My sister’s voice on the phone has that little catch in it; bad news really doesn’t want to travel. She gets it all out in one breath: Judy has cancer.

Judy, my first wife, had written that a lump in her breast had been diagnosed as malignant; she was entering the hospital the next day for a mastectomy. A mastectomy? I protest. Why is she letting them do that? How bad is it? Cancer? How could Judy have cancer?

The questions we ask at times like this! As if answers are what we’re after. I keep talking, while my heart breaks. Faced with grief, the heart knows how to answer.

Twelve years have passed since our marriage ended, yet I’m stunned by the depth of tenderness I feel. It’s true: I still love everyone I ever loved. It doesn’t matter whether I see them or think of them or call.

Deep the love, deep the cup of sorrows. A scar where her breast was.

I write, she writes back. The operation, she says, was a success, and she’s adjusting “quite well” to her “asymmetrical torso.” She had considered many options before undergoing the surgery but in the end went along with the doctor’s recommendation. “Already I can see spiritual growth as a result of this experience — a greater faith and trust in God’s care, a greater sense of the presence of Jesus daily in my life. . . .”

These aren’t empty words. The nice Jewish girl I fell in love with in college, and married two years later, went through a powerful conversion not long after we split up. She and her husband, David, are the most devout Christians I know; if I sometimes find their fundamentalism a little stifling, I am nonetheless moved by the depth of their faith, the sacrifices they make for others. Once, when I visited them, David wasn’t home; he was spending the day cutting firewood for a neighbor too sick to do it himself and too poor to buy any.

A happy second marriage, two beautiful children, an uncomplicated rural life, an abiding faith in God. . . . How could Judy have cancer?

I knew that Judy was supremely conscious about her health, especially her diet. We’d been through a conversion of sorts ourselves, making a major discovery together fifteen years ago: that each of us, to a large extent, is responsible for our own well-being. We gave up meat, sugar, coffee, indeed everything the nutritionists judged impure; we studied organic gardening; we began to do yoga. We weren’t dilettantes either, or impassioned teenagers taking up the latest fad. I knew Judy had remained committed to living more naturally, as had I. Never mind that a “natural lifestyle” has become a joke, marketed beyond recognition; to eat simply, to live in harmony with the planet and the seasons, and the infinite wisdom of our own bodies, makes sense, doesn’t it? It did to us.

How could Judy have cancer?

 

Depending on your prejudices, the question may make sense or seem ridiculous; it may even seem cruel. My prejudices keep changing, so at different times it’s all of these to me. Indeed, some of the most vexing questions I ask myself are about health — just what it is and why it’s so elusive; why some people do all the right things and get sick and die anyway while others break all the rules and live; what it means to be responsible for our bodies; indeed, what these bodies are; who we are, lurking in the shadows of ourselves, fending off illness, death, wondering what went wrong.

How simple it seemed at first! Eat good food, exercise regularly, get enough sleep. Listen to the body. Pause in awe. We marvel at cathedrals, pyramids, monuments of stone. What about the sixty trillion cells so beautifully and precisely arranged in each of us? We seem to breathe and grow and carry on all our activities in spite of ourselves. How we stay alive is nearly as much of a mystery as what happens when we die. How astounding that we exist at all in this incomprehensible form, so delicately self-regulating; the body as a temple was an image that beckoned from the start.

Just how to keep the temple holy turned out to be more complicated than I imagined. Innocently entering the health and fitness movement, I found myself in the middle of a holy war. To the uninitiated the arguments made about as much sense as the fighting in Lebanon. The longer you listened, the more you read, the less you knew for sure.

Everyone agreed on one thing: the typical American diet was ruinous. What to replace it with was the subject of passionate debate. Just being a vegetarian wasn’t good enough, I was told. I needed to give up dairy products, too. And make sure I ate foods in the right combinations. Or only raw. Or only sprouted. Buying a pair of running shoes was as complicated as buying a car. But why run at all, and risk injuring the knees, when I could do yoga instead? Why do yoga when I could do t’ai-chi?

If I picked the wrong diet, or the wrong exercise, and happened to get sick, what could I do about it? Again, there was general agreement about only one thing: Western medicine was a last resort; wholistic health was the key. But wholistic health turned out to be an uneasy alliance of different and sometimes contradictory philosophies: massage therapy, iridology, herbology, reflexology, color healing, even coffee enemas. So much to choose from. At the health food store, a half-dozen varieties of granola. Footsie-rollers. “Natural” TV dinners.

 

There’s no end to it. This is, after all, America. We are a people given to merchandising our dreams, and we dream of health, of beautiful bodies, of longevity, of strength. And we imagine that if we spend our money wisely, make the right choices, our dreams will come true.

But all the packages, all the practices, are symbols, nothing more, and serve mainly profit and pride; some of us insist on “the best doctor in town”; others demand the finest ginseng, grown on the rockiest slopes of northernmost China. There’s nothing wrong with good doctors or good ginseng, but to the extent that our own health is dependent on something external, we merely enhance our powerlessness.

If someone believes strongly enough in a particular cure, no matter how unorthodox, it will probably work; belief is the bottom line. But that begs the questions of just what to believe in, what real health is.

 

Health is usually defined as the absence of illness; illness is defined as the absence of health. Intellectual understanding obviously gets us only so far.

What strikes me about most theories of health is how appallingly simplistic they are. Western medicine, for all its complex vocabularies, treats the body about as imaginatively as the Republicans do the economy. It views the body as a machine, but the body is no machine. Everything in us is somehow connected with everything else; destroy one part with a drug and a dark flower blooms where you least suspect. Wholistic practitioners, though they pay lip service to the body’s innate wisdom, often are just as likely to interfere with it, applying this or that remedy, then crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.

But we’re always being surprised. A two-pack-a-day smoker beams good feelings at his grandchildren, while his son stares on glumly, a sprout still caught in his beard. One person cures himself of a life-threatening illness by laughing. Another person cries himself to health, reliving long-buried pain.

Take into account every variable — diet, exercise, heredity, climate, even the precise position of the stars at birth — and still there’s surprise. Indeed, there’s as much of an infinite universe inside us as there is in the heavens above. The emotions are part of that universe. Are all the germs around us nearly so dangerous as a feeling that’s held in? Anger, depression, pervasive discontent — maybe this is what makes us susceptible to illness; maybe this is illness, to which the body just gives a shape.

In fact, maybe the emphasis on feeling good is wrong entirely. Maybe illness is simply how the body adapts. Certainly pain is a valuable sign of distress; it tells us something is wrong, and needs to be changed. Removing the pain is just removing the signal, like shutting off the fire alarm because it’s too loud. Perhaps the healthy body knows just when to “get” ill.

If it’s possible, then, for a “healthy” body to be “ill,” then what is health? To me, health isn’t just physical and emotional well-being. Health is a kind of vibrancy that comes from living close to truth. For each of us, this means something different. In discovering what that difference is — by insisting on our own originality, honoring our unique predicament — we learn to trust ourselves. Here there is power. Call it what you will — creativity, consciousness, grace. It is, in fact, the power to heal ourselves and to heal the world.

“Complete health and awakening are really the same,” Tarthang Tulku said. That’s what I’m trying to say. But such awakening doesn’t need to be thought of as spiritual; it doesn’t even require being in a healthy body. It’s available as well to the crippled and the lame, to all who step out from behind their masks and experience a moment of “going beyond” themselves, feeling “at one” with the universe. The words are cliches but the experience is always fresh and awesome. For in that moment, the seeming contradiction between being just a tiny part of it all and creating it all resolves itself. To be alive ceases to be a burden. To be responsible for our lives is seen as just the way it is.

 

I’m sick right now. I got sick in the middle of writing this. I’ve been working too hard, not sleeping enough. My throat is sore and my eyes are watery, yet I’ve had to stay up and finish because the issue is due at the printer in the morning.

My body has been telling me to go to bed and I’ve been ignoring it, making the writing more important than my health. How can I get well if I ignore so obvious a message? How fraudulent I am! But how can I not finish?

Here is a paradox. And a discovery: if I blame myself, I just feel worse; if I accept the way things are, somehow — and I can’t explain this — I actually feel better. Not good, but better.

This may seem inconsequential, compared to chronic illness, real suffering, cancer. Then again, it may not.

Sy