Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon 12/13/2004 7:16 AM
Random Thought: I Am a Cancer Survivor

I went out walking in the brisk air late this morning. As the sun came up, I stopped, and took the time to watch its beautiful rays stab at the bland darkness. I sat down on the curb and looked around. I saw every detail, felt every surface and texture, smelled every aroma, listened to every sound around me. I haven't felt this intensely aware since I made that life-changing climb up a north Georgia mountain cliff a tad over a decade ago. Once again, I felt that sense of connectedness and a sense of meaning and purpose of such intensity and truth that it almost hurt. I saw how small and unimportant all my troubles are, how lucky I am to have another day, to have another shot at realizing my hopes and dreams. Today is mine to do with as I choose. Today is my garden to tend. For a moment I felt sad for those who are "no-where." It is so much more exciting to be "now-here." It's amazing how significant the placement of a hyphen can make. So many of us cast our eyes on tomorrow, yearn for a sweeter time, without seeing and tasting the sweetness of today.

I have cancer. It's prostate cancer. I had the biopsy done the day before Thanksgiving and found out that I had it the Monday after Thanksgiving. Many colleagues, acquaintances, and friends, not really knowing what to say, subtlety frightened by the "Big 'C'," tell me "Oh, it's slow growing." "You've caught it in it's earliest stages." "It's really nothing." "You'll be okay." "It's not life threatening." "It's not much of an operation." They mean well, truly mean well. They mean to be reassuring and consoling, and for that I am appreciative of their caring. Even my doctor, my friend of thirty years, meant well when he said, "Louis, face it. It was bound to happen. You're getting old. But, it's curable." But, they really did not know what to say. The truth is that this cancer is more than nothing and much more than not much. Whether it is life threatening or not depends on what they and I mean about "life," doesn't it. Almost everyone was talking by my physically well-being. On the surface, physically, it means having a major operation at the end of January; it means enduring four to six additional weeks of recuperation; it means many long months of getting back into physical shape; it means facing and possibly dealing with serious potential short term or life-long physical consequences. For me, it means staying in spiritual shape; it means confronting my true values; it means deciding what is truly important; it means making sure that it doesn't effect who I am; it means not letting my aging body dampen the enthusiasm of the ageless "experienced teenager" within that body; it means not letting getting older physically make me old emotionally and spiritually. The real contest involving cancer I quickly have learned is, like everything else, is not in my prostate; it's in my heart and soul. It's not just the issue of will I live; it's more an issue of how well will I continue to live. It's not just the cancer, then, it's me, all of me; it's my attitude towards everything. Nothing would make me grow spiritually old quicker than the constant thought that I am growing physically older; nothing would make me sicker than the constant focus on this cancer. My body may have cancer, but I'll be damn if I am going to let the cancer have me.

God, it would be so easy to moan and groan, to be angry, to be resentful, to wonder "why me," to complain, to whine, to put ashes on my head, to wear sackcloth. It's tempting to focus on the drizzles and clouds in our lives and professions. Why do we find it so easy to complain and so difficult to be thankful. What should I be thankful for with this cancer within me? How about today for starters. I mean what moment isn't important. What moment doesn't matter? What moment isn't valuable? What moment isn't to be treasured? What moment isn't refreshing? Which one doesn't afford me the greatest opportunity? Which one doesn't have an endless possibility? In which one doesn't the substance of life not grow? What moment isn't anything other than me? No, my doctor is wrong. My body may be aging; my hair may be graying; my muscles may be losing their strength and tone; and I have prostate cancer. I, my body, may be getting older, but I, my spirit, am not getting and will not get old. The child within me will still play; my eyes will continue to twinkle; my lips will continue to smile; my desires will still burn; my dreams will remain vivid; the young rebel will still call out. There is a great opportunity of meaning in this affliction. This cancer has given me a greater awareness of life; it has sharpened my awareness and brightened my appreciation and love of life. t

So, would you understand if I said that in this holiday season I am thankful to the cancer. It has been a gift, a proverbial blessing in disguise. I hope I am not making some of you feel uneasy. I feel that feeling gratitude and not sharing it would be like buying a present, wrapping it, and not giving it. This cancer has made me more appreciative than I usually am. I can tell you that the more I appreciate, the happier I am and the more alive I feel. I appreciate appreciation more; I am aware of awareness more; I realize more that it feels good to feel good about something -- and that there is always something to feel good about; I am living life more; and, I feel stronger living, as the words on the yellow band hugging my wrist say, strong. I'm not sure appreciation comes as naturally to us as it should. We do love to keep score, don't we. Maybe too many of us think that gratitude is settling for what we have, a form of resignation, a type of surrender. After all, it seems reasonable to assume that if you're satisfied with what you have, why fight to get more, better and different; why covet other possibilities. Too many of us covet other possibilities, have dissatisfied egos, and are ungrateful or take for granted what they have and who they are. More than some of my colleagues complain about a lack of a pay raise or perks when they should be grateful they have a position that brings in a salary. Some complain of the "bad students" and want only to focus on the "good students" when they should be grateful of the opportunity to touch those in greatest need. A few days ago, I was stuck in a traffic jam. People were angrily honking their horns when they should have been grateful they could afford a car. This morning I was looking at a pile of dirty dishes left over from having Chanukah with my son and his family last night. How many of us are grateful we can put food on the table that dirty those dishes? Last month I was not a happy camper as I paid my property taxes. Now I am grateful I am in a position that I can own my own house. Today I'll go to the bank to deposit my monthly check. I hate to wait in line. Today, I'll be grateful that I have money to put into the bank. And, so it goes. "Stop and smell the roses" and "count your blessings" and "take nothing for granted." Such clichés. Yet, they remind me how easy it is to overlook things we could enjoy now instead of looking for what we think will make us happy later.

Many of you may think that all this has nothing to do with teaching and education. I deeply feel that all this has everything to do with teaching and education. We teach who we are; we are the perceptions we have; we are the questions we ask. All this means, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "wherever you go, there you are." All this means that who we are is inseparable from what we feel and what we do. All this means is that teaching and education are a part of life. They are a part of our lives. They are not apart from life or apart from our lives. Life has a way of coming into and getting in the way of each of our lives. Life comes onto campus and into the classroom. It does not need a visitor's pass, nor does it stop at the classroom door's threshold. The more we understand this, the more we can be empathetic to students and ourselves. And, the more lessons we consciously can take from life, the richer are our lives that we bring with us into the classroom, and more meaningful are the lessons we offer.

Please let me and Susan wish each of you and yours a most joyous and festive holiday season.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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