If I ever believed that I had control over the circumstances of my life, that decisively ended when John Foster and I were told we would not be able to have biological children. Up until then, my life had moved forward on a seemingly known path in a given order: graduate from high school, go to college, find a job, get married, be a part of a community – then a permanent detour. Fast forward to 2002 when my life was forever divided, torn–in–two when John died suddenly at 45 while I was away on a business trip. And twelve years later, I would hear the words, “You have ovarian cancer;” followed in two short years with, “The ovarian cancer has recurred; we can treat the cancer as a chronic condition, but it will eventually kill you.”
I have no control over these circumstances. None of the situations were ones I would have chosen. I lamented and grieved the myriad of losses that came with each unexpected change. Naming losses was part of my process: cut-off in body-soul-spirit by death, the loss of shared memories, less energy to spend time with family, a diminished ability to do the work I love, and fewer options for travel to visit friends. On some days, I was dissatisfied and angry about the lack of control, each turn of life’s events, and the pain and suffering that went along with the twists of time. On other days I felt optimistic and energetic. Emotions, like circumstances, seemed to change with the clouds.
One of the things I am told directly and overhear as I sit in waiting rooms these days is to treat cancer by fighting and battling the disease. I read obituaries, “She lost her battle with cancer.” Or, “He fought hard to the end against cancer.” More generally, the culture around us supports that idea that all of life is a contest with winners and losers; it is up to us to compete and grab what we can for our families and ourselves. And, if you have cancer, just stay positive and fight to win; you can do it!
But I have come to understand that fighting and battling against reality create more suffering. I see that dissatisfaction and fighting increase my wish for things to be different, to be other than they are. When I finally stopped trying to change circumstances that I had no control over and acknowledged the reality of the present, I began to find peace. The only way forward, the only way to a calm centered heart, was to start from where I was: living with what is.
Do not confuse peace and calmness with resignation or indifference to reality. I have not turned away from life. Instead, I am choosing to fully engage with all that is present: joy and pain, laughter and sadness, light and dark, hope and fear. Rather than judging myself or my circumstances as good or bad, I ask myself, “How can I be present with what is in this moment? How can I act generatively and creatively given what is? What can I do today that is beneficial in the context of what is?”
Life is not fair. We each have life experiences that are easy and hard to varying degrees. We each experience events that are beyond our control. And, while I do not always feel like “living with what is,” I’m trying to learn what it means to engage and embrace what is with grace and the knowledge that I am surrounded by love.