I found myself struck by a paradox recently: and paradoxes are to be welcomed with open arms I reckon. On the one hand my course of chemotherapy is coming to an end, and I find that I am actually very grateful both for the cancer that initiated it and for the chemotherapy. I have learnt a lot from them both: they have become, slightly to my surprise, ‘gifts’. And yet, on the other hand, I also recognise that I am delighted that the chemotherapy is coming to an end, indeed I have now had my last dose, and that source of giftedness is therefore now largely behind me. What to make of this paradox?
One answer is that paradoxes are simply things to be lived with, and resolution is best not sought.
Another, in this particular instance, is to recognise that this paradox fits quite well with my thinking on sabbaticals. I reckon that I’ve learnt a thing or two about sabbaticals over the years, and have tried to approach my six months of chemotherapy as a sabbatical. The most important part of a sabbatical is the year after its over. So often I’ve seen people brought back to life by a sabbatical, and yet within a couple of weeks of its ending its as if they’ve forgotten all they discovered and are back in the old familiar ruts. The true test of the success of a sabbatical is whether you are able to integrate what you’ve learnt into your life, and face and accept the required changes!
So I hear God saying to me: “Well I’ve given you the opportunity for a sabbatical, indeed, frankly I’ve obliged you to take one, and you reckon its been an unexpected gift which has taught you much. Well how are you going to integrate what you’ve learnt? What changes are necessary? Are you willing to implement them?”
Well there’s the nub of the matter!! I recall a visiting friend asking me a question in the summer which took me completely by surprise, and left me not knowing what to reply. She asked me, with respect to my sabbatical, ‘so whats new?’ And I wasn’t sure that anything was new and that surprised me.
On reflection, I think that my sabbatical has not so much taken me into new places, as invited me to go deeper into known places. A good example is that there is nothing like an operation for cancer and a dose of chemotherapy with that, to get me thinking about my mortality and the meaning of life. And that in turn led me to write a number of reflections which I posted here in the early summer. There wasn’t anything much new there for me, those thoughts had been mulling around in my mind for years in some cases, but I now had the opportunity to try and set them down in words in a more coherent shape, and I found great value in trying to do that, and in sharing them. Re-reading them recently, I thought they weren’t too bad, and I’ve resolved, post sabbatical as my energy levels rise, that one thing I want to do is to revisit those little articles and edit and perhaps extend them: go deeper with them maybe, both internally, and externally on the page.
Another little gift of chemotherapy has been that I have lost some of my bearings. Some relatively minor ones like loss of taste for some foods I usually enjoy, a certain loss of feeling in my fingers and feet, and a certain hair-loss! I even largely lost interest in my pipe. But other more significant ones too, like the loss of energy at certain points in the two week chemo cycle: such that I couldn’t pick up a book to read it, my concentration levels were so low. Instead all I could sometimes manage was to gaze weakly out of the window, seemingly unable to act, or initiate anything in any meaningful way. In short I felt powerless and out of control: my usual bearings had disappeared.
These points in the cycle passed, and my energy levels revived, but there was gift to be found in them. Or more accurately, gifts found me, in them. For example, as I wrote up my journal of an evening thinking that I had done nothing that day, I was often surprised by how much had actually happened for which I was grateful. Or, I was sometimes, not always, surprised by the way that insights and revelations would come in those times of powerless: in your weakness is your strength, indeed.
So losing my bearings was not such a bad thing. “I am not lost, I am here,” as a wise man once said, and this focus on the ‘here’ and its attendant ‘now’ , and the inability of my mind to exert much control over either of them, has been a rich gift. The course of chemotherapy has obliged me to learn to pace myself better, I’ve tried to let my body set my daily rhythms and to adhere to them; and I’ve kept a daily journal which has helped to focus my reflective awareness. I’ve been more attentive to the natural world, listened to more music, looked at more art, read lots more poetry: ‘the voice of the soul’, enjoyed the company of family and friends.
I hope to continue to lose my bearings and plan to claim more reflective space in my life. None of this is ‘new’ as those of you who know me well will I hope recognise. Indeed, I sense from some of the kind things people have either said or written, that this is precisely what some people value in me. But awareness of my own mortality and the subsequent sabbatical have re focused and refined my vision. So I’m thankful for cancer and chemo, and I’m thankful that the latter is now over [at least for the time being] and I can begin the task on seeking to integrate what I’ve learnt or been reminded of by a gracious and patient God. I feel excited by that, and hope that I’ll be given time to get on with it.
And of course what I thought was a paradox has turned out to be a process that looked paradoxical when closer examination showed that it wasn’t, which in turn reminds me of that wise Rumi saying:
“Watch two men washing clothes.
One makes dry clothes wet.
The other makes wet clothes dry.
They seem to be thwarting each other,
but their work is a perfect harmony.”