the initial inspiration for this post was the chemical burn scene from fight club. (the movie, of course, inspired the title for my blog.) if you haven’t seen the scene and are too lazy to watch the two-minute clip i’ve provided (click on the “chemical burn” link below), i’ll give you the cliff’s notes version. tyler durden (brad pitt) gives the narrator (edward norton) a chemical burn with lye. by forcing the narrator to experience the most intense pain of his life, tyler is hoping to impart a profound lesson: it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.
throughout the scene, which is comprised mainly of the narrator screaming, writhing in pain and attempting to (physically and mentally) escape said pain, tyler spouts forth such truisms as:
this is your pain. this is your burning hand. right here.
this is the greatest moment of your life and you’re off somewhere missing it.
first you have to give up. first you have to know, not fear, know that one day you are going to die.
i’ve been ruminating on these themes for a while now, both leading up to and following a screening of the movie a couple weeks ago. last week, the power of this parable was reinforced for me when i attended a workshop at the cancer support community called “finding your emotional balance: moving forward after a cancer diagnosis.” the trainer was michelle marquit, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who has experienced multiple serious illnesses during her lifetime, including breast cancer.
during a discussion portion of the workshop, one woman expressed her difficulty accepting the reality of cancer. for her, this difficulty and fear manifested itself in several different ways: by concealing her illness from her children and her friends; by experiencing withdrawal and depression; and by asking the question everyone diagnosed with cancer has surely asked at one point or another: why me?
in fact, this woman had the very same questions i did when i was first diagnosed. others in the room shared that they had entertained (and sometimes continue to entertain long after diagnosis) questions in the following vein: why did this happen to me even though i…
…don’t abuse drugs and alcohol?
…participate in preventive medicine?
…generally make good and healthy life choices?
the list could go on and on.
another woman pointed out that she and her sister, despite having lived very different lifestyles, both received breast cancer diagnoses. for her, this drove home the point that cancer is an equal-opportunity disease. people don’t get cancer because we did something to deserve it, nor does doing things “right” ensure one won’t get cancer.
in fact, the only thing we do know for sure is that we will all die. i will die. you will die. and the likeliest path you and i will take to death is illness.
a third woman in the group voiced an idea i’ve encountered in multiple places recently, including a recent article called, “why we avoid talking about illness,” by tamara mcclintock greenberg, psy.d. the idea is this: when people who are sick and faced with the prospect of dying talk about their illness and eventual death, they remind their listeners that they, too, will eventually become sick and die. and that, my friends, is a downright scary thought.
as dr. greenberg notes:
Death is not something most of us like to think about. Earnest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Denial of Death, points out that one way we deny death is to focus on the desire to be a hero. Being a hero, in this context, refers not only to our own basic need to feel powerful and the biological desire to preserve ourselves, but also to the power to cheat death.
but in the words of tyler durden: you have to know, not fear, know that one day you are going to die.
last week’s workshop ended with essentially the same message. michelle marquit’s “acceptance model,” which she shared with the group, calls for the acknowledgement and acceptance of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. by accepting their presence, she explained, we can then make a conscious choice about what to focus on next. perhaps, she suggested, it’s about allowing the fear of death to coexist with the joy derived from a pretty flower or clouds passing overhead.
the upshot, as tyler so wisely notes, is this: it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.
**stay tuned for a sequel to this post about the vast world of possibilities that opens up after every thing is lost.