Writing Life: Strong Reaction

I always promise to respond to comments about blog posts, whether written online, sent to me via email, or delivered in person or via a phone call. A friend and regular reader did call after having an extremely strong reaction to my post “Conscious Aging: What Does Life Worth Living Mean?”, which I posted on January 17th. You can find that post by scrolling back a few days, or by entering the title in the Search box on the Home page. She gave me the OK to talk about her response, as long as I don’t use her name.

As a quick reprise, I came across an article in the New York Times about physician-assisted suicide, which I initially passed by with a knee-jerk “I’m not even going to read that”, because I find the topic upsetting. Then I went back and pushed myself to read, thinking if I had such a strong response even to the title, there must be something there that’s important for me.

I did read the article. As a way of engaging, I thought that before I could contemplate under what circumstances I might consider using a doctor’s help to end my life, I’d have to be clear on what is so important to me that the loss of those things would make life not worth living.

I approached the article as a rather healthy 71 year old, with no profound medical problems. I do have an immune deficiency that leads to bad respiratory episodes now and again, but they are manageable with meds. I have some cholesterol and blood pressure issues, again under control with meds. Other than that, my body and brain work, and have always worked, pretty well.

My friend has had cancer for over 20 years, with regular scans to monitor how her body is dealing with the disease. Sometimes a lesion or spot or tumor appears; she’s gotten chemo or radiation, and the emergent problem is knocked down. On the day she read my blog post, she’d just gotten the news that her cancer has turned suddenly more aggressive, with numerous trouble spots on her scans. She will begin a new chemo regimen — stronger, more expensive and with more side effects — and be on chemo in some form for the rest of her life.

If she’d made her comment on the blog post I’d use her own words here. I hope I’m being accurate in paraphrasing. She found the post glib, cerebral, detached, so much navel-gazing about the meaning of life when she’s trying simply to live. She thought I sounded ungrateful for how lucky I am, and oblivious to the profound loss of choice that comes when a person has to conduct a daily life around a non-negotiable regimen of strong medication, side effects, doctor visits, and the like.

We had a long conversation. I think there is a sharp chasm between people who have received what can be a terminal diagnosis and those of us who have not. I can read about living with cancer. I can listen to friends. I can try to put myself in their shoes. But like others who have not yet had to contend with a shorter shelf life right on the horizon, I can’t in any real sense understand. I can only empathize.

I also accept that I’m cerebral in how I approach things. It’s not an affectation; it’s who I am. Like no-drama Obama, I’ll always go first to how I think about something. Only then can I work my way to how I feel.

I pushed back a bit on the “not grateful” part. I do feel, and express, gratitude every day, and I hope that gratitude finds its way into the blog. I think I am extraordinarily lucky to have dear family and friends that I see often, friends at a distance who care to stay in touch with me, my Panama family, good health and financial independence, and more choice than most. I’ve worked hard for those things — they didn’t just fall into my lap. I hold each of them as precious, and am grateful for them every day. I hope I remember to say so in the blog.

What I didn’t say on the phone, because it didn’t occur to me until after, is that I’m a bit surprised that my cool and tempered approach to life — hard wired, it’s just who I am — can evoke such a strongly negative response from others, whether in a blog post or how I am in a meeting or how I work my way through a tragedy. I’ve had it happen before, not often but it has happened, and it always takes me by surprise. It feels as if those who readily express emotion in stronger ways want me to do so too, and are dramatically disappointed when I don’t.

Glad to have you weigh in here. Have you had the experience of something you did or said or wrote evoking a reaction you didn’t expect? How did you respond? More to the point, since I have such a hard time getting there myself, how did you feel when it happened?

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