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The Struggle to Hold On

By: David Kennedy, Supportive Care Counsellor, Hospice Peterborough 

Impermanence – everything changes. It is amazing how this simple truth gets so much resistance even when we know it is true. The difficulty comes at times in life when what is changing is perceived to be a threat to our stability, enjoyment, comfort or future.

The shocking news of a life-threatening illness is one of those times when we struggle against change the most and perhaps rightly so. After all, the changes that we see involve the control of our health, our time, our very life. It is no wonder that the language used to describe life at this point is the language of war and struggle.

Yet in the struggle to hold onto what we cannot hold onto, we create a web of suffering that becomes the very air we breathe. The brave fight against disease is acknowledged at death and held up as a valiant fight – even though it was not winnable. How do we embrace a reality of impermanence without simply “giving up” and shutting down on life?

If we can embrace impermanence well, while we experience the losses of what we cannot hold onto, we will have the opportunity to experience the new gifts that are being offered to us.

So how do we embrace change and loss without a stance of giving up and giving in? I believe this begins with facing and acknowledging, in an honouring way, the changes that are happening. Perhaps this begins with a grateful realization that our body has done us well for many years. The changes happening do not negate our gratitude for the years that it has served us and fought for us against infection, injury and aging. It is not that the physical body is simply giving up, but rather it is following a path of impermanence and it will continue to do the best it can with the reality of the disease. Impermanence means that instead of going out and shovelling dirt in the yard, we go and lie down and have a nap. Our gratitude to our body for showing us our journey is often set aside in feelings of failure or fear that we are not able to do what we used to do. What if it is possible to allow our body to help us with the reality of change as healthy, not failure?

Secondly, I believe we can do this better by holding onto things lightly rather than tightly. We have become a society that finds our meaning and worth and value in what we do, or what we have or by what other people say about us. This demands that we hold onto things and doing and reputation in ways that do not allow for impermanence. Instead we hand over control of our self to these things which were never meant to stay the same. Illness and dying immediately confront these strongholds we have built and when they cannot withstand what is happening we are left feeling meaningless, valueless and without a sense of who we are. What if we held onto these things like doing, having and perception by others more loosely? What would it look like if we found meaning and value and presence in more than these things so that when change comes in these areas we are not void of meaningful life?

Finally, it is important to be fully in the moment of the life we are in without the constant need to measure value and worth by what we used to do, and the haunting fear of what we won’t be able to do in the future. It is the ability to embrace where we find ourselves now and to put all of our effort into being thankful and active in ways that are possible now. Today I can find the strength to go and sit in the garden and to observe and wonder. It is not the feelings of failure that I can’t dig the garden like I did last year, or the anxiety of whether I will be able to get out into the garden next month – it is the action and gratitude and wonder of being in the garden today and finding my soul being touched by the wonders of this moment.

What possible gifts may come our way when we can embrace impermanence well? I have watched people find wonder in the simple activity of watching their child eat a sandwich with great enjoyment. I have listened to a person describe in vivid detail the time they watched a hummingbird feed and tell me that they had never stopped to watch this even though the feeder had been there year after year. It is the gift of loving people in the moment for who they are. The expressing of that love spontaneously without having to filter through the lens of how we used to do it. It is the gift of mystery, not certainty, of not needing to know or be right.

Each day is a reminder of impermanence, nature is its ambassador and disease is the unknown guide to open the world to the way it has always been.

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