November 7, 2014
One Monday morning on my way to work I started chatting with a woman in the elevator. I wish it were Friday, I said. You’re wishing your life away! she snarkily replied. That set me back a bit. Was I missing out on something, wasting my life, by looking forward to the future? The key to happiness, I’ve often heard, is living in the moment, enjoying life as it comes. It’s a philosophy that appeals to me because I like spontaneity. I’ve been known to take wrong turns just to see where they go, and to wander into places still under construction just out of curiosity, and these are decisions I’ve made with no advance planning. Most days at work I take a walk during my lunch break, and most of the time I don’t decide which way I’m going until I’ve left the building. Sometimes when I come to a fork in the road I flip a coin. And I love surprises. My wife knows that one way to make me happy is to say we’re going to a movie and not tell me which one. It’s even better when it’s one I know nothing about even when we get to the theater. So I’m very much a fan of living in the moment, but that doesn’t mean I never plan. It’s also nice to have things to look forward to. The present and future aren’t mutually exclusive; after all the future so quickly becomes the present. The more I thought about it the more I realized that woman was wrong. Looking forward to the future doesn’t preclude, or even diminish, whatever happiness we can find in the present. Multiple studies of work habits say that multi-tasking lowers productivity, that its a bad thing, but multi-tasking happiness–enjoying the present and looking forward to the future–isn’t just good. It’s essential. If it were possible to live exclusively in the moment we’d never have the satisfaction of achieving long-term goals, and if we’re always looking to the future we don’t stop and enjoy happiness when it comes along.
I thought about all this when I was first diagnosed with cancer. As I said I’m generally a spontaneous kind of guy, but part of my strategy for dealing with what was suddenly a strange and uncertain future was to promise myself things that I could look forward to. Some were small things, like a special (and expensive) microbrewed beer thats been sitting in the pantry since my first week of chemo. When I get the all-clear from the doctor, I said, drinking this will be part of my victory lap. And some are big things, like a trip to a part of east Tennessee, to Ozone Falls–a place thats special to me. I was very lucky in that I had very few side effects from chemo–fatigue, hair loss, and three five minute bouts of nausea were as bad as it got. There was no way to know it would be like that going in, though, and having things to look forward to helped me remain optimistic, even happy while toxins were being pumped into my veins on a daily basis.
My one mistake was being a little too optimistic. I was unrealistic. Six weeks after finishing chemotherapy I was supposed to have a few tests done and then meet with my oncologist. And I expected her to look at the results and say, “You’re completely healthy. Get out of her and never darken my door again!” Admittedly I knew there’d be regular checkups, which is fine because my oncologist has been fantastic, and going back once in a while wouldn’t be a bad thing. The problem–and if I hadn’t been so blindly optimistic I would have been more aware of the facts–is that theres been a slight bump in the road to recovery. I was hoping the orchiectomy and the chemo would be the end, but I have one enlarged lymph node. It could be dead tissue, it could be a teratoma, or it could be the embryo of the Loch Ness monster. We wont know until I have surgery to take it out, and to be on the safe side the doctors are taking out the neighboring lymph nodes as well. Such is the joy of having a cancer thats metastatic, a term which comes from the Greek words meta, meaning after and static, meaning shock your friend after rubbing your feet on the carpet. So I’ve got one more step to go, and hopefully I can get it done soon. I dont want to be split open and have my guts pulled apart, but its not a step I want to skip either, because it could mean complications in the future. And it’s a reminder that even a surprise that I didn’t want and plans for something that scares me can still make me happy. Surgery isn’t fun, but I can look forward to the future that comes after.