I had a bit of a scare last summer. An uncomfortably close call. It started with an occasional pain in my right shoulder when I was running. Soon it was painful every time I ran. And then one morning in the shower I found a lump. I wasn’t too concerned at this point, but since a friend of a similar age had just narrowly survived cancer that year, I thought I should probably get it checked out. Just to be safe. I remember that my primary concern, as I cycled off to visit the doctor, was that she would feel nothing and send me home feeling like a stereotypically hysterical middle-aged woman. When she found not just one lump, but a second even larger one in my right breast then all the air seemed to rush out of my lungs at once. I’m mortified to admit I cried a little even though nothing had even actually gone wrong at this point. In retrospect what upset me was the thought of telling my husband. He had just buried both his mother and his best friend the year before. The idea of subjecting him to this kind of fear and worry, yet again, pushed me over the edge and way outside my comfort zone into a very public display of emotion.
Next stop mammogram.
If you’ve never had one, a mammogram is really not what you might expect. I had supposed it would be something along the lines of standing in front of a big light box, and then very briefly slipping down my hospital modesty gown to allow a discreet and rapid photo of my boobs. This is not the case. If you have one scheduled then you can expect to stand alone right in the middle of a white room that resembles the deck of a spaceship feeling acutely aware that your entire top half is very, very naked, while a heavy and noisy horizontal metal plate thrums into place just below your chest. You will then be asked by a radiographer to lift your boobs and place them on this plate, laying them out like St John’s head for Herod. Things get weirder still while your boobs are clamped by a second descending plate and squeezed in a vice. Still more clamping, buzzing and squeezing to follow as they take some side profiles as well. I won’t say I have never had less fun with my top off, but it’s close.
Next up was the ultrasound room, where I blinked half-blinded as I struggled to comprehend the news that there were now not just two but three “solid masses” that would require biopsies.
I swallowed hard, nodding mutely as a member of the hospital administration leaned over my still naked bosom to confirm, up-close-and-personal, that I could pay before any further testing took place. When it comes to life, death or birth, we must turn our trust towards complete strangers. Dignity is a small price to pay for a chance at salvation, so most of us hand it over without hesitation when we cross the threshold of a hospital. I waited a long and uncomfortable week for my results.
The most chilling aspect of the whole ordeal was to realise that somewhere in the cocktail of feelings (terror, shame, fatigue, self pity) was an unexpected guest. Something I never thought to find there. I am not proud to say it, but during that week of waiting there was a small part of me that felt… relieved. I was scared too. Especially for my husband and three children. I was angry that this could happen to me after I had eaten all those salads, done all that yoga, jogged all those miles! But still, there it was. Undeniable. An easing up, a letting go, a release. It took weeks of existential detective work to try to figure out where this feeling could be coming from. And this is what I came up with: it was existential relief.
Relief that I could take a break from trying so hard to make something of my life. Jean-Paul Sartre, capturing perfectly the post-religious, post-idealist disillusionment of the latter half of the 20th century, said “Man is condemned to be free”. Woman has increasingly joined him. The dizzying array of opportunity, choice and freedom available to many of my generation is a privilege. There are people all over the world who would love to have the time and resources to experience existential angst, but they are too busy surviving. But for those millions of us in the privileged position of choice, our angst is still real and our depression and anxiety is growing.
I lost my belief in any kind of afterlife or God after a very religious upbringing and a long, dark night of the soul trying to hang on to my faith. But a few bits and pieces stay with me, and these are often the ideas that have seeped out of Christiantity into broader culture for many people. A prime example is “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (King James Version, Luke 12:48). I hadn’t realised until my fortieth year on the planet how deeply the responsibility to provide an existential return on my existence had been eating away at me. With a great education, material comforts unimaginable to most people in the world, and a supportive family behind me, the least I could do is be an attentive and loving mother, a dependable but fun wife, an inspiring teacher and a good daughter. I also felt obliged to repay society’s investment in my education by publishing meaningful research, not to mention being a good role model for my kids by staying fit and pursuing wholesome hobbies like art and music as opposed to bingeing exhaustedly on Netflix and Belgian beer. I’ve never been good at or even particularly interested in being houseproud, but I have become dimly aware of the increasing expectation that we all keep a home so clean and devoid of clutter it looks like no one lives there. Then there’s also the imperative to expand one’s horizons and take advantage of the opportunities our parents never had by learning to code, striving to thwart climate change and the increasing drive to justify the existence of hobbies by transforming them into economically productive “side-hustles”. You can’t just pour your heart out in a journal anymore, you need to drive followers to your blog. It’s a heck of a lot to get done in four thousand weeks. It’s beginning to dawn on me that I probably won’t manage it. I suppose on some level sickness could provide me with a reason or an excuse for not having achieved any of it.
When my results came back with nothing to worry about I was genuinely relieved and ecstatic but remained changed by the experience and keenly aware that it could have gone the other way. I’m not here to tell you that a brush with mortality has enlightened me about what is really important, or to advise you to live each day as if it were your last. If you are wrong you might end up with a colossal hangover. The problem with this approach is that the brevity of life on its own doesn’t do anything to clarify what is important in it. As Anne Lamott memorably puts it, we are still left wondering “Is life too short to be taking shit, or is life too short to be minding it?”
And now I’m left trying to answer the question: What do I want for my remaining two thousand weeks? More of the same, or something a little bit different?