I woke up this morning to my alarm, which also functions as a signal to my big, fluffy cat Westley that mom is awake. He walked up my body and flopped across my chest, purring and demanding to be petted.
My first coherent thoughts were—in this order—“Ugh, fur in my mouth!” and this quote: “If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you always got.” This is a favorite saying in the addiction recovery community, also expressed as the definition of insanity, that is, doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.
I have no idea why this idea popped into my just-waking brain, but I have been thinking about it all day. This in turn sparked a line from one of the prayers of confession in the United Methodist hymnal that I grew up with, a good, generic statement that certainly applied to me every week: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”
I feel like this should not still be true all these years later. I should not keep doing the same things and expecting different results. And I should not spend each week doing things I shouldn’t do, while also not doing things I should do. Even though I no longer attend church, I notice the same patterns in my behavior and my reluctance to change my habits. I’m not alone; behavioral scientists have various explanations for why humans so frequently “do what we have always done.”
But what about those of us who have survived/are surviving life-threatening illnesses? Aren’t we supposed to know what is really important now? Isn’t illness supposed to have taught us to embrace each day, smell the roses, grant forgiveness, dance like no one is watching, and (presumably) stop expecting different results and leaving the important stuff undone?
Speaking for myself, I’d have to say that a year and a half of cancer treatment and 27 years of late effects treatment have not succeeded in getting me to dance very freely. I say (and mean) “I love you” a lot and sometimes sniff the flowers between my back door and my car. But I’m not so good about changing bad habits, nor in prioritizing my tasks each week (so I can get more of the things done that ought to be done), and I tend to work too much and not draw good boundaries around my down time.
This is not to say that I haven’t learned anything positive from cancer and late effects—I have, but that will have to be addressed in another post.
I still struggle with the dozens of small choices I make each day, the patterns I allow to cement, and the habits I refuse to do the hard work to change, even when they are hurting me. I procrastinate, necessitating wild binges of work before conference and publication deadlines. I don’t prioritize my creative work over my endless emails. I perseverate over relatively small political problems at work. I beat myself up whenever I gain weight. I pick up takeout on the way home when I’m tired instead of chopping and cooking fresh vegetables.
You may have had a big “ah ha” moment when you got sick or when you endured some other crisis. But I did not. And I suspect many other long-term survivors either didn’t or did initially but the change wasn’t sustainable in regular life. If anything, I learned during cancer to be even more stubborn, which is good when you have to balance chemo and college but bad when you are trying to let go of bad habits that do not serve you well.
Long-term survivors of cancer are still humans-in-progress, just like everyone else. We didn’t achieve enlightened perfection when we survived; we became more fully human. At least for me, being fully human means that the compassion and love I feel for my friends, family, and local and global neighbors are tempered with stubbornness, procrastination, too much chocolate, and a tendency to push the snooze alarm while my cat purrs.