The noise that juicer made was enough to wake the neighbors, and carrots came in 50lb. bags, all to satisfy Mike’s desires to make the best possible choices for his health. Juicing was one of many paths he followed as he read Prevention magazine, bought supplements, followed eating plans and diets, turned slightly orange, attended EST* Seminars, and listened to the gurus of the 1970’s wellness cults.
Some of this was certainly focused on weight loss, and that he did, over and over and over. Diving into that is fodder for another time. Today what I want to play with is the concept of our personal responsibility towards our health, and how I have stepped away from the direct cause and effect model that sells so many dang worthless books.
Back in the 70’s Mike was lead to believe that he was personally responsible for making the right choices, and he followed the rules, so many of them. Forty years later, as I share my diagnosis, I heard from someone talking about a book that describes a plant based diet. They have been following it roughly for many years and remain healthy and “have never missed a day of work.” Others have offered medical advice straight off of Facebook, Oprah, or the local news. So often there is an “expert” telling us how to eat, what supplements to take, or some other strict prescription of behavior that if only you follow it correctly will make you a new, wonderful, sexy, healthy person. Have you gotten caught by any of these promises?
The dark side is that I see clients and friends berating themselves for eating sugar, or not eating enough veggies, or being too stressed from taking care of kids and parents while dealing with an auto-immune disease. People who have come to believe that any “wrong” move could spell disease. (No, I won’t spell it dis-ease dammit.) People who are convinced that making healthy choices is a moral imperative.
|Mike Toombs, 1976|
Mike died in 1978 of pancreatic cancer, by the time he was diagnosed it had metastasized to his lungs and liver. Many of the get well cards he received during the very short month between diagnosis and his death were from EST friends who encouraged him to think differently and be different, to “get over it.” They we telling him that he could think, live, and eat his way out of pancreatic cancer. To be frank, miracles aside, that was bullshit, the man was actively dying from a cancer that kills 80% within a year.
With such an extreme example, it is easy to see how off the well-meaning advice was. How much more compassionate it would have been for those friends to connect and come sit with him. They could have prayed for his comfort and ease, or simply sent flowers or a differently loving card.
Mike was my father, I was 16 when he died on May 11, 1978.
|Mike and daughter Amelia, 1963|
Clearly, I grew up steeped in this belief system, I was told over and over how I had the power to transform and change my life. This belief fit well with the Yankee sensibilities of my ancestors, and aligned with the so common self-realization, “by the bootstraps” narrative that ignores gender, genetics, history, race, ability, sexual orientation, socio-economics, religion, and more. Yet it was the truth as far as I knew.
I had attended EST seminars at 15, so I also knew I needed to focus on being here now, and If only I made all the right choices, I would find success in all aspects of life, love, and career, while my body would be healthy, slim, and fit. As I moved into adulthood, I was attracted to many of these same messages from the Human Potential Movement and read lots of personal growth, health, and healing books.
I don’t question or regret any of this. This is a small peek into my life and these experiences have informed me. Because I have such a long and rich history with it, I have had a chance to consider how it is working. Some things work really well, a lot of others, not so much.
These days, I am acutely aware that some with a similar background would find the cancer now wandering in my bones to be something that I have brought on myself. Now, people are polite, I might not hear that directly, I do know that it is considered. Well… she could have lost that weight, you know, cancer and weight. Or maybe if she took these supplements… or perhaps her emotional life, or anger, or sadness, or fill in the blank… Perhaps if I was more present or conscious, I would not be having this experience.
You know what? I think that is bull – all this blame and fault finding with expectations of perfect health. All humans have value, and all are entitled to live their best life. Not everyone is guaranteed health which is not a personal gift or failing. Perfect health, perfect life, and death in our sleep at a ripe old age is not real. Whose life works this way?
What does work for me, is the knowledge and experience that I have options around how I respond to life’s circumstances. How I respond will often change my experience. This is where so much of the ideas around positive thinking really do matter. In this moment, I can watch the rain coming down and enjoy the sounds and softness. Or I can rail against the never ending rain and be mad. This is my lane, this is my responsibility.
Beyond that much of our lives is actually beyond our control. Our health, our experiences, the people and places that influence us can almost seem random. Why does one coal miner develop black lung when another who worked side by side for 20 years does not? Why does this college campus feel right to my daughter when a dozen similar ones didn’t? Why did your eyes meet a stranger’s that day, the stranger who is now your spouse?
The best explanation I am aware of is called Prarabdha Karma. This is not the basic cause and effect stuff. This is about the lifetimes of our soul journeys, it is about living as ourselves in these bodies and having the chance to learn and experience many different aspects of life. I personally believe I was a part of making some of these choices before I arrived. I am also completely ok with the thought that the divine has set things up for me.
When you look around at the billions of us, even those who are living similar lives will often have different challenges, different joys, and vastly different experiences. How does that all happen? Prarabdha Karma.
Which seems like a conundrum.
Can I change anything? Yes.
Do I have the ability to affect my world? Yes.
What control is there? Lots. Especially in my choice of response and willingness to experience what is showing up. In any given moment, I have some level of control to choose my response.
One piece of truth I have carried with me for over 40 years is knowing that I have made the best possible choices in the moment. That does not mean I have not made mistakes or behaved badly, it is simply a surrender to the understanding that I did my best in that moment. I also trust the same for everyone else.
Sitting here today, I am not questioning that I came to be living with metastatic breast cancer. I continue to notice and let go of the healthism and judgment that I find sneaking in, and find it helpful to discern whose voice is speaking those old ideas. (I talk back.) My body is what has brought to and carried me through this lifetime, and my prayer is for the opportunity continue that life for quite some time.
While I am here, I may drink some carrot juice, or a milkshake, read medical studies, even incorporate new information, movement, rest, or meditation into my days. Why will I? Because it feels right, because my body or soul is asking for it. I will make those choices through presence and attention. I find such choices more supportive and congruent to living the life I desire. The life that I understand is less about controlling and doing it right, and far more about allowing, accepting, connecting, and rejoicing.
*est or EST – Erhard Seminar Trainings which “brought to the forefront the ideas of transformation, personal responsibility, accountability, and possibility”