If you don’t want to die, then why do you want to live?
I’m on the bus home and it feels like my eyes have been washed anew. The normal distractions and worries that consumed me have been lifted. For the first time since I can remember I have not immediately put my earphones in, quick to block out the outside world. Instead, I want to hear the pulse of the city. I want to look in the faces of the people I share this life with, even if it’s for a brief bus ride. I have newfound compassion for every person I come across as they go about their day. It’s just another Friday to them, but not for me.
I’m on way back from spending 5 days living at Quest for Life supporting people living with life threatening illnesses. It’s not often you get opportunity to be in the company of people navigating a chronic illness or an end-of-life prognosis. Or at least knowingly.
The first day of the program, a group of about 20 or so people tell their story. Storytelling is important to us humans, it’s part of our DNA. Stories kept us safe and entertained back in the days as we moved through the world in small tribes and gathered around a fire. Together we sit in a circle on large comfy sofas and one by one, each person tells the group their story. As more and more people share, the energy of the room shifts. The doors of inner worlds are left wide open. It feels raw and wild to witness such honesty. Coming to terms with our own mortality, managing chronic pain, coping with grief and trauma is never easy. These topics are often swept under the rug or held firmly behind closed doors because it’s almost taboo to talk about them. By the time everyone has spoken we sit together in silence. The room buzzing with strength, grit and hope.
In normal day to day life, we might only see a fraction of that kind of honesty. In between the empty ‘how are you’s’ and rushing from here to there, there’s very few moments of real, genuine interaction. In that room there were no masks. There was no rushing. There was no fixing. There was one in the room saying “oh no, I can’t go there. Can we talk about something else?” There was no one forcing anyone to ‘look on the bright side.’ There was no advice-giving. Instead, we offered each other something very few people ever do: we just listened.
It was eye-opening for me to understand how it might feel to be given an end-of-life prognosis. I’ve only ever seen movies about it, and usually it’s been highly romanticised. I don’t have any first-hand experience of cancer or any life-threatening illnesses. My family has been fortunate in that regard. Instead, we’ve been less fortunate with mental health. Those who know me personally know that my sister died of suicide. I’ve spent many years working with people with mental illness because of that. What I found interesting between physical illness and mental illness is that they are largely the same. The major difference is that typically those facing physical illness tend to have a strong will to survive. They are driven by hope. Whereas an illness in the mind is often starved of hope.
As the days went on, it became clear that in so many situations there was a link between past experiences of trauma and abuse that created a perfect breeding ground for cancer and disease. The program discussed latest research on the neuroscience and healing that focus on helping people feel empowered. We understood how you talk to yourself matters, but also the way you speak. The words you use. Instead of “I should,” it could be “I could.” Or instead of “I can’t,” say “I won’t.” Much of our language implies we are helpless. The program is teaching you that you aren’t and if you have the motivation to keep up with it, you will find life can change.
We also learned about the power of meditation. The importance of relaxation. That every time you get stressed, panicked and overwhelmed, you are fuelling your body with inflammatory chemicals that feed illness and disease. On the flip side, every time you meditate, relax, laugh, you are helping your body heal. Our body is an incredible machine and capable of healing the most extraordinary illnesses, as well as creating the most hostile environment for disease.
This leads to the next point which is the role of epigenetics. Initially scientists believed that if you had a gene for cancer, you would develop that cancer. Simply a case of bad luck. But nowadays research has shown that behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. In others words, they play a role in whether a certain gene expresses or suppresses. Two people can have the breast cancer gene whereas only one might develop breast cancer. Why? Well, it turns out the environment you are in, the food you eat, the thoughts you think, the amount of sleep you have all contribute to whether that gene gets the green light to express or not. Therefore, in the past we were helpless victims to unfortunate genes, but nowadays we are co-creators of health.
The program’s foundation can be broken down by of the 4 C’s: control, commitment, challenge, and connection. The first one, control, is about taking back a sense of control of our life. As noted above, we are co-creators of our health which means we must take action if we want to heal. We do this by becoming active participants in our life by choosing our response, and thus rewiring our brain, to life’s stressful situations instead of reacting. It’s a daily practice which leads well into the the second one, a commitment to living. This involves reorganising our priorities towards a life that nurtures our mind, body and spirit. Changing our habitual patterning is no easy feat and requires commitment, every single day. The third is challenge. What is it that sparks you and gets your blood pumping? What makes you feel alive? We need challenges in our life in order to grow; without challenge we stagnate. The final one is connection to others and ourselves. We are social animals who were more likely to survive when we were in small groups. Feeling a sense of belonging and connection to others is essential for our survival. As is finding a connection to something bigger than ourselves. Whether that’s through religion, spirituality, nature, surfing. Whatever helps you put life into perspective and bursts the bubble of egoic thinking.
This brings me back to the question that was asked on the first day: If you don’t want to die, then why do you want to live?
You don’t need to have been given a terminal diagnosis to get the impact of it. We all die at some point. Some of us are given advance notice, others aren’t. Life is not about avoiding death. I don’t believe it is, anyway. As the saying goes, it’s not about the length of life, it’s about the depth. It’s about plunging deep, not sliding across its surface. Life is a gift and yet isn’t it strange how easy it is to forget?
If you really commit to trying, you can find a life worth living. You can find a find a life you are proud to life, one that feels right on every single level to you. Once you’ve found it, you don’t need to avoid death to realise that what you found can never be taken away.