Yet Another “New Normal”

(When I was looking for an image for this post, I discovered there is a TV show called “The New Normal” or something like that. If that’s why you came here, sorry.)

It seems to be routine all over the world to counsel cancer patients to learn to accept and work with the “new normal” instead of excessively regretting the losses that cancer brings. This is good advice, as far as it goes, but I find it aggravating some times.

I was trying to remember what my baseline was before cancer came into my life. I had lots of energy, I recall. I liked to walk quickly over distances. One of my hobbies was urban hiking. I also rode the stationary bicycle with a good resistance for 90 minutes at a time. I loved to do housework: the deep cleaning, take things apart and clean the components kind of cleaning. Even the afternoon before my mastectomy I washed floors on my hands and knees to get out stubborn spots (that only I could see, but that’s a different topic).

I was outgoing and went out a lot. I taught classes and gave lectures. I met with individuals and groups. I wrote reams and had columns in periodicals. I worked hard and carried my responsibilities lightly. I was friendly and laughed easily. I took care of sick people. I knitted little caps and jackets for premature babies and donated them to hospitals. I made lace with the finest threads that could be imported from Europe.

It was around Christmas 2003 that I felt the lump and my life changed radically and irrevocably. There have been so many “new normals” since then. The new normal of a deformed, scarred body. The new normal of living with extreme nausea, anorexia and fatigue during chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Sure, you get better afterwards but many people – and I am one of them – never return to pre-chemo baselines. Each succeeding round of treatment, each new normal means lower functioning than the one before.

There is the new normal of living from exam to exam, test to test, treatment to treatment. The new normal of unremitting pain, varying only in intensity. The new normal of swallowing many pills every day and needing a 28-compartment pill box (seven days, four slots per day) to keep track of them. The new normal of having to conserve energy, of being unable to do demanding physical work or exercise. Of having a tremor in my hands and not being able to take a clear photograph any more, or to do handwork with fine threads. The new normal of having to ask for and accept help.

There is yet another new normal. Eight and a half years after the day I found the lump (sounds like there should be a German term for it, Lumpfundentag or some such) I have discovered new dimensions to gratitude and thanksgiving. It is no longer just a formula to say I am grateful for my health: it’s heartfelt. I have discovered new depths of spirituality and new ways to pray and intercede. I have discovered new compassion in myself for people who suffer.

At my new normal I am a gentler person than I used to be. I am more forgiving of others and more willing to give the benefit of a doubt, to consider that the person who is driving me out of mind may have hidden struggles and secret pain. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve become a humble person (a person who was my spiritual companion once said my pride and self-will would probably die 15 minutes after my body) but I have become a bit less prideful and more patient with others – and even with myself.

I like to think that the cancer has merely accelerated changes that would have taken place anyway, but who knows? Maybe I would have become harder and more unbending and more self-sufficient (in a negative sense) without having this hardship in my life. I’m trying to be objective in this look at my new(est) normal. That means that I have to acknowledge that in many ways I am a better person than I was eight and a half years ago.

I am no bliss ninny and I am not saying that I’m glad or grateful that I have cancer. I am not. I doubt I ever will be, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to be so. Would I trade everything I own and everything I will ever own in my life in exchange for good health? I sure would – in a hot minute! Would I trade my new “kinder, gentler” self?

No. I don’t think I would.

You can’t always get what you want…

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need. 
(Rolling Stones)

I was disappointed today. There was something that I wanted, not something huge, a little thing that I’d had before and wanted to enjoy again, but for some very good, sensible reasons I can’t have it. I was disappointed, even though I completely understood why I can’t have it. “Life is like that,” I said. “I’ll survive.” (A bit of irony there for those who know how much I don’t like that word.)

And I will, of course. It’s a little thing. It’s as though they were out of anchovies at the pizza place so I had to be content with a different kind of topping. I have the choice to sit and pout or to enjoy the other kind of pizza. Me, I’ll take the pizza every time!

Sometimes, though – and this is just between you and me, Internet – sometimes I almost wish I wasn’t so mature and sensible. Sometimes I wish I could pout and shout and stamp my foot and insist that I am very, very special, so the pizzeria can good and well go out and find me some dang anchovies! (Why yes, I am four years old.)

It wasn’t anchovies that I wanted and upon reflection I am pleased that I can’t have what I thought I wanted. It would have been to the detriment of someone else, so ultimately to my own.

It is humbling to realize that I am still so self-centered and selfish that I can seriously consider doing something that would not be in the best interests of another person just to satisfy my own wishes. That kind of “behumblement” is good. It is an excellent reminder, in this Lenten season, that I am not put on this earth merely for my own pleasure.

I have a responsibility to the others in my life and to all the people I touch in one way or another, a responsibility before God, whom I love and want to serve with every fiber of my being. My choices have an impact on me, and on everyone else, too. Your choices have an impact on me. We are not alone.

I got what I needed today. Because I am so far from my goal, I am still disappointed that I didn’t get my druthers, but that is not very important. I got what I needed, so thank you.

Abyss: The depths in me call out to the depths in you.


Abyss by Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) Translation by Jerzy Peterkiewicz
Abyssus abyssum invocat (*)
You always see it as space
filled with cascades of air
where glass splinters reflect and glitter
like seeds planted in distant stones.
Now observe the abyss that glitters
in the eye’s reflection.
We all bear it in us.
When men are gathered together
they shift the abyss like a boat
on their shoulders.
Nothing to bypass in this commotion.
Take a ray from the eye and write
your sign.
Though you see no abyss in the mind
don’t imagine that it’s not there.
Light may not reach your sight, but the boat
shifts on to your shoulders:
the abyss is clothed in flesh,
become fact
in all men.

(* This is part of Psalm 41:8 in the Vulgate, 42:7 in English. In one translation, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.”)

When I was very young, a teacher wrote on the chalkboard at the front of the classroom “Man is a gregarious animal.” I don’t remember why she wrote it, but there was a kind of solemnity about the moment that has stayed with me. We need one another. It is in our nature, part of the stuff of our being. And when there is no one there, we feel incomplete. There is a gaping hole at our center, an abyss, if you will.

The depths in me call out to the depths in you.

The psalmic verse that Wojtyla uses as a subtitle reflects the psalmist’s sense of detachment from God, of great loneliness, of painful awareness of his separation from the One he longs for above any other. We hear it from the very beginning of the psalm: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”

The depths in me call out to the depths in you.

“The abyss is clothed in flesh.” The abyss is within each of us, a part of us. We need one another. We complete one another. We fulfill one another.

The depths in me call out to the depths in you.

I am a solitary by choice as part of my religious and spiritual walk. I work a few hours a week with other people, but mostly alone. I spend six to eight hours a day in prayer and meditation. Several times a year I go away to live entirely alone for a week or more, and at least one weekend a month. Those are intense periods of being with my Creator in a special way.

The rest of the time I do my best to allow myself to be touched by the people around me, and to touch them. It might be with someone who comes to me for help, or with a coworker. It might be by writing this blog or by commenting on someone else’s blog. It might be by writing a letter or sending a photo. It might be in my prayer and meditation that I seek to remove the barriers that divide us; it might be by direct action and dialogue.

I do not have complete success all the time. I don’t expect it. I keep at it.

The depths in me call out to the depths in you.