In 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer. I’d always said that if I were to be diagnosed with a terminal illness, I would refuse treatment. As a chaplain and pastor, I’ve seen how painful therapies can be and how much suffering must be endured while undergoing them. But, in the end, I did opt for treatment because I wasn’t prepared to die. It wasn’t that I had a bucket list of things I still wanted to do. I’d lived a good life, one filled with all manner of experiences.
I wasn’t prepared to die because I wasn’t spiritually fit. The last few years of my ministries had been traumatic. I was angry and filled with a sense of hopelessness. I felt separated from the divine presence.
Chemotherapy and radiation were as awful as I had feared, but the tumors were eradicated. However the treatment left my body damaged and my energy depleted. It also felt like my soul and spirit had been injured.
To assist in my recovery, a social worker recommended a mindfulness art group sponsored by Cancer Pathways and facilitated by the therapist Ginny Rohan. One of the first sessions I attended was titled “The New Normal.” The participants were encouraged to accept the ways in which our bodies and abilities had changed and to look at them as opportunities for growth rather than grieving what we felt we had lost. We then made visual representations to express where we were in that process.
I was reminded of this work when thinking about how COVID-19 has forever changed what we’re able to do in our personal lives and in our larger communities. When the initial regulations were put into place, I knew they were necessary to halt the pandemic. Later, when most of the guidelines were lifted, but then reinstated, I despaired. I thought everything was supposed to return to the way it was before the pandemic. Slowly I realized that was never going to happen.
What has helped me deal with this is the first line of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Acceptance is necessary to come to terms with our new normal. We have no control over what is happening on a national and global level, but we do have control over our response to it. It’s up to us to find ways of living that will once again bring joy and happiness.
The longer we live in the past and grieve what we’ve lost, the less of a future we have.
I’m reminded of the exodus story in the Hebrew scriptures where, after being delivered from Egypt, many of the Israelites were dissatisfied with their new circumstances. They were apprehensive about the future. Rather than accepting that things had changed, they wanted to return to that place and life that was familiar to them.
So, it is with us now. If the past is the standard by which we judge the future, we are doomed.
Also, in one of the resurrection stories of the Christian scriptures, the angels ask the women who are at the tomb wanting to see the body of Jesus, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” What an apt metaphor for how we look to the past to ascertain how things should be in the here and now. Our memory of what things used to be like keeps us from adapting to change.
The past is dead. The present is alive.
Those of us in the winter of our lives are aware of how aging affects us. Our bodies keep changing. Our abilities can become diminished. We don’t feel as vital as we once did. Again, if we wish to have even a bit of serenity, we must accept this. What we can and should do is to discover the new opportunities that ageing provides for growth. If we continue to compare our past self with our present self, we will despair.
So let us accept the new normal in which find ourselves. We’ve lived through things just as challenging as the pandemic and we came out stronger, wiser, and more resilient.
This time shall be no different.
This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of 3rd Act Magazine