When I was in my twenties, I lived in a six-room railroad apartment with two roommates in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. This was before it became the multi-million-dollar neighborhood it is now. Much of our apartment retained its original features. There was a huge claw-footed bathtub that was wonderful when there was time for a bath, but the plumbing, unfortunately, was original as well. When showering, the water would randomly turn hot, cold, or off entirely. The rooms were huge and the ceilings were high, and at that time in life, all we saw was that the rent was cheap and the apartment was great for parties. We would gather all our friends, play all sorts of records on the stereo, and dance the night away. The next morning, I would look at the huge empty space that had been filled with life just a few hours earlier and instead see ashtrays filled with cigarette butts that were overflowing onto the table and empty cups and bottles thrown all over the place. On more than one occasion I would look at the mess with a variety of reactions, still enjoying the fun from the night before, but a sad, lonely feeling would overtake me as I saw this huge living room left empty except for the awful mess that was left behind. Today, living with cancer, I sometimes remember that very same feeling.
I’m definitely not comparing a party to six rounds of chemotherapy along with a clinical-trial medication. I am, however, identifying with the emptiness and the mess left behind. I was so elated after my last treatment, filled with the glory of a huge accomplishment, but now, a week later, treatment is over and my body is still a mess. I’m worn out, my arms and legs hurt, my nails are dark and ugly with ridges and strange patterns, and food is still not the enjoyable ritual it once was. My immune system is compromised but I can’t venture very far anyway due to Covid-19 haunting our world. I’m done but I’m not done because numerous tests and preparation for a stem-cell transplant are coming up shortly. This in-between state is like purgatory and it is very unsettling because I’m finished and yet I’m not. I’m technically in remission, which is wonderful, but the transplant means that I’m still being treated for cancer.
I get an anxious, unsettled feeling when I don’t know what is happening in my life, when I don’t have a plan. Because I prefer everything to be predictable, I used to make plans and “to-do” lists that would ease that unsettled feeling a bit (I am still comforted by this ritual). Even if I didn’t follow through, at least I had a plan. I understand now that life circumstances, such as cancer and Covid-19, mean that this is not always possible and that, even though being content is a pleasurable feeling, the fidgety and uncomfortable feeling I get if I’m not accomplishing anything will be there anyway. I was “OK” during those months of initial captivity, as I was busy being “in treatment,” but now what?
In addition to not having a plan, I am not fond of free time either, because I put pressure on myself to fill it productively. I seem to be momentarily forgetting all the lessons I have learned these past few months about trust, in myself and in my resourcefulness. I try to remind myself that a struggle is good for the soul (“good trouble,” as John Lewis said), because it brings about growth and change. Feeling uneasy is not pleasant but it is not terrible either.
As I think about how to fill my time, I am discovering that it is the emptiness that makes me uncomfortable. I can fill it productively and creatively by reading or sewing, and feel fulfilled, but it’s a fleeting feeling, as there is still something missing that brings about the question once again, “Who am I?” The answer became a bit clearer recently after a mediation session, when I was more open and receptive. The emptiness cannot be filled with activity, no matter how interesting or productive. The emptiness is about the need to be a part of something greater. It is about fulfillment through a connection beyond our existence here on earth. It’s about being with God, with Spirit, with Universal forces where an eternal source of unconditional love exists, just waiting for us to make that discovery.
Growing up, I didn’t really identify with my religion because, to me, it was merely a set of rules to follow, and so I did not have much of a meaningful connection. I did enjoy holiday meals and celebrations for the socializing part (the delicious dinners were always amazing), but I had to endure hours of heavy traffic and prayers that I couldn’t relate to. That was what religion meant to me until I started to find a need to look for deeper meaning in life. My search led me on different spiritual paths, including Buddhism and meditation, and it continues in earnest to this day. What I am finding on my path, in my relationships with both friends and family as well as with patients I’ve worked with over the years as a social worker, is the need for love: Loving ourselves is first and foremost, then it can be shared with other people. I am also recognizing that fear inhibits our ability to love, and it inhibits our overall sense of fulfillment in life. It seems as though so many of us function with this cloud of fear that we are hardly aware of. It manifests as resistance and judgment and prevents us from being all we can be.
I see myself as a spiritual seeker. In the course of my metaphysical path, the poem below was given to me by an English professor in college, and it continues to be a source of understanding. Each time I look at it, a different line calls out to me. I have always kept a copy in my journals, in my desk at work, and in my handbag. It’s now on my cell phone.
Our Deepest Fear
by Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us
We ask ourselves,
“Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?”
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.
When I first read this poem, I was drawn to it because of a poor self-image at the time, and reflecting on the first lines eventually helped me see myself differently. Now the part that calls out to me is that we are all a “child of God.” That sense of belonging is a beautiful emotional feeling that I want to nurture, to understand better, and experience more. I don’t always know what spiritual path to follow, and that will become clear with time, but what is clear is that when I experience the beauty of unconditional love, I experience a warm, passionate feeling that fills my heart and my body with an overwhelming sense of bliss. It fills me up and pours out of me and it makes me want to shower everyone I know with love and affection. I sometimes feel angry, bitter, and jealous, and it constricts my energy, whereas channeling positive energy leaves me feeling open to possibilities. My intention is to aim for the latter in order to bring me further along in my spiritual search.
Seeking a spiritual path is another piece of the puzzle of life. I have always been a spiritual person and before I had cancer I followed a meditation practice that brought me peace and comfort. As a result, I was beginning to experience a strong sense of who I am no only as an individual but also as someone who is connected to the Universe’s forces. I felt like I was part of something greater than myself. Chemotherapy changed all that. I found it too difficult to maintain my daily practice, mostly because of the exhaustion. I often felt drugged so I couldn’t completely open myself up, but now, since I’ve finished with chemotherapy, I am starting to feel like my search can begin once again. I sometimes find myself feeling sad and lost, but I’m remembering that when I feel this way, I can turn to a higher power for comfort. This is a new feeling for me, and even though I don’t know where it will lead, it feels like the right direction. I often admired people who felt gratified by their faith, and this is something I now want for myself, so I am filled with a feeling of hope and gratitude as I move along on my spiritual path. In the meantime, I trust that I have the ability to get through this next ordeal of a stem-cell transplant, not just because I am strong and able, but because I am also putting my trust and faith in a higher power. And it comforts me knowing that, while I am on my path to wellness, I am not alone.