Having cancer is like playing a recurring game of Russian roulette. They whirl the blood, or magnets, to look for disease … but you are really revolving the cylinders. You pray constantly that the hammer finds the chamber empty. If it doesn’t, you will be set adrift in a single kayak slithering down through a gorge of unbearable anguish and death. That’s what’s at stake.
While this morbid game is playing out behind the curtains, on the main stage you are, by faith seeking peace, by perseverance, normalcy, by sentiment, contentment, by mental discipline, living as if the present moment has no boundaries, and by hope, the fears that hide in the dark crevasses of tomorrow … are left unfound.
C. S. Lewis wrote an imaginative novel called The Great Divorce, publishing it in 1945. In that novel, he describes a fascinating bus trip from hell to heaven. But I’ve been thinking about a different divorce, the separation of the Christian church from objective information, including science. I saw a report that evangelicals in America are some of the most susceptible people to anti-science, conspiracy theories, and false information. Why is that? I always go to history to look for answers to such questions.
I wish I could have the power to rewrite history and describe how this sad divorce is a recent phenomenon, but it’s not. But it has not been a continuous state within the Christian church’s history either. It is like one of those couples that marry, divorce, marry and divorce again, over and over, such as Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, twice married, twice divorced
A better term than “divorced from science” is to broaden it to divorce from objective truth. Objective truth is that which is observed in the material world. However, this rejection of objectivity is not comprehensive. Christian people, just like all people, use objective reasoning all the time in their daily lives. For example, “Bob’s back in town. I saw him at the hardware store.” That statement involves observation of the universe (seeing Bob) and the deduction that means Bob is back in town.
With that said, the original church grew up in a thoughtful society. It was a Greco Roman in nature. Much of the philosophy and knowledge was from the ancient Greeks and the political arrangement of the first 500 years, Roman. The early Christians considered the Apostle Paul a learned man in the Greek tradition, and when he converted to Christianity, they accused him of letting his great learning drive him into madness. In that age, the early church did not reject science or reasoning. In that first century, I suspect that if a philosopher had an observation about the material world, the stars, or nature the christian would not have felt threaten, but would have fully embraced it after examining it, making sure that it did not contradict Christianity.
If a philosophical theory contradicted the basic Christian teaching, the early Christians would have rejected it. For example, the Hedonistic philosophy, that states the highest purpose of life is to fulfill your own desires, was rejected by the early Christians because it was the opposite of the message of Christ, putting the needs of others first. In some ways, modern Christianity is friendly to this philosophy, but that’s another story.
The Divorce # 1
One philosophical Greek concept that large segments of the early church did adopt, and shouldn’t have, is the Platonic view of metaphysics, the idea of dualism. While the mainstream church realized it as a false teaching, colloquial Christianity embraced it. It was so widely adopted that Augustine of Hippo declared Plato a de facto Christian in the early fifth century. This dualistic view divides reality into two realms, the seen and the unseen. In that model, the seen is inferior to the unseen. Some early gnostic sects even believed that Satan created this material world and that the only things of God were unseen. Platonic dualism was in sharp contrast to the teachings of the Jewish scriptures, telling us that God created the material . . . and it was good.
As a sidebar, I will say here that the church has always been corruptible simply because it is a human institution and humans are corruptible. There is a spectrum across history of atrocious churches and those that are rather benign. There are good things to gleam from church life, but I see only the very simple teachings of Christ as infallible. I state this because some people see the church as infallible as is its history.
The early church fathers fought aggressively against Platonic Dualism and was the point of the major church creeds. However, Platonic was popular among the masses and in many of the Christian sects that arose during those years, such as Manichaeism. However, soon those within the institutional church saw how this false teaching could empower them and they started to condone and then magnify those beliefs. If the church holds the keys to the unseen, it makes them more powerful to declare that the seen has no value and you can not gather information or truth from observing the seen, only what the church declares to be true, which only it can gather from the unseen.
For example, the church had adopted the Greek-Aristotelian view (established ca. 320 BC) that the earth was the center of the universe at the time Christianity was open to the observation of the seen to find truth. That was in its first centuries. But the Church was able to mesh it with their theological views that man was the center of the universe, thus you could conclude the place men and women live is the center. The Bible has no view or comment on the metaphysics of the solar system.
By the time Gallio, using a telescope and mathematics, wrote his book in 1610 supporting a heliocentric view of the solar system, the church had fully adopted the Platonic view that all truth is from the unseen (spiritual) thus owned by the church and specifically the Aristotelian view that the earth was the center of the universe so no contradicting views could be entertained . . . without the threat of torture and death.
The School of Athens, painted in the Vatican, depicting Plato (in red) pointing up, meaning only the unseen has value, and Aristotle pointing down, that observations of the material or seen has value.
With that attitude, the church left the open-mindedness on finding truth by observing the seen, of its early days, and became a rigid dictator of “truth.” Anyone can observe the seen. Only the church could observe the unseen. This led to the Dark Ages, starting in the mid-fifth century. They are called dark because, as compared the thousands of years before and after this period, art and science became grossly muted. But that only makes sense if you no longer believe the seen has value or that you can gleam truth from making observations about it. But all of that dramatically changed.
Material – all that is able to be measured in the physical world.
Seen – same as material.
Unseen – all that cannot be measured, from human emotions to spiritual matters.
Metaphysics – the grand description of all that exist from Meta (grand or over all) and physics (material or measurable).
I have not done health update in some time, basically because there was nothing to update. I did mention a month ago (I think) that one of my labs hinted at a possible resurgence of my cancer, but others that did not.
This morning I received the results of my most recent lab tests, and now there is no question my cancer is surging again.
The good news in this is that there are still several treatments available. There could even be a cure here now, but there has not been enough time to prove that. But if not here now, within years. But can I last long enough to benefit? My immediate response is to schedule an appointment with the Cancer Care Alliance for establishing our next step.
The bad news, there’s a lot of bad news, but the most pertinent is that I have done so well on my present chemo, from a side effect perspective. It is an oral capsule and the side effects have been minimal. The next step will be weekly IV therapies.
I always feel guilty when I talk about feeling sad, etc. The comment that I give myself via self-talk, and others have said, “Oh, others have it much worse.” But those words have never consoled my soul. I even felt guilty about that. Then I heard a Ted Talk by a psychiatrist (I think it was about depression during COVID) who made the comment that the worst thing you can say to someone who is suffering is, “It could be worse,” or “Look at the people suffering in war of famine, you’re lucky in comparison.” The psychiatrist showed that such empty words are virtually saying, “Your sadness doesn’t matter.”
Before I got these lab results, I have been feeling depressed. Too convoluted to explain here. As the example of what not to say above, yes, I know that I’m not alone and some, even here, suffer from depression much worse.
There is a verse in the Bible that says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12). In my case, and others may relate to, is that I’ve worked so hard to stay well and to get better. I cannot describe all the hard work I’ve done in study, diet, supplements, exercise, taking horrible drugs, and the list goes on and on. It feels like the reward . . . is becoming sicker. But I know that life is not fair. I wish that wasn’t true.
I wish that those who do horrible crimes go to prison and those falsely accused go free. I wish that those who were peace-loving poor people would not be swept up in horrible wars, incited by the rich and powerful. I wish that no one would have to suffer the ills of cancer . . . or any disease.
The emotion of sadness that comes with cancer, for me, is the loss of the future. Just six months ago, the word future was clear in my mind, expressed in years or perhaps decades. Like in the scene from Back to the Future, where Marty’s family is becoming translucent in a photo, times like this, the word future is fading and that breaks my heart.
Yes, I know about those less fortunate. I’ve seen the two-year-olds at SCCA who are in this same fight. Is that fair? I’ve worked with war refugees, where entire families were living in simple tents on soupy cold mud. Dinner, a plate full of vitamin enriched porridge twice a day and no medical care except what I could supply during a brief visit. I pity them as I should.
I ask for prayer that our next step would be clear and that my cancer would respond again. Pray for Denise and my kids. Thanks, Mike
I know that I have at least a dozen people who come here that were former patients in our headache clinic. It is with great sadness that I must announce that our last glimmers of hope to resurrect such a clinic now seems highly unlikely.
I had a 38 year career in headache medicine. In the height of that career, I was a headache consultant at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Dr. James Moren, headache specialist, had joined me about seven years ago with our shared dream of bringing compassionate, intelligent care to a very large and often neglected population of chronic headache sufferers in the Pacific Northwest.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma and associated renal failure in Jan, 2019. I had to reduce my hours to 1/2 time as I prepared to undergo a bone marrow transplant. Dr. Moren increased his work-load to make up for my absence. It was my ambition and plan to fight hard to recover from the transplant and to return to work after six months. Just before my return, the hospital had a change in its administration. Because of my illness, they saw me as no longer valuable to the hospital. The hospital therefore eliminated my position and the clinic. Closing the headache clinic was also not Dr. Moren’s ambition. We both wanted to work well into our seventies, as there are no other places for these patients to go.
We attempted to create a new clinic in Bellingham. On the threshold of starting that clinic, COVID hit. I had to go back into quarantine and Dr. Moren continued trying to create this new entity. However, because of the complexities of medical business, the hope of creating this clinic was thwarted (prohibitively expensive).
I hope the best for all of our patients and that you can find good care in our unfortunate absence.
Other: Don’t you know it’s rude to bring up politics in a public place. How hateful.
One: Donald Trump is a habitual liar.
Other: You say that because you are a liberal snowflake.
One: Donald Trump is a habitual liar.
Other: So, you are into that socialist, communist agenda. It’s destroying our country right before your eyes. You are a sheep and the wool is being pulled over your eyes.
One: Donald Trump is a habitual liar.
Other: You know you hurt me when you say that. Not only me, but your entire family. The family that raised and nurtured you, you’re turning your back on for the sake of your communists friends.
One: Donald Trump is a habitual liar.
Other: He is the one who stands for Christians. He’s our bulwark and protector of our way of life. How can you not like him? What’s wrong with you?
One: Donald Trump is a habitual liar.
Other: You are the liar. He’s a good man. I talked to my pastor, and he says you can’t be a real Christian if you don’t see that Donald Trump is standing up for us. No other president has stood up for the Christian agenda like him. Donald doesn’t want us killing babies or marrying our own gender. He’s a good man. A God fearing man.
One: Donald Trump is a habitual liar.
Other: You have really gone to the dogs. You are a socialist, communist; you don’t love your country or the country you grew up in. You want to tax everyone to death. Have a government that spends like crazy. How do you run a nation like, except run it into the ground? I bet you even hate the flag. I bet you don’t stand up for the national anthem anymore like the rest of the communists. You’re one of those black-loving commies. You’re no longer a Christian, in my opinion. You’re the one who brought up all this political stuff. People like you divide this country.
One: Donald Trump is a habitual liar.
Commentary:I don’t normally do this, but due to the overwhelming response of this post, I feel that I must come back to explain the point. No, this is not literal. No, no one said these word to me and I’m not claiming they did. This is satire and the point I was trying to make is that you can no longer make an obvious observation without it getting woven into some great political narrative. One, above, is simply stating the obvious, Donald Trump has been well-known for lying his entire life. It is clear that lying is dangerous. One said nothing about wanting America to be socialist and etc. If you are a Trump supporter and that offends you, let me make some other obvious statements and see if that bothers you. Joe Biden seems past his prime. Bill Clinton (and of course Trump) was an adulterer. Are you okay with those? I bet you are. But if you skin crawls and you pulse rises with any suggestion that Donald Trump is not, like Mary Poppins, “Perfect in each and every way,” then you may be in a Trump cultand this is no longer a political issue even for you.
I will try not to be redundant but I like to look at the philosophical presuppositions that prop up any position. I am accused of “overthinking” some things. But history is a great well from which we draw understanding of our present state.
First I will state the problem. We now have a vaccine for COVID. This is a godsend. A scientific miracle. The only way out of this pandemic is; a) we all live in a real bubble with no contact with other people (not reasonable), b) allow a natural “herd immunity.” This would mean up to fifty million people dead and many more with life time of consequences, not to mention the complete breakdown of our healthcare system, or c) vaccinations to reach herd immunity without the great suffering.
However, as many as 30% of the population says they will not get vaccinated. In the black community, where there is more distrust of the “white man’s medical system” it is more than 50%. I cannot speak for everyone choosing not to get a vaccination, but I can speak to the big trends in history and the underlying foundations for this distrust. I realize that for the black community it is larger than this ( see:Tuskegee Experiment).
As I’ve mentioned before, western civilization had a strong dualistic influence from Greek philosophers such as Plato. The Christian church adopted this view. In this view, there are two realities, the seen and the unseen. In that system, they adopted the idea that only the unseen has value. The seen, including all of nature, had no intrinsic value. Nature was there only for mankind to exploit. Men have souls (unseen) thus have value and nature did not. Some have told me that Celtic Christianity was the exception to this low view of nature. I hope so.
For seventeen hundred years this was the dominant view of western civilization. Then, Jean Jacque Rousseau and some of his contemporaries rebelled against this idea. They believed that nature in its raw form was good, but men contaminated it with their interference. It was the opposite of the Midas touch, that everything humans touch turn to crap.
This philosophical pendulum swung in the opposite direction from putting nature down, to making all things “natural” better than the artificial (meaning here where humans manipulate nature). It is now a profoundly common belief in our western thinking. As an exercise I simply ask you, which is better natural or artificial? Most will say natural. Second exercise, go into any grocery store and count how many times you see the word “nature” or “natural.” The label “Natural” sells, because people believe its better. The only things that exist are nature or humans manipulating nature. People don’t create a new substance that was not there before, in nature.
Those who are against vaccines usually have this mindset, that if it is an artificial herd immunity, it is inferior to natural herd immunity, maybe even dangerous.
But here is the truth. It does not matter if you are an atheist or a Christian (I won’t mention other religious views for the sake of being concise), nature has wonderful things and harmful things. It gives us a fresh oranges (although the big beautiful oranges that we have now are the results of artificial breeding by humans for hundreds of years), but nature also gives us poisons, toxins, cancer, and many other things, like viruses. The human immune system is excellent, but imperfect. I don’t understand where Christians get this idea of “I depend on the immune system that God gave me.” It is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity that this world is imperfect (The Fall, is the term that they use.) But in the case of our bodies and immune system, somehow we are not fallen creatures?
Before the invention of modern, evidence-based medicine, the life expectancy for humans was around 28 years, and those years full of suffering. Most of those deaths were from infectious diseases. It is the “artificial” or humans manipulating the good attributes of nature making them better, that has increased the life expectancy to almost 80 and with far less suffering.
Now don’t get me wrong. In the grand scheme of things, humans have done irreparable damage to nature. Deforestation, fracking, spoiling of water, climate change, and the list goes on and on. These are complete moral failures. Humans, when left to their own devices, often do more harm than good.
To get into specifics, the COVID vaccines is using new technology, RNA-based, that made it quicker to develop, but not less safe. These are probably safer than previous vaccines, by a long shot. I am unaware of any vaccine in history being pulled from the market after long term side effects were discovered. These new vaccines should be even safer. The risk of death and long term harm of having COVID is tens of thousands times more likely than with a vaccine.
If you have a vaccine phobia, I will mention that I’ve personally had 21 vaccines in the past 90 days and am scheduled to have 5 more next week. I’ve been getting 7 at a time because my childhood vaccines were erased by my bone marrow transplant. I got these vaccines and I’m in poor health due to my cancer. But my side effects have been limited (typical). It appears that those who know the most above vaccines, trust them the most.
I have read volumes of information sent to me by anti-vaxxers. None of it has credibility from the research. Much of it supported by baseless conspiracy theories. I have though held a child as he died from tetanus on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was a horrible death. I’ve seen the consequence of polio and measles. The position of being an anti-vaxxer is the luxury belief of affluent societies.
I want to pivot here and talk about evidence-based and “natural” medicine as a tangential topic. I will try to be fair, looking at the positives and negatives of each. I will make that a part II that you can read if you’re interested.
As a resident of Anacortes it is a holiday obligation to watch the classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The reason is, the beloved narrator/snowman was voiced by our local resident, Burl Ives. He passed away a number of years ago, his wife, Dorothy in 2016. His home was sold just about three years ago.
My son painted the interior of Dorothy’s house. Tyler asked, “Who’s the wooden bust?” She said, “My late husband, Burl Ives.” Tyler said, “Never heard of him.” But he loved the movie about Rudolph when he was a kid.
I watched it for the forthiet time (at least) the other night. I was struck again by the Island of Misfit Toys. I will not be the first to draw lessons from the movie. Mine, this time, is how blessed the misfits really are.
Rudolph: The misfit due to a blatant physical deformity.
Rudolph had a nose that lit up like a lightbulb. No other reindeers did. Included in this category are the people born with some physical characteristic that is the first thing that people see. Do you have a missing leg, deafness, paralysis, cerebral palsy, or some mental defect? But there are others that are not as blatant, but dominate someone’s life. A tendency toward obesity . . . or being too skinny. A problem with your personality, such as the spectrum disorder (see the Queen’s Gambit), where you don’t understand the rules of social engagement. Being too tall, or too short.
I was twelve years old and sitting in my pediatrician’s office, when I heard the bad news. Based on growth charts, he estimated I would be six-foot and four inches tall. I cried on the way home. I played basketball and I wanted to be seven-foot tall. I didn’t understand genetics at the time, thinking I could grow taller by not smoking and drinking lots of milk. My tears would have turned to frank depression if I had known that I would never grow again, not even a quarter of an inch after that day.
I had a friend once, Tom, who was six-foot and eleven inches tall. His brother seven foot. I envied him. Then one day, while we were in a mall, just having watched a movie, he confined to me that the envied me. He hated being a freak. He said that not one item of clothing in the whole mall would fit him. Beds don’t fit him. Girlfriends didn’t fit him. Cars and airplanes didn’t fit him. While he loved sports, he never played basketball out of pure rebellion. This was Kentucky, where your worth was defined by your ability to play basketball. All tall boys were expected to play. Tom hated his life.
You can also include those who have acquired a physical trait that is remarkable, something that defines them. Accidents that took legs or arms. Severe, disabling pain. Reactive depression or anxiety. PTSD.
You can also include things like aging. We live in a society that values the young, especially the thin, muscular with thick hair. If we are lucky we will live long enough to be old. We will be seen as the old man or old woman. Our society doesn’t value age.
A physical diagnosis can also define us. Heart disease. Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, diabetes . . . or cancer. You become known as the person with x disease, not a real person anymore.
God bless the Rudolphs of this world.
Hermey The Dentist Elf: Those who do not conform to expectations.
Hermey didn’t want to make toys. He wanted to be a dentist. But, all elves make toys at the North Pole don’t they? He faced immense pressure to conform.
Have your ever made choices that take you against the tide of conformity? It could be, like Hermey, a career choice. It could be a choice of who you love or marry. It could be one or more of a thousand factors that fly in the face of social pressure. That pressure could be trying to mold you into what it says is a good American, a good Christian, or a good person. The pressure could be immense and painful, yet you decide to be true to yourself . . . not a phony.
God bless the non-conformists.
Dolly: The Rejected.
Do you know why Dolly ended up on the Island of Misfit Toys? She had no physical defects. She had made no choices that contradicted society’s expectations. Simply, Dolly was rejected by the girl that owned her.
Have you ever been rejected? Rarely, a child is rejected by their parents and put up for adoption. More commonly, a father or mother walks out of their lives. Sometimes, it is the lover, husband, or wife that finds hope in someone else, leaving you alone. Even more often it is being rejected by a friend, a school, or employer.
God bless the rejected.
The Island of Misfit Toys reminds me of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount. This is what he would have preached if he had visited the island.
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
Merry Christmas to all of you who don’t fit into the ideal. To those who are not Kardashians, Brad Pitts, or LeBron James. Most of us are misfits in one way or another. God bless us all.
Well, I said I would focus on my book and not write here for at least a month. However, after spending 3 hours, in my sauna, working on my book each morning, I usually go outside and work on chores. But it has been raining. The Pacific Northwest monsoons. are here. So I end up inside, thinking and . . . well writing more.
I am reading four books right now. I’ve been working on The Stones of Summer (novel) for a year and that book takes at least a year. I am working hardest on How Dante Can Save Your Life (non fiction) and am 3/4 the way through. I may write more about it when I’m done.
I am also getting ready to read a George MacDonald book (novel) and a C.S. Lewis book about George MacDonald (nonfiction).
I will say that so far How Dante Can Save Your Life will not go down as my favorite book. For one, to me the writing is plain. I say that after reading many spectacular books over the past year. It is odd for me to say that because the author, Rod Dreher is a professional writer, having a degree in journalism and spending a career in writing for newspapers and magazines. Now he has fared better than me in that he has landed book deals with major publishing houses like Simon and Schuster. His books have sold a little better than mine and his reviews have been about the same as my Ristretto Rain. As I read many of his reviews, they were mostly 5 star and the poor reviews seem to pertain to his mis-representation of Dante’s work. It has been a while since I’ve read the Divine Comedy. So my criticism of his work seems isolated to me.
My issue with him, besides the plain writing, is him being self-reproachful from a Christian perspective. To solve his personal problems he follows Dante into a deeper and deeper place of looking how horrible the sins of his life are. Very medieval. I will say more about that later when I can be fair.
But the one thing that has caught my attention is that in the story of his life, his younger sister, Ruthie, develops lung cancer (never smoked, took very good care of herself) at age 40 and died.
During the 19 months between her diagnosis and death, the author talked about how wonderful she was handling the diagnosis. No self-pity, seeming joyful, and involved with her husband and three daughters as if nothing was wrong.
But now, in a later chapter, he reveals something more about her. She was living above her cancer so well because she believed, 100%, that God had promised to heal her. Her faith was unshaken. She would not succumb. She would not die.
Now, at first glance, you would say that this was a good thing. Faith like stone in the times of trial. But she was so convinced that even when she started to go downhill, losing weight, becoming frail, her faith was not shaken. Then she suddenly died. But she was so much in denial of what was happening to her, she made no plans. She said no goodbyes. Her husband and three daughters had no post-Ruthie plans. They had no financial plans for her death.
This has awaken within me, once more, the thoughts about how we face death and dying. Personally, I hate the thoughts of death. It is often a taboo topic and to talk about it makes many people uncomfortable. I remember when I first came out of the hospital, some people would not make eye contact with me and talk around me as if I were already dead. It is because our society prepares us so poorly for relating to the topic of death and dying. Most people, and that included me before I was diagnosed, see death as abstract, with the hope that it only comes when we are 99 years old and we die peacefully in our sleep.
To me death is a tragedy. From a Christian perspective, it is part of the dark fall of the universe. It was not God’s intention. So, within that model, we have the freedom to hate death. To weep as Jesus did at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. To the atheist, it is the failure of evolution to conquer all the ills of nature, thus there is real suffering and death without a particular meaning.
I think our approach to death is unhealthy. I doubt if any society approaches it correctly. There are extremes, like in the case of Ruthie where there is a total denial. Then there are those who think about their death all the time and it robs them of the joys of life.
I won’t go through the story again, but to summarize, I first had to confront my own death on January 11th, 2018. I was in ICU and the nephrologist told me that she was trying her best to save me (extremely high potassium 7.0 from renal failure) but she was not sure she could. The treatments were not working and I was at high risk of heart failure due to the elevated potassium. She told me that I had to come to grips with my possible immediate death. I will just say, it was profoundly painful and sad for me, but I did it. My perspective changed on a dime. Many of you have had near death experiences I am sure.
In many ways, I have not left the honest mindset of the fragility of life. For me, everything I do I have to hope for being on earth for another 20 years . . . or suddenly declining and dying in a month or so. I prepare for both.
So, I think I’ve found the balance of profoundly enjoying this world, which I see as God making, yet, knowing that I could be gone tomorrow. All of you could be gone tomorrow. Are you ready for that? It is a hard balance to keep. You don’t have to hate this world to make death more palatable either. I think too many older people are taught to live, mentally, in Heaven as a way to cope with their approaching death.
Most Christians, especially American Christians, have a concept of Heaven based on extra-Biblical traditions. This is a good summary of that false narrative.
Everyone who has a chronic cancer, and many other illnesses, are faced with the roller coaster ride of recurrent lab tests that tell you if you are living or dying. I was having the blood tests daily, then weekly, and now monthly. So the tension only comes once a month. I think I handle it well. I have to or go nuts. I don’t click on my results until I’m fully awake and have had my coffee. This past Sunday I had one lab result that could indicate my cancer is growing. I had about 6 more tests that would fully paint the picture. Those came in this morning okay. But this is typical and now routine.
I have had people suggest that I don’t have enough faith, otherwise I would be healed or that I would only be thinking about Heaven (the traditional, extra-Biblical image of Heaven). It is a shameful thing to say to anyone. Ruthie had perfect faith and died. I’ve seen others who had perfect faith and died. I think that kind of magical thinking is not healthy. But living with the knowledge that death could come, but the hope that it does not, is the balance. But death as a concept has too much power, too much stigma. No one leaves earth alive. It is time to declare the death of death as that nasty unthinkable thing.
A while back a friend asked me why I don’t base my novels on the colorful world of Appalachia, which I grew up in. My answer is, and remains complex. At the time I said, somewhat as a joke, that it has already been covered in J.D. Vance’s autobiographical book, Hillbilly Elegy. Another reason is that I would have to write honestly (like Vance did) even if it were fiction and that would create a lot of personal problems for me. I’ve already offended huge tribes of people by what I’ve written here. Now the book has been made into a movie. While I read the book, I have not viewed the film yet, and not sure I will. I did see that Vance helped Ron Howard direct it so the two must be similar. If I read the book, wouldn’t watching the movie be just like re-reading the book?
Because I am from Appalachia and (somewhat related) was an evangelical for three decades, most of my family and childhood friends are politically conservative. Some so far to the right that it would make Steve Bannon blush. So, out of respect to them, I view right wing media outlets daily to hear the same information that they hear. I also view more dependable (when it comes to truth) news outlets such as NPR and AP Wire so I know what is going on in the real world. Personally, I am tired of red Vs blue, conservative Vs liberal labeling. I don’t think it is helpful any more, only divisive. I have no political party preference.
Since the release of the film Hillbilly Elegy, there has been a lot of criticism on the right that it stereotypes the white folks of Appalachia as lazy and dysfunctional. Hmm, there is so much to say about that. I will simply say that those same right wing sites, including the more mainstream Fox News, often paints the black community in similar broad strokes, but that doesn’t appear to make them feel the same ill ease.
Growing up in that area, we were super sensitive about such stereotypes. We didn’t even take fondly to the Beverly Hillbillies show because my mom said it made us look bad. Oddly, having just watched the Beverly Hillbillies pilot for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I realized that they were not from Appalachia at all but from the Ozarks in East Oklahoma. Makes sense now as we had no oil in East Tennessee and Jed Clampett did not discover coal on his homestead.
I enjoyed the Hillbilly Elegy book so much because it was familiar, in a creepy way. No, my family were not as poor or dysfunctional as Vance’s, but it was all around me. I knew plenty of people, some relatives, who could have fit in his book. As a PA student in Eastern Kentucky (for a year) I witnessed it daily.
But here’s the caveat. Every community on the planet has their ills . . . and their wonderful culture. It is true for the poor white folks in Appalachia. It is true for Rich white, Asian, or whatever in Beverly Hills . . . or Seul. But it appears that each community tries their darndest to hide their dirt. If you want to make enemies quickly, then throw back the rug, which is covering that dirt. The racists only show the dirt of a cultures they don’t like, throwing a rug over their glory.
Personally, I like dirt . . . sort of like Pig-Pin. It isn’t because I like gossip or gloat in others’ misery. It is because I love truth and honesty. I have dirt. When a culture covers its ills, it begins to live in a magical, artificial world. I dislike phonies. When people say they miss the “good old days,” it is because their memory of those days was magical, not realistic. If you read the New Testament without the modern American filters you would see that Jesus disliked phonies the most. I’ve been a phony before and am still I’m sure. I think it would be a better world if we were honest about our humanness, both the ills and the glories. If you think that you should not show the dark side of poor white people in Appalachia unless you also show their bright side (and Vance does show a lot of the good side, if you just look for it), then the same is true for the poor inner city blacks, or Muslims, or whoever.
But the actors are so talented, Glenn Close, Amy Adams . . . hmm, I think I must watch the film.
A young orphan who, with her red hair, could easily be transposed with Annie without missing a beat. The dreaded orphanage in this story was as bad as Annie’s without the frolicsome nature but where tranquilizers were dished out like Reeses Pieces in an ET movie. Got to subdue the noisy children. God’s will. This is the backdrop of the novel The Queen’s Gambit and now Netflix mini series by the same name.
I finished the series last night but have not read the book, so I don’t know what exactly makes the protagonist, Beth Harmon, tick. It could be childhood traumas as she certainly had her share of them. But more likely, I suspect she suffers from a genetically-based disorder, a point in the spectrum disorder family of personality traits. Because she is fictional, the answer lies within the creative mind of the–now deceased–author, Walter Tevis.
Beth is extremely smart. A child prodigy, at least in chess. But it appears that complex mathematical computations come as second nature to her as well. But like in spectrum disorders she is socially challenged, often choosing chemicals over people for comfort. This is a good film and I suspect it is a good novel. But I want to use the premise of the story as a springboard about a much more in-depth discussion on social awkwardness. We are all on a spectrum when it comes with the ability to interact and to create relationships with other human beings. Some people have hundreds of friends and are always the center of the party, while others live lonely lives and feel perplexed and inadequate in the skills of building relationships and maintaining them. While this skill can be learn, or unlearned as in the case of trauma, often it appears that genetics play an important role too.
At a casual glance, it might appear that the ability to create relationships cannot be genetic as anyone can learn how to if they only try. Right? However, it may be more like trying to load a complex computer program from 2020 on a 1984 Macintosh. While the software may be clear, logical, and well written, the hardware of the old Mac cannot accommodate it. The circuits are simply not there.
I write this as someone who has long suffered from a modest level of social awkwardness. However, this article is not meant to be about my small world but to try and resonate with many others who have suffered as much or much worse. I suspect most or all people have socially awkward moments in their lives, especially when entering a new culture (such as another country) or a new sub-culture, (such as a new workplace). I share these things with good intentions because the socially awkward person invariably must wrestle with a low self-esteem. “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone like me? Am I bad?” Those are the questions that meander through the minds of the friendless, although it could be at the subliminal level.
Some of my readers here say they like articles where I talk candidly about things that intersect with their personal lives, but which they would never speak about outside their own heads. If cancer has any impact on my writing here, it is being more bold, more candid, trying to speak for those who can’t.
I’m not sure when I realized that something was wrong with me . . . genetically. I think it was after I had kids and saw some of my children suffer with some of the same traits. I did not teach them this social awkwardness. Denise is far more socially skilled than I am and has always had an abundance of friends, so I do think it is something inherent. My same children share my scientific curiosity.
In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth, age nine, observes a janitor playing chess in the basement of her orphanage. She is intrigued with the game but knows nothing of the rules. This, at least my interpretation, is a metaphor of living with a social awkwardness, including those with variations of the spectrum disorders. However, Beth learns the rules of chess. She certainly does, maybe better than anyone else in the world . . . but social relationships remain a challenge for her.
This is how it feels to be so blessed with this configuration of seeing the physical universe so clearly (string theory makes sense to most of us on this spectrum) but failing to have the fundamental understanding of the rules of personal interactions. The rules feel unlearnable to us, despite our greatest efforts. We are the 1984 Mac.
I’ve decided, with trepidations, to share a personal illustration. I had hundreds to choose from. My hesitation is that I’m afraid these stories could be misconstrued as poor Mike being mistreated. But that is not the point I wish to make. I am 100% convinced that the problem in these situations is due to us socially awkward people’s perspectives, not then being socially shunned. It has to be. As one friend of mine used to say, “If you experience a string of failures across several situations, the one common denominator is you.” He wasn’t directing this at me, personally, but at people in general.
It Takes a Village
One of the situations that leaves me scratching my head until this day is a personal story where I wanted to be part of a group that led my church’s adoption of a remote North African village. The Sunday that I visited my church for the first time, some six or seven years ago, it was announced that the church was going to adopt this village. As someone who had a passion for working in humanitarian work the developing world, this really stood out to me. That’s why I went to medical school. It was my career choice, although thwarted. I was sure I could be part of the team that was coordinating this adoption since I had lived in North Africa for two years, traveled and worked with public health programs in several developing countries, could speak basic Arabic, the language of this village as well as read their script, and I was very familiar with Islam, the religion of the village. The perfect fit, though it seemed. My decision to attend this church was based on being part of that team.
I attended all the organizational meetings about this adoption of this village. At each meeting I made the point of talking to one of the team members telling them how badly I wanted to be part of this team. How do I join? Shrug shoulders. I never heard from anyone.
As a member of this church, we are asked annually to fill out a card describing our interests, places we wanted to serve. I put down that I wanted to be part of this village adoption team each of the first four years. I continued speaking to the team members about my desire to join them. I waited, I heard nothing. I sent emails to the pastor telling of my passion for this village project. She must receive a hundred crank emails per week. I came close to buying my own plane ticket and going to visit this village (a logistical nightmare because it was so remote). It was a passion of mine.
What were the rules? How do you become part of this team? I asked that question over and over without a clear answer. I was lost. I realize that I was new to this church and no one knew me.
Months passed, then a year and I didn’t hear back. As a last ditch effort, I decided to crash one of the team’s private planning meetings. It was profoundly awkward. One of the members, appearing to be angry, turned to me and asked, “Why are YOU here? You weren’t invited.” I said once more, “I just want to be part of this team.” An apparent social blunder on my part. On the way out, the group leader kindly invited me to meet me for coffee at Starbucks to discuss the situation. They were indeed looking for new members.
When we met, I told him again of my passion to be part of that group. I told him of all my qualifications, ex-missionary in North Africa, speaking Arabic, degree in medicine, working in establishing clinics in the developing world, taking students to the developing work, yada yada yada. He seemed impressed. I was excited, knowing that it would not be long before I would be invited. I was really excited.
But then came the email the following week. I must have read it fifty times, my eyes squinty and my jaw dropped. I felt like Beth in the story when she first sat down at a chess table and she looked up at the man playing and said with strain in her voice, “I don’t know the rules.” The email was from the group leader, “I discussed your interest and qualifications with the team at our meeting last night. There was a consensus that you don’t have the qualifications we’re looking for.” Loved to have been a fly on that wall. Painful. To the point, that I seriously was reconsidering my attending this church. Not out of bitterness, but because I wanted to be in a place where my talents could be used.
The people in this group are good people, whom I respect and I’m certain they had a logical reason for rejecting me. That’s what makes this even harder. They are smart, kind, and thoughtful. They had to have a good reason. There are social rules that I don’t even begin to understand. Many other people came to our church and were invited to be part of this village group right away. They knew the rules for getting in and I did not.
Denise suggested that it was because I was not a personal friend with anyone in the group, that friends invite friends, not strangers. Or possibly, I approached this in the wrong way, too aggressively. What’s the right way? I don’t understand.
Maybe Denise is right. But this is how we who suffer from this awkwardness feel and and the solution is on us. We must try our best to learn the rules and to program as much of the software that our hardware can endure.
Someday, if someone confined in me that I smell horribly, like a mixture of body odor and a rotten skunk, or maybe a sewer, then all of this would finally make sense. Damn sense. I often sniff my pits and find nothing. Is it my breath? But this is not the reality we have been dealt. When we socially awkward people enter a room full of strangers at a party, we start with the (false) premise that everyone there hates us. We work from that point. The truth is, we are not even on their radar and they certain don’t hate us.
Are you relating to any of these things? Have you ever wondered why you were rejected, not invited, etc? Ever been rejected from a job for which you thought you were well qualified for? If not, consider yourself blessed.
So, for those like me (or worse), we must remember that it really is on us. Beth, in the story starts to figure that out. But it is not because we are bad people. It is like many things, living in an imperfect world where shit happens. We must avoid blaming people as the world seems unfair to us, but trying our best to carry on in peace, driving around the potholes of life.
Personally, I want to work on listening. Professionally I was a listener for 38 years, but I’m not sure if I have allowed that to carry over to my personal life. I created Winston, the protagonist in Ristretto Rain, as an example of the perfect listener, a model for me to emulate. Listening is, or at least should be, the building blocks to relationships. Relationships the pieces of the grand chess game of life.
Some day if I were to meet God face to face I would ask him to explain dark energy and matter. The relationship between gravity and time. I have some theories on those. But also, the rules of personal engagement. With that, I am completely clueless.
Happy Thanksgiving. I hope it is a lonely one, meaning you’re being safe.
P.S. I know I have written here a lot lately, but tomorrow I return to Retribution and will not come up for air for a month. I can tell people are still reading the blogs, so I will keep writing.