I think the emotion that cancer patients deal with the most is fear. Where else in life, except on a major battlefield, are you faced with constant flow pivotal points where you will either suffer without mercy until you die, or on the other extreme, do pretty well and survive for years. Tomorrow is a major of one of these points as I meet with my oncologist to review the new re-staging of my cancer. We already know that the stem cell transplant was not perfect as I still have the elevated protein that the cancer makes. But, will I be in a partial remission… or was the stem cell transplant a total failure?
I woke up feeling depressed today. The reason is, Denise and I planned to have one week where we pretended that I did not have cancer. That week was last week, and the masquerade ball ends today. It was not that hard to pretend as I felt better than I have in a long time. I just got my CBC drawn, but I can tell that my anemia has improved before I see the results. While I still am very limited in what I can do physically, due to the anemia, I at least don’t have a constant—even at rest—tachycardia and shortness of breath.
I think the emotion of fear has gotten a bum rap, especially in the Christian community. I suggest you do a word search in the Bible for the word “fear.” The Old Testament the word is mostly associated with a good trait of “fearing God.” In the New Testament it is usually described in an amoral context, “they were fearful,” without any commentary on it being good or bad, but just part of the human (and animal I may add) condition. Paul even talks about his own fears (e.g. Galatians 4:11). A lot of Christians misquote I John 4:18 about where love cast out fear. That should be a no-brainer. Does a wife have more fear living with a husband who does not love her or one that does? Do children of loving parents have less to fear than those of abusive, non-loving parents?
As an atheist or even a theist who believes in evolution as the driving force in shaping who we are, it is easy to see how fear has been healthy. It is true that those who fear the most, up to a point, live the longest and healthiest. Fear guides us away from danger, be it a long-face bear who was trying to eat our ancestors during the last ice age or driving recklessly on slippery roads in modern times.
Alex Honnold is considered by most to be the top rock climber in the world. He is of the elite class of rock climbers that do not use any protection to save themselves if they fall. A few years ago, as an experiment, they did a functional MRI on his brain. He was found not to have the normal circuits that connect from our senses to the emotion of fear. As great as a rock climber as he is, most in the field say that if he does not change, he will not survive to see age 30. All other free climbers, who take on the same risks, eventually fall to their deaths. I think the same mis-wiring of the brain must be true on some of the wing suit flyers and base jumpers, who have a very high chance of eventually dying. This why healthy fear can save us.
In an intelligent design model, as most Christians subscribe to, fear is a gift of God to help us navigate a dangerous world. It is not a sign of weakness or sin, as many think. We should thank God for this wonderful gift, not feel the guilt thereof.
I think there are three ways in which we approach fear. The first, the healthiest, is to try to keep it from going to the extreme, so much so it robs us of the joy that is present in each day. The other two ways is to hide fear and lie about it to others, or to delude even ourselves.
I want to share a couple of stories that date back, first to my evangelical days, and the second one happened during my transition out of evangelicalism and was still trying to figure things out. But first, to avoid the misunderstanding of previous posts, I want to define what I call evangelicalism. Some suggested last time, I was using the term to define all true Christians, which meant I was not one. Others said that I was an atheist because I didn’t believe the Bible. But I want to be clear, I’m talking about a well-defined, American, White Evangelical subculture (I will call AWE), which defined by social beliefs (such as being a staunch Republican, despite who is representing their party, all gays, liberals, as well as all Catholics are going to hell, screw the environment because it is all going to burn, and etc.) and has NOTHING to do with theology or the Bible. Sociologists know whom I am talking about. These attitudes are not present among other Christians of the world and even not among minority Christians in America. That’s why AWE is distinct.
When I was in my late twenties, I was a true blue (maybe I should say “red”) AWE. As we were preparing to go as missionaries to the Middle East with an AWE organization, I was on a circuit of preaching and speaking at, mostly AWE, churches. I was also living in the typical pretend world where I thought I was “godly” and above most other people, even other Christians. To maintain this façade of godliness, I had to do a lot of lying and self-deception.
I remember speaking in front of one large church and commenting how I had no fears and slept like a baby. This was despite the fears that most people had about terrorism and traveling in the Middle East (this was well before 9-11, when hijackings and plane bombings were commonplace. One of our team members of the AWE organization in the Middle East had already been in, and barely survived a bombing). I pointed out, as proof of my fearlessness that I had quit my job, sold all my possessions moved into a van with my pregnant wife and two small children and was preparing to move to this hostile place with them. I did not tell the group of how these fears did keep me awake for many of nights.
After speaking that morning, a church member came up to me. I could tell he was distraught. He was about 44 years old. His father died of a heart attack when he was 45. This man had just had a major heart attack himself and barely survived (I think the paramedics had to do CPR on him). He confided in me that he was full of fear, so much so, it was hard for him to sleep. I told him (coming from my place of spiritual superiority), that “Apparently you don’t love Jesus, because if you did, that love would cast out all your fears.” It will have to go down as one of the most stupid things I’ve ever said.
Jump ahead about 15 years and I will share the next major event that I remember about fear. I was at a low point in my life. I had two back to back job failures. The first one was because of an insane boss in Harvey, Michigan. The second job I took with in Houghton, Michigan. After a great interview process and moving my family up there, and starting to build a house, I realized that my new boss was heavily involved in Medicare fraud. It was a nightmare for me. We had to stay to finish the house and then get the hell out of town, after I reported him to Medicare and was involved with a nasty legal suit. I settled on a fantastic job at Mayo Clinic, however, I was still struggling to get past these failures (and still paying two mortgages as the house would not sell having to work two jobs). It was also a very rough place in our marriage. I felt that Denise had lost all respect for me from the job failures. After, what we had thought, was a perfect marriage, she had reasons to believe that I had never loved her, and I had reason to believe the same about her.
Nonetheless, Denise decided to see a “Christian Psychologist.” She met with him for a while and then he wanted to see me alone. I’ve seen other psychologists since then, and this man was very different (in a bad way). From the first meeting he scolded me, all my failures were my fault. He also accused me of lying for example when I forgot my check book to pay him for the visit, he laughed and said something like, “How convenient for you to ‘forget’ your check book, so you don’t have to pay for my services I bet you will ‘forget’ next time too.” Then he wanted me to read a Christian book (maybe he had written it as I don’t remember) that was about “Getting to Know the Evil Inside Your” (or something like that). It was a horrible book, especially when you are already in a place of self-doubt. It talked about how serial killers often pretended to be so good while they were really full of evil. He thought I was full of evil.
A paraphrase of a quote from Martin Luther is, “I would rather be operated on by a Muslim surgeon than a Christian butcher.” That applies to this malpractice of psychology, even though he was a so-called “Christian psychologist.” But I kept going as what I though would be a service to Denise, while I felt beat down after each visit.
Around this time, through a fluke of blood tests for an unrelated problem, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (and this was 22 years ago). After having a bone marrow biopsy and seeing one of the top Multiple Myeloma doctors in the country (who was and still is at Mayo) I was diagnosed with MGUS, which is a precursor to MM, which has a 1% chance per year of converting to MM (so I had a 22% chance of this… and it happened!). This was the first time I was starting to worry about MM as a horrible disease that I never wanted to have. I have found that my fear now, toward MM, is not as severe as I had expected. Part of that reason is, the most dreaded fear of my life was some day getting MM. Now that it is here, what is left to fear?
When I told this psychologist about my test and my worry about it, he began laughing at me. He said that while I claim to be a man of faith, certainly I was not because I let silly things worry me. He then confided in me that he too had MGUS and he doesn’t worry because he knows that God will take care of him and he expects to live to a ripe old age.
In a surreal moment, I called a few weeks later to set up our next visit. To my shock, his office informed me that he was dead. Dead? It turned out that he converted to MM just like I did a year ago, however, when he went into the ER, like I did, with total renal failure as his presenting symptoms, he did not survive.
My point is, fear is a natural part of ourselves and nothing that we need to scorn. It motivates us to work toward healing and safety. The thing I pray to God for is the strength and faith to keep it under control but not to eliminate it. I pray too, despite a long course of bad news, that tomorrow will be different.