For at least two weeks I have had in mind a post that addresses Mom’s PET scan and the expectations that so many people have about what will happen to her cancer now that she has been on the Camino. I discern these expectations in what people say to Mom, in her telling me, a week ago, that she felt “pressure”, and in our tribe’s utter inability to stop telling ourselves stories . . .
But for at least two weeks, I have not found myself writing anything. Why that has been so could justify its own essay. It wasn’t until I read Mom’s “Cheers and Kindness” post of this morning (about her experience with her friendly townspeople and her wait for the results of the PET scan), and found myself crying at the end, that I began to write this post. I don’t know where it’s going, but I begin anyway. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” as my master and hero Samuel Beckett once had a nameless character say.
Humans see patterns in everything. Hypnotize a person (as researchers did in a now famous set of experiments) and tell him to get up from his chair and walk to stand by a window, and when you wake him up and ask him why he is standing by the window, he will say, for example, “There was a cold draft, and I was shutting the window.” Of course this is not true, but we now know that the brain searches relentlessly for explanations of everything it does not understand or does not wish to grapple with.
Just today I opened The New Yorker to read “It was an article of faith among the [Libyan] rebels that Qaddafi had regularly used magic to prop up his long reign. What other explanation could there be?” Lacking explanation, man often turns to the supernatural.
Stories are easiest to see in beliefs about politics and religion — two areas that, not coincidentally, wise people know it’s best not to argue about. That’s because such beliefs are usually not arrived at by reason but by responses to emotion, and it’s pointless to argue with conclusions reached by emotion. Today I saw one writer’s interpretation of New York City’s shutdown of Occupy Wall Street, as he looked at the site that once housed the 5000 books of the Occupy Wall Street Library:
What a picture it would be . . . of police in riot gear gathering boxes of donated books and loading them into garbage trucks. A perfect metaphor for what appears to be the intention of last night’s raid: destroying the body of knowledge that had been collected by a movement just two months old . . .
If you want to spot tendentious, made-up belief systems, look for words like “appears to be,” as in “the contents of another person’s mind appear to be an intention to destroy knowledge.” A great many marriages founder on this one powerful impulse, that of imagining we know the meaning in another person’s mind. All storytelling arises from man’s wrestling with painful sensations of ignorance and uncertainty — which is fear. The results of this wrestling, this agon, we call myth, religion, fiction, cinema, psychology, ideology, doctrine, dogma.
So we see a woman walk across Spain on (and in) a dream and we
continue the story. She has cancer, right? She wants it to go away, right? And look at all that bravery, all that effort! Look what a story so far, with all the blog posts illustrating the triumph of the human spirit! Why, we’ve even got her in high-definition video!
It’s a story fit for the movies!
Except for one thing, we think: we don’t have our ending yet. As the writer of the Gospel of Matthew well knew, adding, as he did, the all-important Resurrection to Mark’s far more abrupt ending*, there can be no meaning without a proper ending. And the only acceptable ending to this fairytale is, of course, that somehow, in magical ways we don’t need to understand but need to believe in, the walk across Spain – the exercise, the sun, the intention, the bravery, the purpose, God – cured the cancer. I would guess that nearly every reader of this blog will acknowledge in herself this secret hope, this small buried voice whose sister whispered in my mother’s head as she approached the Cruz de Ferro with the earlier PET scan, with the cancer, she hoped somehow to leave behind.
I don’t need to understand how it can happen, we think, but I would love to see a fairytale ending. I’d love to see God choose to play a role in this drama and give a woman her just dessert.
This is a way of thinking pilgrims were familiar with a thousand years ago: surely if I go to all this effort, God will reward me. The medieval Catholic Church validated this thinking, handing out “indulgences”, in its role as God’s mouthpiece on earth, to people who made some kind of effort – the Camino pilgrims, say, or the people, both wealthy and poor, who got karma credits with God for handing over their money to the Church.
Setting aside the Church’s confusion of money with divine will (and itself with divinity), all of this relies on belief in an intercessionary God — that is, a God who will intercede, or intervene, in human affairs, if we simply do something noticeable enough to catch “His” attention (a God who intervenes in human affairs is nothing if not person-like).
I would like to believe such a God exists, but then if such a God did exist, and either set in motion or stood by and did nothing for the shot, gassed, and hung-by-their-tongues Jews of the Shoah, or the Rwandans, or the victims of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, I would find Him unworthy of the barest worship. Either he is weak beyond imagining, or he is capable of ending unbearable suffering but lacks all compassion.
It is this God who is said to have died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and for people who study history and its lessons there is no resurrecting him. Can there be a kind of divinity who intervenes in the cancers of mothers who do pilgrimages but ignores the cries of children in gas chambers? I do not think so. Not that kind, by that definition.
This is not to say divinity, or a consciousness that pervades the universe, does not exist. It is only to say that I’m not able to believe there is a person-like entity who intervenes in human affairs.
If Mom’s cancer does not reappear on her PET scan, there are a number of possible reasons for it, from what science now tells us of the power of the human mind (in science’s belated validation of prayer and meditation) to what we know love and purpose can do for the human immune system.
Love and purpose. Immune system. For those who don’t credit an intercessionary God, these are the building blocks of their hope, vague as it may be: Inge did that amazing walk, such great purpose, we all love her, we hope her cancer goes away now.
I do too. And I too don’t care how it happens or whether I could ever explain it. My mind bends toward the romantic and the idealistic as much as the next person’s.
But I have worried since the first moment Mom mentioned doing this trip that it would begin to work on her mind, whispering to her of salvation, giving her a hope — so powerful in the agon with dis-ease — that might turn on her if the outcome to which she had inevitably grown attached did not come about. I have worried for many months about us measuring the success of the trip, or Mom’s chances of survival, by the same meaningless yardstick, the PET scan of November 14. (See the end of my post a day before we reached the Cruz de Ferro, when Mom voiced aloud what until then had only been the whispers of going to the cross and leaving her cancer behind).
But the PET scan is meaningless, in the sense that it neither signals an objective truth — someone will or will not die — nor has within it a pre-fabricated storyline of what must happen next — of what it means. We create the storyline. Yesterday’s PET scan is just
another day on the camino, and just as there were days before it that did not speak of life or death, there will now come days after it that are silent on the matter. The PET scan is just data; we supply the meaning of it.
Mom is powerful precisely because she gets to choose what meaning to assign the PET scan. Doctors and others will look at a certain scan and say, “This is great!” They will look at different results and say, “Oh, oh, my, this is unfortunate.” They are, however, simply speaking from their own, inevitably blinkered, system of belief.
Mom can decide what storyline she will believe in, and as one of my favorite Taoist stories shows, her storyline doesn’t have to grasping for meaning prematurely.
There was an old farmer who had worked his land for many years. One day his horse ran away. His neighbors heard the news and ran to see him.
“Such bad luck!” they said.
“We’ll see,” said the farmer.
The next day, the horse came back, bringing with it three wild horses.
“How wonderful!” the neighbors said.
“We’ll see,” said the farmer.
The next day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.
Here came the neighbors.
“What a disaster!” they said, patting the farmer on the back. “Your fields will rot if he can’t work the farm.”
“We’ll see,” said the farmer.
A day later, the emperor’s army recruiters passed through the village to draft young men into the army. They saw that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, and they passed him by.
The neighbors, again.
“Such good fortune!” they said.
“We’ll see,” said the farmer.
All this is to say that the Lord moves in ways mysterious, not ways we can divine in our desperate interpretations of this event and that . . . In the absence of knowing, then, what we’ll see, we can
only let go of the need to know, which sometimes comes in the form of patience and other times forgiveness, and cultivate those states of mind — love, compassion, positivity — that lead to healing.
The “unfortunate” PET scan of May has unfolded into some of the greatest experiences of Mom’s life, not to mention mine, Carrie’s, and many others’. Who, then, will claim to know that yesterday’s PET scan can be “bad news”?
That camino continues, and we’ll all be walking with Mom as she walks it.
* The original Mark ends with the women fleeing from the empty tomb, and saying “nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (How the writer of Mark knew what they saw when they said nothing to anyone is another story.) In Mark, there is no Resurrection, and without the decades-later additions of Matthew, Luke, and John, Christianity as we know it would not exist.