate and give thanks.

“We give thanks for our friends.
Our dear friends.
We anger each other.
We fail each other.
We share this sad earth, this tender life, this precious time.
Such richness. Such wildness.
Together we are blown about.
Together we are dragged along.
All this delight.
All this suffering.
All this forgiving life. We hold it together.

“God help us
If our world should grow dark,
And there is no way of seeing or knowing.
Grant us courage and trust
To touch and be touched
To find our way onwards
By feeling.

“We pray for another way of being: another way of knowing. Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway and in so doing have lost our footpath. God lead us to our footpath. Lead us there where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet. Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. And lead us there where side-by-side we may feel the embrace of the common soul. Nothing can be loved at speed. God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being.”