Despite cancer, we can all tune into the joy of each moment as we pursue our passions and creativity.
You probably know the feeling. It’s 11 p.m. and you’re lying in bed, trying to get to sleep. As you begin to drift off, all of a sudden you’re gripped with terror. Try as you might, you cannot escape from the feeling that a blanket is suffocating you.
This is one of the “gifts” of cancer. When this happens to me, my way of dealing with it has been to get up and do something — perhaps read a book, watch a video, or even do the dishes. After a while, I’ve forgotten the dark feelings of cancer’s grip and can return to the bedroom to sleep.
For years, this has been my technique for evading negative thoughts. But what if there was a better way? After some research, I’ve become convinced that we can overcome the fear of cancer if we steer our hearts and minds in a direction that is true.
What do I mean by that? According to the late psychologist Rollo May in his book “The Courage to Create,” we need to choose courage, which is the opposite of despair. He writes, “Courage is not the absence of despair; rather, it is the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.“
We all need a vehicle of expression, to create something, and to express our own original ideas.
May was not even writing about people with cancer. He was writing about anyone who experiences anxiety. He claimed that if you do not express yourself, you “will have betrayed yourself.” Interestingly, the word “courage” comes from the French word “coeur,” meaning heart.
Creative courage means discovering something, whether that’s through painting, music, sculpture, poetry, fiction, dance, science, or another medium. It is reaching inside to a “collective unconscious,” to quote Carl Jung, and creating something new that hasn’t yet been seen.
For me, that creativity comes in the form of writing, primarily poetry but also fiction. By creating new poems and working on my next book (which is about cancer), I am working on bringing something new into the world. It is what May calls reaching “beyond our own death … creativity is a yearning for immortality.”
When I am reading, writing, or working on a project, time seems to stand still and I don’t focus on the negative. I am not anxious. I am not creating out of fear. Rather, I am choosing to follow my passion.
When I write poetry, I’m in a state of mind that the late Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow. He developed a theory called optimal experience, which accounts for the best moments in our lives.
In his book “Flow,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote that flow is a “state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Csikszentmihalyi studied thousands of artists, athletes, musicians, chess masters, surgeons, scientists, and writers who were all absorbed in their passions and creativity. He found the experience of flow to be the same with all of these individuals, worldwide.
With creation comes a heightened awareness, which leads to purpose.
We, as cancer patients and survivors, can also experience flow. Work may or may not achieve this. It may have to be something we do outside of our job. And, with cancer, you may feel like there is a lot outside your control. But how we cope with our situation can affect our happiness.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, happiness is not something that happens by random chance. Rather, it is a condition that needs to be cultivated, an inner experience. Why do some people become weak with a cancer diagnosis and others strong?
It may be because some know how to transform a seemingly hopeless or traumatic experience into a new “flow activity” that can be controlled, and they emerge stronger with the experience.
To paraphrase the Hungarian writer, there are three steps to this transformation:
We may need to find new goals, or make new meanings, with a cancer diagnosis. To do this, we choose a direction, become immersed in an activity, pay attention to what is happening, and then learn to enjoy the moment. I try to do this with my writing.
I dare you to find your passion, and “follow your bliss,” to quote Joseph Campbell.
Another idea of creativity comes from the psychologist Alfred Adler, who believed that humans produce art or science to make up for their own weaknesses or inadequacies.
Beethoven was deaf; many artists and writers lived with mental health conditions (like Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Vincent Van Gogh, to name a few.) Despite their illness, they created great works of art.
We, too, can still give birth to creations if we have cancer. We can create what May calls “some new reality.”
And we don’t have to do this on a grand scale. It can be crocheting a baby blanket for our grandchild, volunteering at a nonprofit to teach people English, or taking piano lessons.
In “The Courage to Create,” May writes, “The creative process must be explored not as a product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health, as the expression of the normal people in the act of actualizing themselves.”
With creation comes a heightened awareness, which leads to purpose.
Even if we are in pain, we can still create something. The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen experienced painful toothaches most of his life. He had many problems sleeping, but writing stories helped him.
He even created characters, such as the Little Mermaid and the princess in the Princess and the Pea, who experienced pain. He was very prolific despite his pain, and he chose to create. His writing is a legacy to us all.
If we engage in a creative process, we choose not to feel anxiety or fear, but to experience joy.
For many of us, one way to cope with thoughts of cancer is to distract ourselves, which I have done. We watch TV, read, go for a walk, and eat. These may work on some level, but what we really need is connection.
According to theologian Paul Tillich in his book, “The Courage to Be,” many people try to escape reality, to avoid facing “the precariousness of their own being.”
Tillich points out that fate, guilt, and the fear of death are three anxieties that confront the modern person. He goes on to say that people must face their fears with “the courage of confidence” and “believe in love in the face of hatred, life in the face of death, day in the dark of night.” All of these beliefs take “enormous courage…the courage of confidence … in spite of death.”
We need to create an environment where our creativity thrives. Perhaps by guided meditation, recording our dreams, or creating a soothing office space with a candle, we can tap into our internal energy. If we engage in a creative process, we choose not to feel anxiety or fear, but to experience joy.
I have been engaged in the creative process to write this article. While doing this, I have experienced a state of flow, where I forget time and am immersed in the moment. I dare you to find such an activity! Despite cancer, we can all tune into the joy of each moment as we pursue our passions and creativity.
Fact checked on May 16, 2022
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