What We Already Know

by Jane Brundage

September 11, 2001. The day of the attacks. The end of World Trade Center. An inexplicably gorgeous fall day--a day the world stood still.

We each refer to it differently, while in some ways relating to it in exactly the same way. We divide life now. Before September 11, when we seemed to live in a quiet, easy space, devoid of the fear that terrorism would land right outside our kitchen door or be lurking inside our mailbox. And, after September 11, when, well, you know.

It's interesting how much we've forgotten about: West Nile virus, Lyme's disease, school shootings, how the decline of the dot-coms decimated our stock portfolios, cancer, AIDS, crime, global warming. Remember them? You know, all the stuff we used to worry about. The stuff you never hear about anymore. I wonder, where did all those problems go, now that no one has time to worry about them?

All at once, we are a nation consumed by a War on Terrorism. It has captured all thought, news coverage, conversation, e-mail correspondence and emotional energy. Our consciousness of it has found its way into our national sports events, community PTA meetings and television commercials. It rides around on the bumpers of our cars; it's stuck into our lapels and our front lawns. It is never far from our minds, never out of sight. It is the curious guest of honor at all our social events; it shares our bed at night, invades our dreams. It preys on us, much as we don't like to admit it. We cannot seem to get away from it. Ever.

One of the things I noticed soon after September 11, was how much old tragedies this event unearthed for everyone. People recalled their previous experiences with death--close calls or lost loved ones. They replayed other fatalities in their mind: an accident of long ago, a mine disaster, another plane crash, a drowning, an earthquake, a tour of duty in an all but forgotten war. For me, it was breast cancer, the "event" that crash-landed into my life five years ago.

Well, this makes perfect sense, I thought, as the early days just following the diagnosis seemed once again fresh in my mind. One life-altering experience suggesting another. My brain struggling to categorize, to locate the right label, assimilate and move on. I held the two of them up against one another: September 11 and cancer, hmmm. Two heart-stopping pieces of news, each delivered over the same kitchen telephone, two veritable doozies as wake-up calls go. But why really was I thinking about cancer now in the wake of September 11?

And then it hit me, why the old stuff was bubbling up to the surface for me as well as everyone else I talked to: we wanted answers. A way to assimilate and understand our present situation. So we started digging up the old tragedies and challenges--the last time we felt like the world came tumbling down. And our brains started rifling through that wreckage. Much as we might have cringed and longed to leave the graves undisturbed, our minds kept plumbing and probing, searching to find just what was it we had learned there, after all was said and done. Just what hard-earned wisdom could we use now to make some sense of all this. What did we already know?

For my own part, I was happy to reach for those lessons. Cancer was something I knew how to live with. And although terrorism offered a different threat and challenge, I was clear on what the two of them shared, that made each of them daunting to deal with face to face, every day and night of your life. Fear.

Cancer makes you an old hand at coping with fear. You learn that right quick. I've learned that fear can get things spinning pretty good in your head, until you don't even know what to be afraid of most. So you just start to fear everything. What you eat, what you wear, what you cook and store your food in, the water you drink, the medicine you're taking, the air you're breathing, the electro-magnetic energy that's jangling up your cells, the stuff that's collecting in your organs, the gunk that's corrupting your DNA....oh, trust me, it can get real ugly.

Since September 11, I see lots of other people doing this. I know people who don't sleep at nights and can't function during the day. People who can't stop listening to the news because they think that information will save them from their fear. (Quite the opposite.) People who would agree to go against every principle they hold dear, just so the threat of terrorism will go away and leave them alone.

I recognize lots of similarities now between cancer and terrorism, and I'm thankful I had the crash course in fear that living with breast cancer gave me. Here's what I already know, and I'm grateful to be able to share it:

1. Be present. To borrow an old Rooseveltian adage, that cannot be repeated often enough these days: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Michael Landon, shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer hit this nail on the head. When asked if he thought he would win his "battle" against cancer, he replied: "Oh, it's not a battle against cancer; it's a battle against fear."

Terrorism, like cancer, is a fact. There it is. You, however, as a player in the drama have total say over how you respond to this fact. Fear isn't a fact; it's a state of mind. It is based on fabrication or the illusion of "what could happen." Not what has happened, or what is, but what could happen. A fiction.

I can't tell you how many times I needed to remind myself of this. Focus on what is, where you are, what is present. Focus your energy on the life you're so afraid of losing. That's the only responsibility you really have right now. And the only realm in which you will find choice, power, and the real deal.

2. You don't need to understand everything. There is a rather strange illusion in this world that we need to know as much as we can about something in order to be safe. We love information. Know your enemy, and all that.

Having taken that route with cancer for quite a while there, I realized at some stage of the game that information would not cure or protect me. It wouldn't save me, heal me, or relinquish me from fear. Only I could do that. Only me and the strength I drew from inside myself could save me. Only faith in myself, trust in a benevolent God, and a quiet certainty in the rightness of every moment of every day could save me. Even if some of those moments didn't look so hot.

I had to give it over, if I wanted my sanity back. If I wanted to lose the despair and the cold dark grip of fear in my chest, I had to trust in the game plan. I needed to let go of the steering wheel, and the right to know if "we were there yet". I had to remind myself--a lot--that I didn't need to know. Not my responsibility. I just had to sit back, be open to suggestion, breathe and appreciate.

3. Think carefully about the implications of your actions. When I got cancer, I was enlisted into something they call the War Against Cancer. Early on, I knew I didn't belong there. Things there were more angry and thick-headed and arrogant than I ever wanted to be with cancer. Not that I'm not capable of such things. It just semed like the wrong time to be careless, and the right time to be humble. Too much at stake, I thought.

I wasn't willing to shoot the messenger. I felt like I needed to listen. I needed to hear the sad complaint of whatever part of me had seen cancer as its only alternative. It was my body that made that cancer. It hadn't landed there from outer space. I wanted to get close enough to myself so I could hear the mournful howl of it. I wanted to understand its language and the source of its ache. Radiation and chemotherapy just seemed, well, so loud and reckless. So inappropriate. I thought no, this isn't the way. No killing.

The trouble with war of any kind is that it is not a delicate, discerning process. War is indiscriminate. There's always collateral damage in war, always an innocent bystander or two. Or ten or two hundred. Just like all those healthy cells and tissue that get obliterated by the chemo and the radiation. Some of us, apparently, are willing to live with these "civilian casualties". We're willing to look the other way and shrug. To forego our basic principles that all individuals are created equal, that a life lost there is no less horrific than one lost here. To disavow everything we already know is true.

When I was two years into my "alternative" route through cancer, I met a woman who had gone the conventional route three years before. "I wanted to do what you're doing," she confided, "but they had me so scared." I hate to think we're running counter to our own better judgement in Afghanistan, because we're too scared to do what's right.

4. Don't bypass the learning curve. The doctors I met after I was diagnosed with cancer always talked to me in statistics. They told me about women my age and women with my type of tumor, and women who were tall and thin like me, and women who had breast cancer in their family. They built their game plan for me out of those statistics, and felt strongly about the wisdom of their recommendations. But, what do you know about me? I asked the radiologist. And I wasn't trying to be a smart aleck. I just didn't want to do something that serious that was based on little more than a guess about women who were sort of like me.

I felt like my cancer might be an enigma, but it was also an opportunity. I felt like I could learn something from having cancer that I would never be able to learn elsewhere. Though, suffice it to say, I didn't know what. I felt like I must have needed to learn what cancer had to teach me or it wouldn't have come my way in the first place. I felt like I had to be at my best to be up to that challenge. So I said no to chemo and radiation.

I still approached cancer warily, but I approached it with unclenched fists. I showed myself to be willing to ask questions, to be willing to entertain notions about myself that perhaps didn't show me in my best light. I was willing to live through the discomfort of not understanding and not being perfect, for as long as it took me to understand.

I think it's safe to say that the world needs to be a different place than the one that experienced September 11. It's time to start asking questions. It's time to listen, not strike out. Perhaps if we truly understood what brought us to the morning of September 11, we could actually solve the problem, instead of trying to obliterate it.

5. Remember, the world provides no guarantees of safety. After I spent a year focused solidly on cancer, thinking of ways to protect myself from reoccurrence, longing for the time when I could stand up and breathe a sigh of relief that cancer was gone from my life, I got in my car one day and only just missed getting clocked by a speeding pick-up trying to make the light. It was then it dawned on me. The world is not safe. It was never safe. Not before cancer. Not now. Not twenty years from now.

I could put myself in a germ-free plastic bubble, sanitize my food, purify my air and water, disinfect every surface I touched. Never leave my bedroom. But I wanted to live in the world. I wanted to take it at face value, with all its risks and side-effects. I wanted to drink it straight.

If you come to this world counting on safety, you've come to the wrong place. The world is not safe. It's never been safe. The hazards shift and change. The risks go up and down. But as Rosanne Rosannadanna once wisely put it: "it's always something." The people I know who worry about anthrax now were worried about Mad Cow disease six months ago, and West Nile virus before that, and maybe skin cancer before that, and who knows what before that. It's always something.

Living in that kind of fear is not living. (Trust me, I know.) If you long to just live, then just live. No one's stopping you. You can always choose to be in the moment. You can choose to feel the blessedness of the air you're breathing right now, the sun outside you're window, the warmth of your sweater and the cool breeze that blows against it, the softness of the carpet under your feet. You can choose to forget all the rest and just think about how wonderful it is to be alive. To know the people you know. To have what you have. Love what you love.

The past is gone. The future doesn't exist, and it isn't real. All you have is this moment. That's all you've ever had.

6. Be grateful. One of the best lessons I learned through having had cancer is that there is always something to be grateful for. Remembering to be grateful still provides me with a kind of ongoing perspective. I'm grateful for the traffic I get stuck in, because it makes me slow down and gives me a needed time-out. I'm thankful for the challenge of raising my children and the fact that today's particular problem is no greater than the homework they left on the family room table. I'm thankful for the complaints of my husband, because, unlike the 57 people he knows who died at the World Trade Center, he's here. I'm thankful for how sore my back is right now, because it means I've put in a good day of writing. Though I don't like ending my "good day" at the computer, I'm grateful that I need to stop soon to take my son to tennis, because it means I can sit in the car on this beautiful Indian summer day, watching him lob the ball over the net while his brother chatters intently away in the back seat. If I can, I'll sneak a peek at the novel I'm reading, a gift from a wonderful woman I'm thankful to have called my friend for forty whole years.

I had to almost die from cancer to learn how precious and sacred a commodity life is. To realize that life is a constant gift and treasure that shouldn't be wasted on anger and hatred. That shouldn't be squandered on destruction or fear. That shouldn't be taken away from anyone. There is no place for any of these things in the preciousness of life. I already know that.

Even in the wake of September 11, when life turned so dark and bizarre, we couldn't recognize it as our own, there are still things so blessed here. Even now. And I'm quite happy to take this moment--just as it is--because I remember how close I came to not having it at all. I'll take this moment, even with it's anthrax scares and war planes blaring in the background, for better or worse, I'll take it, and be ever so grateful that I can.

Jane B. Brundage

Reprinted with permission


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