What to Do When You're Afraid
That’s the point of engaging our experience: to live through the thresholds that paradox offers, to live through the pain of breaking to the other side, into the rearrangement of nothing less than our very lives.
My breaking has, indeed, led me into an expanding love of a being that is clearly God. I have been broken by disease and know fully that there are moments endured from which our lives will never be the same, severe moments beyond which everything is changed. No one asks for these moments. They simply happen.
Until my cancer diagnosis, I’d never been ill. I was terrified, and nothing was helping me conquer the fear. Initially, I felt a traumatic paralysis, the fast breathing, huddled fear of a wounded animal lying still in the brush, expecting to be struck again. This is worse than outright pain; this is withdrawing from anything that can help. This is the power of fear—to make us recoil from anything larger.
In time, I was broken of my illusion that fear could be conquered. Instead, I began to watch the winter trees as they let the wind through, always through. Since then, I’ve learned that fear gets its power from the not-looking, that it’s intensified by isolation, that it’s always more strident when we are self-centered. Now, when I am full of fear, which can’t be avoided, I try, though I don’t always succeed, to break its stridency by breaking my egocentrism. I try to quiet its intensity by admitting my fear to loved ones. I try to know that though I can be fearful, I am more than my fear.
But life under siege hides none of its difficulties. The endless decisions that must be made, each imperative and of great consequence, do not wait for us to manage our fear.
Indeed, one is always thrust into the world of cancer, and there is no escort. When I was so thrust, I met my counterparts, Janice and Tom. Janice was a strong, determined woman who believed primarily in self. She did not believe in medicine and therefore put her entire well-being and treatment into her own hands. She rejected all medical intervention, and if she utilized anything greater than her self, it remained a secret liaison till the end. She was tenacious but died a painfully drawn-out death. Now, there isn’t a doctor’s visit I don’t feel Janice over my shoulder. I understand her resistance more and more, for the things we’re asked to do to preserve our well-being are not pleasant. Yet in the hard breath before each decision, I see her reliance solely on self and fear its imbalance.
Tom, on the other hand, was adrift. He seemed to have lost his sense of self and had a disinterested entropic view of the world. He put his fate completely in the judgment of medicine. And so, I watched Tom grow smaller in the space he took up. I watched Tom give no resistance whatsoever to what doctors wanted to do. The English poet William Blake said, “Without contraries there is no progression.” Tom presented no healthy contrary, and thus, there was no progression. He became invisible, vanishing piece by piece. By Christmas of that year, he no longer knew who I was. By February, he died.
I feel roughly blessed to have Tom and Janice as specters of where I must not go, though the further I travel here, the more compassion I have for how easily, in any given moment, the Tom in me or the Janice in me can take over.
While Tom and Janice died, I was broken and healed and broken again. The first time, my tumor vanished. It was a miracle. When its sister began to thicken the rib in my back, I began with fervor the same rigorous visualizations and meditations and intensive prayers for hours each day, desperate to enlist the same overwhelming grace. But after six weeks, I was exhausted and humbled, for the tumor in my rib had only grown. I thought I had failed. The fear returned, now as terror. And in making my decision to have that rib removed, I heard Janice spurn my doctor and saw Tom with indifference bow. But I believe in God and in this strange familiar terrain, known as me where life and He meet. So, I waited till these elements merged, way down beneath my understanding, and there, in what felt like calm balance, I said yes, help me. With that, it became clear that this time, the surgery was the miracle.
Once home, it hurt so much to breathe that it took several tries to make it to my rocker where I moaned and thought, the part has no peace unless it can feel its place in the larger Whole. I struggled in my pain of breathing not to become the pain in my breathing. I tried to focus on birds and light and the sway of trees. I petted my golden retriever while inhaling—anything to soften the cut of my missing rib.
Within weeks I had my first chemo treatment, which was horrific, vomiting for twenty-four hours, my missing rib lancing me with every heave. I vowed I would not continue, would never open my arm to that needle again. But in the dark center of my pain, an unwavering voice said: “Poor, challenged man—the treatment is the miracle.”
And so, with more terror than I have ever known, I said yes and opened my arms to measured poisons. Finally, after four months of treatment, I sat in our wellness group where truth could relax its way out of hiding, and there I was asked to draw my cancer and my treatment, and suddenly I knew—the cancer was gone. Now the treatment was killing me, and the miracle appeared as the silent certainty with which I took my good doctor’s hand and said: “No, it’s over. I won’t do this anymore.”
What a revelation—who would have guessed—that miracle is a process and not an event and that each situation demands a different aspect of miracle: visualizations, yes; craniotomy, no; visualizations, no; thoracic surgery, yes; chemo-cleansing, if I must; chemo-poison, no. And underneath it all: willful, constant prayer, an unrehearsed dialogue with God, as Martin Büber puts it.
Still, even years later, I am not exempt from the fear and fragility. We’re always asked to enlarge our sense of things in order to right-size the fear and to carry our fragility. It’s a constant challenge to find the current of life and to trust it, to behold the depth of what-is until a relaxation of intent and anxiety allows us to find the spaces in our individuality that we then know as Spirit. Only through the passageways of Spirit can we be lifted when we’re heavy and rinsed of the exaggerations of our fear.
During my odyssey with cancer, I learned a great many things. One of the most crucial was the almost simultaneous need to inhabit myself while staying connected to others. With each test, office visit, surgery, and treatment, I had to prepare, as best I could, for things no one could anticipate. In order to do this, I had to center myself and connect with the underlying flow of Universe that fills me with a strength and perspective beyond my tiny self.
All my loved ones grew to expect my gathering inward, especially before each medical procedure. But once centered, once in the Universal flow, I had to connect with my loved ones in order to endure the experience.
Now that I’m well, the ways in which we survived—alone and together—have stayed with me, and the more I have thought about them, the more they represent a basic and unavoidable paradox about living, which is this: Though each of us must go through our suffering alone, no one can make it alone.
The best we can do in loving others is wheel each other as far as possible and be there when our loved ones return. But the work that changes our very lives, the work that yields inner transformation, the work that allows us to be reborn within the same skin must always be done alone. This is the work of solitude, and the sharing of what we each discover in our solitude is the work of education, and the wisdom by which we weave that inner knowledge and that compassion—this is the work of community.
So here I am, like you: not healed, but healing; not sure, but gaining in confidence; no longer a bother to others, but still troubled; full of wonder when not in pain. Here I am, thrilled and raw at the prospect of waking one more time. I stand before you, humbled, a Lazarus of sorts, and I don’t pretend to know half of what has happened to me, except for the realization that loving is the courage to hold each other as we break and worship what unfolds.
This adapted excerpt was taken from Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness. Copyright © 2015 by Mark Nepo.
Mark Nepo is also the author of The Book of Awakening as well as 15 other books. He lives in Michigan. Please visit MarkNepo.com.