No Anger

In response to last week’s post Cancer Again (Naturally), a reader wrote in a comment, “Usually the prognosis is pretty grim once it [cancer] has metastasized.” I saw my oncologist the next day and it turns out that’s true.

I am going to start radiation treatments the first week in May, but while we might be able to get rid of the current tumor, sooner or later, it will spread somewhere else and if goes someplace where there are vital organs, well, let’s just say, it won’t be pretty.

A relative asked me if I was at least a little angry that the cancer “came back” (though it actually hadn’t left). He mentioned how novelist and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis vented at God when his wife died a painful death after her cancer, thought to be cured, returned. Lewis wrote a journal of his thoughts and feelings about his wife’s ordeal that he published as A Grief Observed in 1961. I have not read the book (not much of a Lewis fan), but previewed it at Google Books: “Meanwhile, where is God? . . . Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” (p6)

In the past, I have had some issues with anger management. When the liver cancer first appeared, I was angry. I was irritated. It was a major interruption in my life. I had other things I wanted to do than go on doctor’s appointments, sit around in waiting rooms, have people poke and prod me, etc. But I did my best to work through the anger, and its cousin, fear. And I wrote about that process here on The Endless Further.

After the transplant, I thought the cancer was gone. But it was merely in hiding, keeping a low profile, and now it’s active again, threatening to take my life. But I am not angry this time. No thought of anger has risen in my mind. No angry emotion has surfaced. I don’t believe in God, so getting angry with him would be like venting to a closed door. No sense in getting angry at the cancer, it could care less whether I like it or not.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva wrote that anger is our greatest enemy, capable of destroying all the good in our lives, and since it has no purpose, rather than getting angry at something or someone, it’s better to see whatever it is as assisting you in your spiritual development.

Viewing cancer as a spiritual friend is a tall order. I’m not quite there, but no anger is a good accomplishment.

Another reader in a comment to last week’s post, encouraged me to continue to share this part of my journey, and I think I will for the time being. However, for today, that’s all I have.

With all this going on, I have neglected National Poetry Month, which I like to celebrate each year. Anger can be a positive, motivating force when it is in response to the suffering of others or directed at injustice. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Cesar Vallejo’s poem is a meditation on that aspect of anger.

The Anger That Breaks The Man Into Children

Translated from Spanish by Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia

Three unidentified girls during the Spanish Civil War (photographer unknown)
Three unidentified girls during the Spanish Civil War (photographer unknown)

The anger that breaks the man into children,
that breaks the child into equal birds,
and the bird, afterward, into little eggs;
the anger of the poor
has one oil against two vinegars.

The anger that breaks the tree into leaves,
the leaf into unequal buds
and the bud, into telescopic grooves;
the anger of the poor
has two rivers against many seas.

The anger that breaks the good into doubts,
the doubt, into three similar arcs
and the arc, later on, into unforeseeable tombs;
the anger of the poor
has one steel against two daggers.

The anger that breaks the soul into bodies;
the body into dissimilar organs
and the organ, into octave thoughts;
the anger of the poor
has one central fire against two craters.


7 thoughts on “No Anger

  1. David, I am sorry to hear about your struggles with cancer. This is something that a friend is experiencing; in her case, the prognosis is that her lifespan should almost certainly be measured in months, rather than any hope that the cancer will be successfully beaten or managed (despite ongoing chemo treatments).

    I am very sorry for her suffering, and that of people around her who care about her. But there is one aspect of the situation that has been bothering me, yet it is impossible to bring up with anyone involved. We both attend the local Unitarian-Universalist church, and the minister (a Buddhist, BTW) has installed a “F*ck cancer” candle at the front of the sanctuary, which each week during Sunday service she invites anyone to light in support of my friend. She also uses an image of this candle as her social media avatar.

    I have had friends and family members with cancer, some of who died. Nonetheless, this whole concept of f*ck cancer bothers me. On the one hand, as I understand it, cancer is not some evil intruder but is one’s own body malfunctioning. There is some sort of false separation taking place when we say “I love so-and-so but hate her cancer,” it seems to me. On the other hand, aggressively hating and swearing at someone’s fundamental condition doesn’t seem helpful to me. We’re all going to die, and raging doesn’t seem like the most optimal way to respond. I understand that this is a natural early reaction, but eventually we have to go deeper, and framing the whole thing around a concept of f*ck cancer seems to inhibit that.

    However, I recognize that I’m not the one with cancer. I don’t think I have a right to tell someone else how to deal, and my thinking on this is totally theoretical and not personally existential. If I was the one with cancer, or my children had it, I might react very differently. Still, I can’t help feeling strongly that there’s something troubling with this f*ck cancer thing. As someone who has probably encountered this idea, do you have any thoughts to share? I accept that I may be totally off-base with my perspective on this.

    1. dont want to seem jumping in here, but i agree with your view.

      The way one handles any suffering (or even mundane issues) cannot be by making it the enemy. The smart way is to friend it, understand it, empathize it (which requires loving it)…all this point to kind of putting a “Love you” candle, almost. Not in the sense of inviting it, but in the sense of “I understand you, now, how can I deal with you, cure you, transcend you”. They got it horribly wrong with the whole “fuck you” candle, in my view. Not sure if you read shantideva, he has a well reasoned logical way to deal with suffering in general.

    2. Hi Jeff. No, I don’t think you are totally off-base about this. You know, for the cancer patient, the disease and the battle against it, can be an intensely personal thing. On the other hand, cancer touches everyone involved. It is hard to watch someone you care about struggle with it. When that person dies, he or she, is finally at peace, while friends and loved ones then have to deal with the grief. I’ve had family members die from cancer and I know that how traumatic such loss can be.

      So, I think everyone has a right to frame their own personal reactions to the scourge of cancer in their own way. Normally, I can get behind the sentiment of F*ck this or that. But as a sort of one-off, knee jerk reaction. As a public statement, framing a sort of public campaign, it does not seem inappropriate, especially in a spiritual setting. And as I write this, I realize how this sentiment is almost completely counter to what Shantideva wrote about anger, because you are right, it is an expression of rage. Someone who is a Buddhist and a minister should be thinking in terms of how to use cancer as an opportunity to teach and everyone else as an opportunity to learn. Shantideva says “my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life.”

      What is to be learned from F*uck Cancer? Nothing, that I can see. How does such a sentiment assist in the Bodhisattva way? It doesn’t. You are also correct that there is a false separation in loving the person but hating the cancer. Although, in communicating our thoughts and feelings it is something difficult to avoid inadvertently expressing such a separation (which perhaps connects to the discussion on the blog this week).

      In any case, I would think a candle of loving-kindness would be more appropriate. Anyone can say F*uck Cancer, but spiritual people and Buddhist should try to find more positive and value-creating expression to focus people’s thoughts on.

      I don’t know what else to tell you. If you feel strongly about it, I would continue to bring it up even though it is difficult. Maybe this is the opportunity for you to be a teacher to the minister.

  2. Every time I come across shantideva, a smile appears on my face. The dude gets it. He can be extreme at times, but you cant go wrong being extreme in dharma.

    In a way, his approach can be said as the one of “faith” (not the traditional, god faith, but faith in buddha’s core teachings; teachings == god), which I believe he uses it as a “tool” – not blindly following, but purely due to practical reasons.

  3. I don’t think there is anything wrong with experiencing anger, because it usually does point to fears that need to be healed. But the important thing is to use it as a tool for healing and understanding, rather than giving it free reign. Learning not to let anger and fear run wild has been one of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my own journey.

    Also, remember that nobody knows their future, and that you are alive now–that’s what matters. You have this moment. That’s all any of us have.

  4. David, I hope you won’t mind if I share a few brief thoughts on how you might consider this cancer. One – I hope for you that you can continue to think about your experience mindfully and receive some insight. And my thought number two- I am hoping you will also not think about it for a bit and receive some insight. Finally, and most of all, thought number three- I hope for your happiness whatever you are thinking or not thinking. It may be some encouragement for you to know this old Buddhist will be meditating on your ability to continue to feel love, compassion, joy and equanimity as you take up your lamp and journey on. Namaste – Cary

    1. Many thanks, Cary. Your suggestion, the 2nd one, is well taken. I think I have already been following it but have not thought (or non-thought) about it in the way you have phrased it. In times of suffering, certainly there are points when we just need to let go and be mindful of the other things around us, and then when we refocus on the suffering, hopefully our thoughts are fresher. I think this also guards against becoming attached to the suffering.

      Again, thanks for your warm wishes, and my best regards to you.

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