Principles of uncertainty

At the time of my third chemo dose, I still had an easily identifiable lump: two conjoined lobes, fitting neatly under my index and middle fingers. Two peas in a little mutant pod. Since I started treatment, they’d gotten shallower, maybe. I didn’t feel the lump every day, because that way lies Panic, and the thing permanently at the top of my to-do list is ‘don’t feed the Panic.’ But I’d check my lump, and worry a little that it hadn’t shrunk more, and then I’d do my best to think of something else.

In the two weeks after my third dose, the lump has melted. That’s what it felt like. It seemed a little soft, and then one morning most of it was gone. Now it’s hard for me to find the exact spot at all.

This is an excellent thing, I’m assuming. But I actually felt worse the week the lump went away. Before, I could touch the cancer. I could say to myself, ‘here it is.’ An enclosed thing, a specific point of danger. Now I can’t point to where it is anymore. It could be anywhere. I keep touching the spot where it used to certainly be, but there’s no information to detect there.

All I know is that things are still changing. This is always the only hard truth, no matter what is happening to us and how we’re dealing with it. To be alive is to live with uncertainty, with the prospect of nebulous yet inevitable change.

That constant unknown is the closet under the stairs where anxiety grows itself, munching on spiders and old shoelaces and all the unwanted crap we shove down there into the black. When you live with a brain that’s trained itself for fear, it can feel like that’s all darkness is – a bottomless space of night terrors, of monsters cobbled out of our weaknesses and mistakes, the junk we want to throw away.

But darkness, that which is there but has no shape, is also the hideaway of hope. It’s where our dreams come from, our imagination. Certainty is a temporary comfort, but in the long run, it’s stagnation. Darkness gives us the freedom to create, to invent what we wish for. It gives us the freedom to keep moving. In darkness, we know that things can and do and will change.

It won’t be like this forever, we think, and we feel afraid because we know it’s true.

It won’t be like this forever, we say, and we know it means we’re alive, and that we’re not finished yet.


On reasons v.s. meaning

A few days after I got my cancer diagnosis, I had a spontaneous thought that surprised me: a gut-level relief that I no longer follow any organized religion.

The feeling was a surprise because it completely goes against the usual narrative about atheists and life trauma. When bad luck inevitably strikes, we’re supposed to feel a sudden and penetrating fear. We’re supposed to be hit by a fervent desire for traditional religion or for God, who has been waiting patiently for us to grow up and get over ourselves. We’re supposed to realize we’ve been acting like stubborn assholes.

I haven’t felt any of that. Maybe this is because I don’t fit the most narrow definition of an atheist; I don’t believe in any kind of personal god, but I do value a spiritual reverence for the universe. But I think my relief has more to do with a specific difference in the way I think about the universe now versus when I followed a religion.

Continue reading “On reasons v.s. meaning”

When bad things happen to anxious people

Months ago when I started learning about Stoic philosophy, it was supposed to be just an experiment. I’ve been researching life philosophies and naturalistic spirituality for about a year now, looking for bits and pieces that make sense, cobbling together the beginnings of a system for myself.

Then, about two weeks after I decided to track and share my progress with a blog, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Whump.

Suddenly my fledgling personal philosophy is carrying a much heavier load. And yet, things are generally holding together. Things are, at least, not falling entirely apart.

I’ve heard people speculate that having chronic depression or anxiety can actually help you get through Bad Times, because you’re essentially already programmed for feeling like shit. I guess this might sort of be true. But I think the key is whether or not you have tools in place to deal with your chronic mental dickery.

This is the main role philosophy and spirituality play for me. They keep the less helpful parts of my brain from overpowering everything else. Stoicism allows me to turn my anxiety into just one part of an adaptive system for thinking about my life.

Continue reading “When bad things happen to anxious people”