Clearing life’s everyday haze

“The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.” ~ W.M. Lewis

I was reminded of this quote while reading Therese Borchard’s latest Beyond Blue blog post, 6 Things Cancer Patients Have Taught Me

Therese writes:

As a graduate student pursuing a degree in theology twelve years ago, I took a course called Systematic Theology–by far my toughest class–by a brilliant professor who was dying of bone marrow cancer. No one knew she was dying. She kept her diagnosis to herself and, as best as she could, covering up her chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  One afternoon she gave us this assignment: If you had only one day left of your life, how would you live it? What would you change about your life now?

“I would drop this course,” I immediately thought to myself.

The responses were fascinating. Some people would totally rearrange their lives. A woman who worked in the admissions department said she would quit her job and start writing. Others wouldn’t adjust a thing.

Can you remember what your own response was?

I can remember feeling liberated. If I was going to die, why I could do anything I wanted right at this moment. (It helped that I didn’t have to worry about kids or a husband at the time – I think if that was the case, I wouldn’t have felt so free in my thinking.) And I did feel a wonderful sense of freedom – freedom from work and from responsibilities. This lasted all of two days until I found myself in my hospital gown awaiting surgery. But I’ve never forgotten that short-lived feeling of liberation and a world of possibilities opening before me.

Last year, Dan Barry,  two-times cancer survivor, writing  in the New York Times, in My brain on chemo: alive and alert  called it  “acute clarity”. Before his diagnosis of cancer “I was enveloped in the haze of the everyday” he wrote.

And boy can I identify with this! DO sweat the small stuff was my default setting before my own cancer wake-up call.  Barry explained how “the chemo wiped away the muddle, revealing the world in all its mundane glory.”  He vowed he would never take these simple things for granted. “I was blind, but now I see.”

Ah yes, another familiar fellow-feeling there. I remember thinking just the very same thing and thinking how I had wasted so much of my precious time in the past sweating that small stuff. I too was a transformed person, no longer would I take things for granted – from now on I too would celebrate the everyday miracles. And I did!  Right up until the first week I returned to work and I sat in traffic watching the rain team down and fought for a parking space and faced a mountain of work in an unheated cramped office. Like Barry..

The fog, of course, returned as the effects and memory of chemo faded…. How I hated traffic jams. And the Vienna Fingers! Who ate the last Vienna Finger?

But the story didn’t end there for Barry. He was about to get another wake-up call. Cancer came a-knocking on his door again to teach him another lesson.

Then, in the late spring of 2004, probably while I was railing about something eminently unimportant, my cancer impolitely returned. Once again I felt the frigid breath of mortality at my neck. I also felt like a fool. What is the use of surviving cancer if you don’t learn from it? Are improved by it? Am I so thick that I need to receive the life-is-precious message twice?

Cue more chemotherapy and major surgery ” including my own manifestation of chemo brain. Fog lifted, world revealed… . Once again I was declared clean. …I became a walking platitude, telling friends without a trace of irony to live every day as though it were their last. ”

Slowly, insidiously, the fog of the everyday has returned to enshroud me. It came in wispy strips, a little more, then a little more, wrapping me like a mummy. Just the other day, in the car with my wife and my two daughters, I began railing about being stuck in a traffic jam.

Perspective, my wife said. Perspective.

I could not hear her. You see, I’m struggling with this pre-existing human condition.

I love that Barry lets us know that it is ok to be human! We are imperfect human beings struggling with the human condition. Yes, we know that life is too precious to allow the small stuff to overwhelm us, but we are only human after all, and sometimes it does. The thing we must remember is we always have that chance to become aware, clear our heads from the “haze of the everyday” and then start again. Life is precious and we have been given this second chance – let’s seize it today.