Living in the moment?

Posted October 16th, 2008 by Jane

There are a load of cliches about the business of living with cancer. The merits of ‘living in the moment’ are among them. Worried about the diagnosis? Operation next week? Chemotherapy coming up? How long have I got? Well the answer is don’t worry about it, what will be will be, ‘just live in the moment’.

At times I have found this rather an artificial platitude. I watched a TV programme back in March about a boy with a rare condition which meant he had no memory and no concept of the future…he literally could only live ‘in the moment’. I was really struck by a review in the Guardian by Sam Woolston who wisely reminds us that: “We care about tomorrow because we remember yesterday. Mental time travel is at the heart of what makes us human.” So indeed it is. Having terminal cancer at 59 means that I will probably not now get a dementia related disease…unless the cancer spreads to my brain, as it may..and dementia which robs the person of their past and any knowledge of their future must surely be among the worse of illnesses. It seems foolhardy therefore to advocate ‘living in the moment’ as the only way to be with cancer.

In “State of Happiness” Stella Duffy writes of a young woman dying of an unspecified terminal illness. From this novel i got the idea of mapping life…looking through the past, reflecting on significant parts, bringing it all together, making sense of it. For me this is one of life’s tasks..a kindof privilege possible only with the sharp focus that having a terminal illness brings. I find it hard to imagine a future where I don’t exist..(not everyone feels that I know) strange how none of us worries about before they were born. But still I am curious about that future…both about the big swing of history and the people left in my own little world.

So is there anything to be retained of that ‘living in the moment’ cliche. Well yes I think there is. My friend J. said to me a while back that “Life is a struggle. All we can do is try to create small spaces of pleasure.” I like that phrase…I like those spaces of pleasure, which are the accumulated moments of nowness when there are nice things happening…a sunny day, a good lunch, laughter with friends, a great book. Despising talk of ‘inspiration’ and heroes’ as I do, nonetheless I have my cancer heroes…both those I have known and those I have read. John Diamond’s “Reasons to be Cheerful” is one of the best non cliche ridden accounts of the joys to be had from celebrating moments of the present. Answering his editor’s question: ‘Just tell me John what is the point of it all?’…

“It is above all, I suppose. about passing time. and the only thing I know that you don’t is that time passes at the same rate and in much the same way whether you’re going to live to 48 or 148. Why am I happy? Because I’m alive. And the simple answer to the question ‘What the hell is the point of it all’ is this is the point of it all. You aren’t happy? Yes you are: this, here, now, is what happiness is. Enjoy it.”

And then finally listening to Sanjeev Bhaskar on Desert Islands discs this week I heard him talking about overcoming depression by gathering up series of enjoyable moments and living them.. It’s odd but I don’t get depressed in the way I used to (chemo depression is something else) or think there’s some more perfect moment in the future…this now is what has to count.