All Will Be Well
February 9, 2012
All Will Be Well
Tomorrow is my last round of chemo. And today I’ve taken the pre-chemo meds to reduce the possibility of an allergic reaction to the drugs. I’ve packed my “chemo bag” – movie, water, chocolate, chewing gum, book, knitting, comfy blanket, eye mask (so I can’t see what’s going on at the beginning of the process). Tomorrow we’ll pack our food. So, I’m ready. Or as ready as I can be. And I’m convinced that tomorrow, and in the days to come, all will be well and that I will make slow, steady progress to wellness.
“How can you stand it?” a friend of mine asked. “How can you stand not knowing whether the prognosis you’ve been given [a good one] will pan out?”
“I have no choice but to stand it,” I responded. “And I choose to think that all will be well.”
I’ve had people tell me every possible thing that could go wrong after chemo. I’ve chosen not to listen, to try, instead, to “be in the moment” with whatever I’m experiencing. I’ve chosen to try to listen to my own body; to “see” where I am, rather than to anticipate all the difficult things that might happen. Rather, I anticipate that all will be well. This doesn’t come naturally; it takes work because I come from a background of very pessimistic people.
I’ve had a lot of help from reading the lives of people who’ve been where I am before me. And I’ve read a lot about how to approach difficult situations like this. What I have done is work very hard at incorporating what I’ve learned into my life right now, and into my writing life, too, because much of what I’ve learned to get me through this period in my life, we can easily apply to our work as we write about our lives. (More about this later.)
Just before my last round of chemo, I read an article in the AARP magazine about a man with a chronic condition. What impressed me, and what I took away from the article – the basis of what I write here – is that he said he chose to believe that all would turn out well for him. This way, he didn’t contaminate whatever pleasure each day contained with the fear of what would happen to him in the future. In pop psych jargon, he didn’t “futurize.” He said that, yes, he realized this was irrational, given his diagnosis. He said, too, that you have to constantly readjust to every shift and change that occurs in your body, that the adjustment to your condition is ongoing, that it isn’t over all over at once, and that it demands an constant awareness of the condition of your body, a constant checking in. This is, of course, both true and wise. (I’ve read books – and I’m sure you have too – that suggest that you should work toward a moment of adjusting to something, of getting past something, of accepting something. My good writing friend Edvige Giunta reminded me a while ago that this is a Western concept that denies the ongoingness of human experience, of living with, rather than overcoming, something that has profoundly affected us.)
One of the advantages of this life I’ve been living is that I’ve been reading books I’ve wanted to read for ages. One is the remarkable, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007). I’m a fan of Kabat-Zinn and have tried to read everything he’s written.
In The Mindful Way, the authors report on an experiment called “The Mouse in the Maze.” In the experiment, two groups of students were shown a cartoon mouse trapped in a maze. Two different versions of the maze existed: one showed a piece of Swiss cheese at the exit of the maze’s mousehole; the other, an owl hovering to seize the mouse in its talons.
The task was easy; the maze took only a few minutes to complete. All the students completed the task. Later, the students were given a test to determine their current state of creativity. “Those who had helped their mouse avoid the owl turned in scores that were fifty percent lower than the scores of students who had helped their mouse find the cheese. The state of mind elicited by attending to the owl had resulted in a lingering sense of caution, avoidance, and vigilance for things going wrong. This mind-state in turn weakened creativity, closed down options, and reduced the students’ flexibility in responding to the next task” (124).
So, knowing that all would not be well for the cartoon mouse was enough to significantly diminish the creative responses of one group of students! And knowing that all would be well for the cartoon mouse was enough to significantly boost the creative responses of the other group!
I’ve pondered what this means for me as a person undergoing chemotherapy, and also, of course, what this means for me as a writer.
According to the authors of The Mindful Way, if we approach any task with “qualities of interest, curiosity, warmth, and good will,” we’ll be “countering any effects of aversion and avoidance that might be present.” This takes conscious cultivation.
Now imagine two scenarios in our writing lives. In the first, we sit down at our desks, and we tell ourselves, before we’ve written a word, that everything we write will turn out boring or horrible, that we’re really not talented, that we’re writing because we’re taking a course not because we have any intrinsic interest in what we’re doing. In the second, we sit down at our desks and we stop a moment to cultivate a state of interest and curiosity towards what might emerge under our pens in the next several minutes; we stop a moment to congratulate ourselves for taking the time to sit down to the task, and we think, with eagerness, of the sense of fulfillment we’ll feel when our writing is done.
In our writing lives, if we deliberately cultivate the notion that “all will be well” with our work – and with ourselves as writers – it very well might enhance our capacity to be creative.