Those of you who already know my writing know that I am fond of metaphors. So ever since I wrote the last post here, in answer to the questions parents were asking about how to help their children cope with the current political situation, I’ve been trying out metaphors in my mind.
This morning I settled on one. Many years ago I faced, on a personal level, an experience that changed the direction of my life and my spiritual priorities ever after. It came from something quite ordinary—a trip to my doctor for a sinus infection. Since I got those infections all the time, it was just business as usual until my doctor, feeling to see if I also had swollen glands, said “Uh-oh.”
A week or two later that “uh-oh” became a cancer diagnosis. Leaping ahead in time, I assure you that my treatment was successful and I’m fine today. But the pathway from there to here became radically different from the pathway I had been on. The “shock and awe” of the experience led to a confrontation with the meaning of life as a deeply spiritual investigation that would have been unlikely in any other way. It was very far outside my previous intellectual approach to such philosophical questions.
Not long after the diagnosis I encountered Dabrowski and began a correspondence with Michael Piechowski, his principal translator, who introduced me to Peace Pilgrim—a “moral exemplar” whose spiritual development had reached the highest level (Level Five) in Dabrowski’s theory of human developmental potential. I began to read all I could find by her and about her and found this quotation, which I have used often since: “Your lower self sees you as the center of the universe. Your higher self sees you as a cell in the body of humanity.” The metaphor spoke volumes with a simple image and a few words.
In the U.S., and in the world, the Presidential election of 2016 (as apparently ordinary as a sinus infection) turned into a “shock and awe” experience as intense on the political level as my diagnosis was for me personally. It has essentially changed our nation’s path. November 8th/9th shook our complacency like that “Uh-Oh” and presaged something new, totally unexpected, and—for a numerical majority of Americans—extremely scary. In response there has been a sudden, intense marshalling of forces unlike anything (or at least on a scale unlike anything) we’ve seen before.
There has been a lot of rhetoric about all this that casts the “other” as the enemy, but for me that language is uncomfortable. I am all too aware that the words and images we use carry energy, and just now there is an extraordinary level of hostile energy circulating in our shared space, so without wishing to downplay the seriousness of the current situation, I would rather avoid adding to it if at all possible. We’re all human beings coping with circumstances that are new to all of us.
Considering Peace Pilgrim’s metaphor of the “body of humanity,” each of us represents a single cell in that body. We are not identical, and our differences are essential to its structure and function. I’ve been thinking about how cancer makes its destructive way in the body.
Every cell of our physical being focuses on getting what it needs to function, to thrive, to reproduce—in its own favor, and because of interdependency, at the same time in favor of the health of the whole organism. From time to time our bodies produce cancer cells that flourish briefly, but for the most part are dealt with by our immune system before they cause harm to the body’s structure and integrity. What makes cancer cells different is that they begin to act not as part of the whole, but as the “center of the universe,” for themselves alone. They gobble up nutrition, they reproduce, they take over whatever organ has been their origin and then begin to invade the rest of the body, continuing to expand.
Biologically, this strategy over time is a losing one. If the malfunctioning cells continue their expansion and takeover for too long, they kill the body that gave them birth and nourished their ascendancy. We can see that the cancer cell’s strategy is a malfunction in an organizational pattern that normally serves us well—that is, each cell acting for its own immediate survival, taking what it needs to fulfill its function, reproducing at an appropriate level to keep the larger system flexible, adaptable and working. Medical researchers are constantly looking for the reasons cancer cell malfunction occurs, in order to prevent the destruction it leads to, but the immediate need of the body once the cancer is detected is to stop the proliferation and growth, or to remove the offending cells from the system.
We all seem to be pointing fingers just now, blaming the “selfishness” of individuals who put their own needs first, when in fact, as with cancer, it isn’t that initial desire of each cell to get what it needs that has caused the threat to the system as a whole, but the distortion of cells taking more of the body’s resources than they need, expanding out of control, and interfering with the structures and functions of other cells, organs and systems.
For me, I’m thinking that the sudden sharp turn we’ve taken should not be seen as a war started by one “side” or another, drawing battle lines between them, but as a problem in the entire body system that has been there all along, but that we have failed to fully recognize as life-threatening.
Instead of seeing our differences as essential to the functioning of humanity, we have chosen to use the labels “us” and “them” and to compete with each other. Human beings have been doing this for most of recorded history and have managed not to destroy humanity in the process (though we’ve arguably come close from time to time). But there are vastly more of us now and we are interconnected in new ways that could (and often do) lead to greater levels of relationship and cooperation. But the same larger numbers and greater interconnectedness highlights and even concentrates our differences in new ways, too—creating more obvious divisions and greater, more intense competition and hostility.
We can’t deny right now that we are a “sick” society. The sickness is in our faces every day, so much so that it can be difficult to focus on the ordinary requirements of our personal lives, other than defensively—against “others” who would either force us to accept differences that scare us, or take away from us what we so obviously need.
So what do we do about it? The good news is that we are already past the initial “shock” stage of the diagnosis, and our immune system is beginning to function. We have seen its initial stirrings in the protests—the ones that have shown the massive level of resistance needed to combat intense danger to the system, without violence, protests that show an understanding that we are more than individual cells fighting each other. We are all part of a body that requires cooperation and interdependence. There is a greater value at stake than just “us” and “them.” We are a living, breathing system of individuals that make up the singular human species on a planet of interconnected living systems.
We have seen humanity’s immune system responding, among people who say that we need to listen to each other across our differences, to at least try to find common threads that can benefit more than just one kind of cell, one organ, one structure.
To make this metaphor work as well as I would like it to, I have to go beyond the most common current medical approaches to cancer (radiation and chemotherapy), and into broader ways of restoring health to the body as a whole. Let us imagine using ordinary medical approaches to remove the most immediate danger from the proliferating cells [resistance], but also focusing on a deeper awareness that the body has its own innate intelligence that tends toward wholeness. That intelligence is supported by the incredible diversity of the cells of the body. We need to stop our age-old efforts to make people fit into some box with others “just like them,” and instead celebrate the gifts our differences have given us.
Yes, we have an instinct to cluster and protect—but we also have an instinct to reach out to others, even different others. In times of massive tragedy, people come out to help, and when they do there are always stories that show what appear to be miraculous synchronicities that suggest an unseen order evolving out of chaos. It’s a matter of changing focus.
I suggested in my last blog post that parents find local and immediate ways to involve their children in volunteer efforts to provide help for others–not just others like themselves, but any others whose suffering they may be able to alleviate in some way. We can also stand up and say we will not acquiesce to a system based on the cancer cell’s strategy of putting self ahead of the whole, because that is ultimately a death blow to the whole.
And here’s the hard part—we need to avoid the hatred, hostility, aggression, plus the utter and sole self-interest that is the tactic of the cancer we are addressing. Every individual person who can come to see the self not as the center of the universe, but as a cell in the body of humanity, contributes to the health of that body.
It’s possible to use this cultural shock to re-examine our own paths and so contribute to the shift in direction that can come from it. My cancer led me to a wholly different way of being in the world, and so was a blessing in a (very convincing) disguise. May this time in our history be the same.