My life is filled with difficult choices.
Do I follow this treatment regiment, or another? Do I go to this doctor or another? Do I use this herbal remedy, or is it just a waste of money? Do I keep investing for retirement, or spend the money now? When I buy clothes, do I buy a better quality item that I plan to use for years, or do I just get something less expensive… because… who knows how long I’ll be around to use it?
It seems like the last few months have been filled with these kinds of questions. Cancer certainly takes you through a journey like this, especially when it’s a cancer they still can’t cure. So for the past two months, I’ve been getting a lot of counseling about how I think through decisions. (Because I haven’t been doing such a good job of it!)
In the past, I always had a short-term plan, a long-term plan, and a backup plan. To get there, I would analyze everything out logically, write down options, consider possible outcomes, look through scriptures to see if God had anything to say on it, talk with expert counsel, and then pray and meditate on it. Next, I’d wait for the thought process to complete, and trust that something would come back that I could be sure was a solid plan for years to come. That process served me well for four decades. It empowered my musical career, the dramatic move into ministry, building a church in New Hampshire, moving the family to Pennsylvania, and even my most recent work at Apple. I’ve always relied on vision for what to do next. Ask my kids… I’m a planner, and have continually pestered them with, “What’s your long-term goal in this?” And yes, it always drove them crazy! But it worked for me. In the past.
Now, there is no long term. The way I thought through life’s issues previously just doesn’t work in the present. Planning as a visionary requires that you see into the future. With terminal cancer, the future is at best unknown, and at worst, nonexistent. That means someone like me has to completely relearn the entire process of decision making.
What I’ve discovered, is that my kids may have had the answer all along. (And there’s even a scripture I’ll get to that supports them.) The solution? If you’re not sure what the future holds, don’t plan that far in advance. Simply decide what needs to be done today and work on the rest later.
For months now, I’ve driven my logical thinking brain crazy trying to develop the best strategy when the future is a vapor. When you do that, the primal part of your brain that wants to survive starts forcing your body into stress, panic, confusion, and chaos. Since visionary planning has practically no solutions for terminal illness, that survival instinct runs wild on full throttle. Each day has many issues, and when you combine that with all the possible scenarios of what may or may not happen later on, it’s just too much to process.
Jesus gave us the solution thousands of years ago.
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” (Mt 6:34, The Message Bible)
This past month, I’ve worked extremely hard at getting my brain out of the future. That required some things I’ve never considered before. Instead of trying to find answers, it meant ignoring the questions. On a very simplistic level, it meant not deciding if I would continue on chemotherapy for a year, but just deciding if I would get treatment for this cycle or not. Once cycle at a time I can handle. Ten cycles, twenty cycles, years of cycles….? Too many chemicals to think about.
Then there is the constant worrying about how much money this all costs. So instead of trying to figure out how if we’ll be able to pay for it this summer, or in the fall, or if this goes on for years… I simply focus on if there’s enough in the bank to do what needs to be done this week, or even today. If the answer is yes, then we do it. If the answer is no, then we don’t. And that’s how we’ll address it next month, and the month after that. The question is reduced to the moment we’re in, not the moments still to come.
Another trick to make this work, is to spend more time distracting the thinking and survival parts of your brain. You can’t shut them off, but you can quiet them down (as I have learned from my wonderful counselor) by stimulating the emotional part of the mind instead. That’s the part that meditates and prays, or gets absorbed in art and music, or visualizes being in places and activities that are pleasant and soothing. It’s the part that loves others, enjoys being with people in conversation or entertainment, or simply sits with someone when words can’t be said. Closeness and touch comfort the emotions, and all of these activities settle the brain, quiet the logical thinking, and convince our survival instinct that there really is nothing to flee from. If we, “Give your attention to what God is doing right now,” we discover we can handle that. We can process that. We learn that whatever needs to be decided for the future, CAN be decided in the future.
Keep in mind, that the particular set of circumstances you’re facing at this moment may never be the same. The future may hold things not even imaginable today. Trying to solve problems for months and years to come is virtually impossible once so many unknowns enter in. The best way to resolve that is to simply solve the problems that exist now — with the information that’s reliable and available now — and leave the rest for whatever may come.
I hope this finds some way to help you as it has helped me. It’s helped me be much less stressed, which ironically has allowed me to think more clearly. I know we’re not all facing the same issues, but I do believe there is some practical benefit here regardless of what may be going on in your life. And as Jesus reminded us, “God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” He always does!
– Sanford Kravette