Tuesday, August 18, 2009

what a truly "good attitude" is

Some people think that, in life, all you need is positive thinking to get what you want, or to achieve your most cherished goal. It's a nice thought, but it's also idiotic. Consider Olympic athletes: they all visualize themselves victorious, but in the end, only one person can win each event. The losers probably spent as much effort visualizing victory as did the winner, but what good did such visualization do them? It may have helped them to strive, but it didn't help them to win. It should be obvious that merely wishing something to be true, or visualizing it to be true, is not enough.

I received a phone call late tonight that reminded me of this silly mentality. I won't embarrass the person by naming him/her, but suffice it to say that the call was offensive and insulting to me, and to anyone else who has tried hard to show Mom as much love and care as possible. The caller implied that, if our hopes flagged, if we showed "weakness," we would be inviting disaster. In other words, when Mom dies-- as she inevitably will-- it will somehow be our fault that she's dead, our fault because our mindset wasn't positive enough. I'm furious as I type this. It was an unbelievably stupid thing for the caller to say.

People who say such things are usually ignorant of the situation they're talking about. When you're ignorant, you feel free to say whatever you want, causing suffering for others (and possibly for yourself) through unmindful speech. Wise people say less in such situations; they recognize the limits of their own knowledge, and try to be helpful where possible-- not hurtful.

But the unwise seem to outnumber the wise. For example, I've heard some Christians argue that, for healing to occur (as in the case of cancer or some other illness), all one needs is the power of faith. The implication is that, if disaster happens, it must be the fault of the person or people whose faith weakened. Does this seem right to you? If you're at all rational, it shouldn't. It's little more than superstitious garbage. Mom's cancer doesn't give a damn about how hopeful or hopeless I am, how faithful or faithless. There are no magical "mind rays" beaming into Mom from my head, causing her cancer to slow or to quicken. This is the twenty-first century; we should have left such thinking behind long ago. But the world is full of primitive, superstitious, magical thinkers, so this kind of nonsense persists even today.

I once taught a Korean student at Sookmyung Women's University who had applied to study at a certain high-ranking American graduate school. She told me about her hopes for acceptance to the school.

"Wonderful!" I said. "But have you applied anywhere else?"

"Oh, no!" she said. "I applied only to that school!"

"Don't you have a Plan B?" I asked. "What if you fail to get in?"

I'm not joking when I tell you that the woman squeezed her eyes shut, shook her head violently, and passionately hissed, "I can't think about that!"

Does this woman's attitude seem rational to you? Intelligent? What could possibly be wrong with preparing for a negative outcome? Lack of preparation for failure, or an inability to face the worst, isn't a sign of intelligence or bravery in my book. Relentless positivity or optimism isn't a sane way to approach reality. You hurt more than yourself when you go through life that way. As Mick Jagger famously contended, "You can't always get what you want." That's a metaphysical certainty.

Life isn't something over which you have complete control. In fact, it's arrogant to believe that your successes and failures can be credited only to you. You're a fragile, highly dependent thing, a member of an immense web of intercausation. When you succeed, it's not only because of your own will, but also because many factors have aligned in your favor: a good family background, good education, an empty job slot at just the right time, etc. When you're victorious, you're never the sole reason for your victory. By the same token, when you fail, you're never the sole reason for your failure.

It's also important to see rightly about what causes what. Can my sadness or lack of conviction spur Mom's cancer to grow faster? That's manifest bullshit, akin to claiming that plants have a telepathic sense. My attitude and Mom's cancer aren't causally linked, at least not through some sort of empathetic hocus-pocus. There might be an indirect causal link if, say, I were so depressed that I failed to look after Mom at all, thereby allowing her to slip away. But that's not what we're talking about.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, a lot of people think in this irrational, magical manner. They argue irrationally, too. Tonight's caller said, "I know about a man who was told by the doctors that he was going to die in three months, but he outlived them!" This type of reasoning isn't reasoning. Anecdotes aren't arguments. Laying out a single case doesn't prove that a separate case will have the same outcome. I feel I'm wasting my time when I hear people trot out happy anecdotes. Do they consider how such anecdotes make me and my family feel? Probably not. When Mom passes away, what will these people say to me? To my mind, there's nothing they can say. I might be able to forgive such deliberate obtuseness eventually, but it won't be easy.

So when people try to give me advice on how to have a "good attitude" toward Mom's cancer, I generally nod my head and then ignore their "wisdom." I think such people have no damn clue what a truly "good attitude" is. Here's my take as it applies to Mom's cancer.

To me, a "good attitude" toward Mom's cancer means, first, that I'll take the time to assess the situation-- to find out as much as I can about the cancer so that I can do as much as possible to help her. Knowledge is power. Irrationality is weakness-- and a sign of cowardice. I have little respect for people who can't face death. Mom has talked with me and with Pastor Jeri about the end, and she seems accepting of it. Tonight's caller said that he/she had told Mom to "fight hard," and Mom had said that she would. Well, OK... but Mom nods "yes" to a lot these days, and she probably wanted this person to feel reassured. Truth be told, Mom probably does want to fight as best she can: who doesn't want to live? But like me, Mom knows there's a difference between believing a fantasy and fighting smart.

Which brings us to the issue of actually fighting the disease. A "good attitude" toward Mom's cancer does entail fighting. We have to recognize that, eventually, the cancer will win, but this doesn't mean we should simply give up, stand back, and watch the monster consume her. If a bear attacks a child in the woods, you can bet the father will do what he can, even though he knows this is probably the end.

And fight we have. Tonight's caller doesn't seem to have read my blog very well. He/she obviously doesn't understand how hard we've been trying to seek good help for Mom, how painfully we've deliberated over our options. That's what I meant earlier about ignorance: if this person had bothered to read my blog carefully, he/she wouldn't have said anything about "giving up." If this person really wants to understand our situation, he/she should quit his/her job, come to our house, and help us take care of Mom on a 24/7 basis. But I doubt that will happen. It's easier to make comments and complaints from afar.

In the end, a "good attitude" toward Mom's cancer means being fundamentally realistic about Mom's chances, and about our chances of helping Mom score a few extra years of life. It would be silly not to plan for her decease, to be caught unprepared when the inevitable occurs. Why add more unnecessary suffering to an already-painful situation? Death doesn't care whether you face it or not, so why not be prepared for it? There's no contradiction between preparing for death and vigorously affirming life. The best life is lived in the knowledge that we always walk hand-in-hand with death. Only fear and ignorance prevent us from openly acknowledging this. Death and life are wrapped up in each other.

All in all, I don't understand why this caller even bothered to call. If the caller had actually read my blog, every day, he/she would have known better than to think that anyone in my family is giving up the fight for Mom. The very implication is deeply insulting, given all the heartbreak we've already experienced.

The caller also needs to stop being irrational and start being realistic. No one gets a remission from GBM. No one. From the day we learned what type of cancer Mom has, we've known that Mom's destiny was already written. As I've mentioned several times, the best outcome we can hope for is that she might live long enough to die of old age, but even in that scenario, Mom won't be cancer free, and she'll still be missing a chunk of her frontal lobe.

So here's a note to all of you who want to wish Mom well.

Don't say, "Fight hard and you'll recover completely!"

Don't say, "Stay positive and you'll get better in no time!"

Don't say, "You're gonna be all right, I can tell!"

In other words, don't lie-- to her, or to yourself.

You want to know what to say? Try something like this:

"I'm always, always here for you."

"What can I do to help?"

"Here I am."

And definitely try this one:

"I love you." Come visit my mom, hold her hand, look her in the eyes, and say that again and again.

Finally, there's this: our family doesn't need ignorant scolding. If you can't be constructive, shut up.



John said...

Wow. Powerful post Kevin. I certainly concur with everything you have written. I might offer that the caller no doubt had no ill intentions, ignorance notwithstanding.

I saw a DVD the other day called "Two Weeks" about a family going through something similar to what you are dealing with. I'm not recommending it necessarily because it was pretty difficult to watch the mother's demise (brought back memories of a loss in my life). But it was also inspiring to see how the siblings came together and it really showed the strength of family bonds.

I mention this because your post reminded me of a scene from the movie that is classic. The sister insisted that a rabbi visit the mother prior to her passing. The brothers were initally opposed as mom (mostly comatose at this point) had not been particularly religious anyway. They finally relented to appease sis.

So this big loud guy comes in and says he's an "assistant rabbi" and that he was expert in these things after 16 years as a Navy chaplain. So he yells at the mother, "you're going to be just fine, I was a Navy chaplain, and I can tell you you are going to get better soon!"

The brothers looked at each other, then at sis, and then they all burst out laughing.

I don't know, Kevin. Maybe laughter in the face of ignorance is healthier (for you) than anger or frustration. Then again, I tend towards the ignorant myself sometimes, so hey, whatever works best for you.

I think you are doing an amazing job for your mom, Kevin. Hang tough!

DMOLINA said...

Kevin, It is strange how people from the outside can make those types of comments without actually "walking in the other persons shoes." If they had kept up daily with your blog, I cannot see where they could make that judgement. The only word that I can say to your comment is "BRAVO."

Kevin Kim said...


I know the caller well; this person probably was well-intended, but wasn't very smart. You're right-- humor is probably a better response, but when such talk comes from people who've known you for years, it cuts a lot more deeply, and is a lot harder to forgive. I'll get past it, but I also won't tolerate anyone who insults the efforts of Mom's circle of care.

Ms. Molina,

Thank you for your loving support. Hugs to you and your family.


Charles said...

Wow. I can only imagine how you must be feeling after that call.

Most of the time I don't know what to say when talking to people at times like these.