Issue 65 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine

Correspondence

I appreciate the gift of THE SUN. It always has fine things in it. The recent issues regarding cancer, though, have bothered me with many unanswered questions. Dr. Irving Oyle describes the world, and by inclusion cancer, as “crystallized thought.” Peg Staley searches within herself for the causes and cure of breast cancer. Patricia Sun believes that all our illness is psychosomatic. These ideas are exciting: they explain the world to me the way I would like it to be.

But (she said), but . . . how do we “explain” the suffering of children?

I once worked in a hospital, in a non-medical capacity. One whole floor was occupied by children in the terminal stages of leukemia and bone cancer. Some needed continuous transfusions, could literally drown in their own blood; they lay in beds designed like cradles, to ease some of the pain with a rocking motion. Treatments and cures have improved each decade, especially with children’s leukemia. But children still die of cancer; many survive, but suffer a great deal.

I can’t help but feel that psychosomatic explanations are cruelly self-serving, even grotesque, when applied to the cancers of children. Can an infant mind “project cancer” onto itself? Does a toddler have leukemia because he “repressed” strong desires or angers? Does a seven-year-old girl have bone cancer because she has failed to “experience” herself fully? Failed to do all the things she has wanted to do?

People talk of a “cancer type.” John Wayne usually symbolizes such a type: the macho personality, repressing feelings, trying to dominate the affective and natural environments, manipulating life as a linear race between winners and losers. Well and good. A lot of us would like to see this type “punished” by proving that a life lived in this way is prone to cancer.

The fact is that John Wayne lived a good long life. The Richard Nixons, the General Haigs, the presidents of Exxon and GM do not seem to be dying of cancer: they all seem quite fit! While infants and children are dying of cancer: do you know any infant who is a “cancer type”?

Other current psychosomatic approaches to cancer seem to come close to “blaming the victim.” This reminds me of the nineteenth century “explanation” of poverty: those in power officially declared that God was on the side of the rich and successful, and that therefore those suffering poverty, imprisonment, degradation must be out of favor with the Almighty.

It is a palpable fact that suffering and death can and do come to the innocent, to children; while really mean, insensitive and criminally exploitive people can and do prosper. And die of old age.

So when we “explain” cancer as a mental projection, I wonder: does the American middle class mind desire to protect itself from the stresses of injustice, and the unknown, and from the suffering of the innocent, by explaining away some of this world’s agonies as Mind Trips Only?

I don’t mean to be hostile or antagonistic about this. But I think there are many factors working in cancer, and though the human mind might be one of them, it might not be the sole or major factor. And even though we work to project constructive pictures with our minds, such pictures might not be strong enough to counteract the massive stresses of environmental pollution, artificial foods, and other biochemical carcinogens, which are, down to their very quarks, as real as we are.

P.S. Maybe I should add that I have survived a very nasty form of cancer, melanoma. (From too much Sun!) So I could flatter myself that I healed myself, prevented its spread, by means of my creative and tuned-in mind. Perhaps. But when I think of small lovely children dying of cancer, such an explanation does not flatter me. It makes me ashamed.

Barbara Mor Albuquerque, New Mexico

With Bob Dylan I say to you, “I feel like I owe you some kind of apology.” I never intended for the letter I wrote you to be published. (THE SUN, Issue 63.) Sometimes I write letters to the editor meant to be publicly displayed but you’ll have to take my word that wasn’t one. So let me briefly elaborate my laconic bombardment which went like this:

. . . I believe THE SUN has promoted a view that puts the real pain and suffering of cancer (and associated bestial truths) into a surreal philosophic framework that is tantamount to ignoring its actual, physical pain.

THE SUN has the spiritually nomadic character which is “in” with the “new age” crowd. This carries with it an almost built-in disdain for the establishment and a prideful “we’re enlightened” self-carriage. And yet what do you do to give straight dope on cancer? Quote your own gurus? Give your own testimonies of how through diet and herbs you’ve helped pass your aunt’s cancer? No; you cover a conference that includes (at least a few) traditionalists. Your surreal philosophy referred to above is able to condone this because it allows you to join the “aw, shucks, we can never know what causes cancer” crowd and so you free yourself not to take a firm stand and allow yourself to just continue on your merry spiritual trips and not have to confront this:

Cancer is caused by as tangible things as trees and birds and hearts filled with love: It is caused by the factors of the American diet, lifestyle and patterns of thinking. Chemotherapy and radiation can NEVER adequately treat these. The only thing that can, to use the Biblical expression, is REPENTANCE. You must change your ways of eating, thinking, and living. It takes courage for a doctor or a magazine to admit this, because then you get involved in real doctoring, real quick. All of a sudden you find out that many people don’t really want to get truly healthy. They want to stay sick with old habits and new drugs and techniques that they think will help them without them having to face the REPENTANCE that stands between them and real health. So now you’ve got to decide if you’re going to be a junkie for the drug companies or a physician truly after the order of Hippocrates and Pythagoras and Nostradamus and Jesus. By keeping your philosophy hazy, and thus surreal, you keep from having to get down to the bone and marrow of cancer cure in the name, again, of the evasive “oh we just can’t know what cancer is about.” The only thing that keeps you speaking with greater authority is your own cowardice, and your (falsely acculturated) respect for titles and degrees (which are derived from places whose philosophic roots are from former eras, etc.).

I am hard when writing to the physicians. If you come talk to me personally about your cancer, I am soft. Be content to be a nobody that you might help everybody (and thus become, without trying, somebody). Be courageous, gentle, studious (in the right things) and follow God in all things.

Larry Pahl Elk Grove, Illinois
Sy Safransky responds:

Having two children of my own — and having lost my first child — I can feel the poignancy of Barbara Mor’s question about the suffering of children.

I can’t speak for Patricia Sun or anyone else, but I can say that psychosomatic medicine means different things to different people; I don’t use the term, because it is limiting, and easily misunderstood. I believe we create our own reality (including illness) but at a level deeper than ordinary consciousness — not in “the mind” as opposed to “the body” (which is how psychosomatic medicine is usually understood) but at the vital intersection of spirit and flesh. I mean the soul, call it what you will. We don’t begin at birth or end at death — as “real” and poignant as those beginnings and endings are — and the challenges we set ourselves in this life are deeper than the ego’s shadow dance of reward and punishment. Human consciousness is an adventure on many levels, in and out of the body; we endure unspeakable suffering, and the reasons are not always clear — maybe there are no “reasons,” as we usually think of them. But there is purpose. Poison in the air and bad food are part of it, chosen as a creative challenge, as we chose our parents, our manner of death — yet “forgetting” we’ve chosen is part of the poignancy. We are veiled from ourselves, and each of us learns to part the veil.

Last May, at his benefit lecture for THE SUN, the spiritual teacher Ram Dass read a letter he had written to a couple in Ashland, Oregon, whose twelve-year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted and murdered. I think his comments speak eloquently to Barbara Mor’s predicament too:

“Steve and Anita, Rachel finished her brief work on Earth and left the stage in a manner that leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently. Is anyone strong enough to stay conscious through such teachings as you are receiving? Probably very few, and even they would only have a whisper of equanimity and spacious peace amidst the screaming trumpets of their rage, horror, grief and desolation. I cannot assuage your pain with any words, nor should I. Your pain is Rachel’s legacy to you. Not that she or I would inflict such pain by choice, but there it is. And it must burn its purifying way to completion. You may emerge from this ordeal more dead than alive. Then you will understand why the greatest saints, for whom every human being is their child, shoulder the unbearable pain and are often called the living dead. For something within you dies when you bear the unbearable. It is only in that dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love as God loves. Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength. Now is the time to sit quietly and to speak to Rachel and to thank her for being with you these few years and encourage her to go on with her work knowing that you will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience. In my heart I know that you and she will meet again and again and recognize the many ways in which you have known each other. And when you meet you will know in a flash what now it is not given to you to know, why this had to be the way it was. Your rational mind can never understand what has happened, but your hearts, if you can keep them open to God, will find their own intuitive way. Rachel came through you to do her work on Earth which included her manner of death. Now her soul is free and the love that you can share with her is invulnerable to the winds of changing time and space. In that deep love include me too.”

To Larry Pahl, what can I say? There are those who speak about God — sometimes wisely, sometimes not — and those who speak for God. Self-righteousness usually taints the words of the latter — which is too bad, because they are often good words, coming from a good heart. Maybe THE SUN is “spiritually nomadic”; I’d like to think not, but I’d rather run that risk than hit people over the head with capitalized injunctions. My guess is that physicians such as Jesus had a different bedside manner.

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