Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beyond Surviving

“Human beings are designed to survive.” That is what I learned in a recent seminar that I participated in. The message was basically that our instincts would guide us in fight or flight or other responses needed to survive whatever situation we find ourselves in. On one side of the coin, this is a comforting thought—survival is the norm, and we will take action instinctively when our safety and well-being is threatened. It is nice to know we don’t have to stop and think in the face of danger, but just trust our automatic reactions. But in another sense, “surviving” is kind of a mediocre standard to set for our lives.

After my last column on survivorship, I was talking to some other cancer survivor friends who question the widespread use of the term as somewhat limiting. Hmmmm. I had never thought of it that way. While survivorship can be empowering as I hypothesized in May, it can also be limiting. When you are fighting for your life, surviving is certainly optimal, but once the immediate danger has passed, don’t we all yearn for something more?

I love the Sugarland song titled just that—“Something More.” The lyrics go: “There’s gotta be something more, gotta be more than this. I need a little less hard time, I need a little more bliss. I’m gonna take my chances, taking a chance I might find what I’m looking for. There’s gotta be something more. I could work my life away, but why? I got things I wanna do before I die.” Listen to the song here.

It is so easy to become complacent in life, accepting the challenges as they come, and “surviving” on a day-to-day basis. It reminds me of the first line from the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, “Good is the enemy of great.” So many of us settle for good, when our lives could be great, even extraordinary! Why? Because we are designed to survive. Taking the chance, as the lyrics mention, entails risk, and that could threaten our survival. At the very least, it feels dangerous to step outside the comfortable box we have created for ourselves.

My previous column on Security dealt with this theme. My cancer diagnosis freed me in so many ways from needing the stability and security I had previously pursued. Once you face your own mortality, and recognize that there is really no such thing as security in life, you realize that taking the risk to do something new can be the most rewarding part of your brief existence. This is true even if you fail miserably. After all, you will survive.

I am drawing on the wisdom of many others in this installment, but why would I try to say it better than George Bernard Shaw did: “This is the true joy in life … being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one … being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy … I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Most of us are so afraid to live this way. In fact, we are afraid of everything: snakes, lightning, rapists, terrorists, tornadoes, embarrassment, failure, success, vulnerability. I’m not suggesting that these things aren’t scary; only that they will be there whether we spend time being afraid of them or not. A Course in Miracles teaches us that we can live in fear or we can live in love. Which do you think is more fulfilling?

I used to spend a lot of time worrying about what other people would think of me if I did such and such—wore a certain outfit, said something stupid, behaved in a certain way. I feared judgment for the fact that I was still single, that I didn’t fit society’s ideal body size, that I don’t make a lot of money. Then I realized that what other people think of me is none of my business, and that it was silly to worry about that anyway. When it no longer mattered to me what others thought, I could feel free to share myself more openly through writing this column, having genuine and meaningful conversations with others about what really matters, and putting my feelings out there even if they weren’t reciprocated.

Living this way entails taking risks, but it offers tremendous rewards in return. Surviving is certainly better than the alternative, but what about something more? If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do? Can you believe that anything is possible?