It’s not always easy to get your recovery sleep in as the snores and other assorted low frequency noises rumble around the ward like thunder on the African savanna! I
t can be a little bit like those BBC wildlife documentarys about Africa in the dark, complete with little animal howls of men pain! The observations tablets computer screens provide an authentic blue light like a bright African full moon.
I wanted to share these words from Carl Sagan. As a Stoic, these words put in perspective our worries and how pathetically small the worlds dictatorships truly are.
Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
I woke up today and found myself moving quickly from post slumber comfort to agitated and also broke my own rule of no screen straight after waking (unless it is Baby Spam from NZ) and no news first thing too.
I do follow politics, of course I do, it affects every part of our lives so is far too important to ignore. I know many people choose to bury their head in the sand, or only believe the happy propaganda pushed out by certain news media. Others wallow in the imaginary happy world of TV’s moving wallpaper, like Love Island, Masked Dancer and the myriad other candy floss served up these days, and if that is their choice good for them. I find the BBC’s Gardeners World the equivalent to an hours meditation even though I am a hopeless gardener.
As a follower of Stoic principles I can normally remain calm about what is happening in the world. This doesn’t mean that I don’t care nor does it mean that I don’t fear for my families future when I see things like a war in Europe, however I can stop myself falling into depression or becoming stressed or obsessed with the news. I am able to stand back and asses what I can affect and what I can’t and accept what I can’t change.
This week though, and for a few weeks, the UK has been on the brink of economic tragedy, with an energy crisis as much caused by bad forward planning as it is energy markets and it is certainly not caused by the Ukrainian war as much as politicians would like to pretend, that’s just opportunism.
Whilst this has been happening, the UK has had a zombie government whilst its ruling party had a drawn out and obscenely self indulgent leadership election. We now have a Prime Minister implementing policies that were not in the Conservative manifesto, and love him or hate him Boris Johnson at least won a mandate from the electorate, the new leader Liz Truss has no such mandate.
With all of this going on I found myself drawn unconsciously into the fray on Twitter (everyone is angry on Twitter) and sharing posts about the dire situation on Facebook……naughty Stuart, I have been the exact opposite of a Stoic the past few days, maybe even weeks.
This has dawned on me today as I grumbled my way through breakfast again and when it did I went straight back to my Stoic book of wisdom, The Daily Stoic. Facebook and Twitter are now banned from my mobile phone again, I still want to see what my friends are up to and keep up with my fellow Brain Tumour Warriors on the Facebook groups, but am now rationed to an hour on our PC which requires effort to boot up and sign into, putting a natural barrier between me and the anger zone. I am going back to meditating once a day to clear and calm my mind (a habit that I had let slip for a few weeks) and continuing my journal, which I had not stopped but had become less of a reflection on ‘Life the Universe and Everything’ and more of a rant.
It is so easy to slip into these stressful habits, the 24 hour news feeds are useful but can be addictive and bad for your mental wellbeing, I keep clear now.
So I am starting to feel calmer even as I write this, we have two years before the next election and the run up to that will be the time to get back into the political arguments.
I just have the simple wish that we could have governments that stopped playing politics for personal gain and started governing for the people it supposedly serves regardless of what colour rosette they wear. A bit of truthfulness wouldn’t go amiss either.
Quite a few people on the Brain Tumour Charity Facebook group have asked me how I have been so cheerful through the whole journey from diagnosis to recovery of my brain tumours; so I thought I would share how I approached the situation. I think most people on the group have benefited from the thoughts and advice of fellow ‘Warriors’ (as we call ourselves) and I hope my experience might help someone whatever situation you find yourself in.
At the risk of a collective groan, what helped my family and I was discovering ‘Stoicism’ or more accurately being led to it by our eldest daughter, Rebecca.
I would describe Stoicism’s philosophy as “bad stuff happens, how are you going to handle it? As a victim of circumstances or master of your destiny?”. Very much my words not the Stoics but I think it sums it up for me.
In essence Stoics don’t focus on what they cannot change, that’s where frustration and sadness come from. They turn the negative around by finding something no matter how small in the circumstances that they can control, giving a sense of being in control, whilst accepting that we cannot control everything. You can only control how you react to events.
The key thing is ‘Gratitude’, gratitude for the wins, no matter how small.
In the case of brain tumour sufferers and our collective situations; we none of us deserve, caused or wanted our tumours, but here they are. That’s the bit we can’t control but how we approach the journey ahead is in our control. We can and will weep but then we need to sit back and think OK, what about this can I improve, what can I not change.
The things you cannot change become in a way irrelevant as you will be along for the ride with them.
Once we figure out what we can affect, that is our ‘must do’ list and from where we derive our gratitude and “you can hurt me but never beat me” attitude. For those amongst us who know that physically the tumours will shorten their lives, the focus is to deny the enemy victory over your mind, to find joy in the life you have and the life that you’ve had and not dwell on the end. If your life is already being stolen by your tumour don’t reward it by giving it more of your precious time!
I love this quote from Dr. Suess;
“Don’t cry Because it’s over, SMILE because it happened”
Lots of us are left dealing with punishing symptoms even after the tumour has gone or been reduced, like my Glioma, which can never be fully removed, so every day carries the risk of being the day it fights back. Through Stoic thinking though, I refuse to give any control to my tumour. If it fights, I fight, but I am not giving up a single second of my precious time to my tumour until I need to act.
Let’s say you came into this a runner like me but afterwards you find you cannot run but you loved being out and about, you loved your freedom.
A stoic will think
‘OK, I can’t run, can I change this? No.
Can I walk far? No.
Right I’m getting a mobility scooter!
OK, I confess, this is me. As it happens there is now no reason that I will not be able to run again but not for a long while and I have been advised that walking any distance will be a long way off but I refused to miss out. £300 later I have a used bright red mobility scooter with alloy wheels!
It makes me laugh that I have it, smile that I bought it and excited because as I write I can barely make the front door, but the scooter is at the front door which means that I can go 10 miles through the beautiful Harrogate scenery. Or I could sit at home and sulk about running….no thanks.
My last car was a beautiful big Kia plug-in hybrid Optima Sportswagon, big, sturdy with massive wheels, but I don’t mourn for a machine, I laugh at the ludicrous contrast with the 4” alloy wheels on my scooter and its breath taking 4mph top speed, it is a regular source of giggles and joy!
So why did I need Stoicism?
Before my diagnosis we had moved in with my elderly mother-in-law who amongst other things has rapidly developing dementia. Life became extremely stressful, a depressing daily grind and on top of this, COVID19 happened and prevented us from being in New Zealand for the birth of our grandkids.
Some of you might have read my first ‘self-help’ (literally helping myself) blog which is called ‘Notes from a Care Home’ detailing some of the problems of living with Mum in law through humour. When my diagnosis came through my priorities changed of course.
It was stoic thinking that kept me going and really led to me blogging. I was going to try journaling but thought that if I shared my experience, someone else might be helped too.
Whatever I have to sacrifice to get the most time with my family is a win, and if I lose abilities along the way through no action on my part, they are small losses compared to the big win of life with my loved ones!
Stoicism has been around for about 2,000 years and was created by the Greeks and developed by the Romans. My introduction and ‘go to’ is a book by a guy called Ryan Holiday, called ‘The Daily Stoic’ and he also has a daily stoic podcast. The book has just one page for each day of the year with a quote from a famous Stoic and then a modern spin on the theme of it. It takes up almost no time each day, we are not talking about some big deal learning effort (although you might soon find that you want to know more) but builds you up in very tiny chunks.
My daughter bought us our copy and we in turn recently sent a copy to friends going through a family crisis and who are now using the book daily to help themselves through tough times.
It is a frustrating fantasy to think that we can control everything through sheer determination or willpower, the universe does not work that way. As individuals we cannot stop the random cruelty of our circumstances, but with Stoic thinking, it is a certainty that you can control how you think and react to these circumstances. How happy your life is, will be back in your hands.
I hope that this might help, it worked and continues to work for me and firmly cemented a ‘Glass Half Full’ mentality in me.
The Brain Tumour charity has been a great help to me since my diagnosis. They have a podcast which is always of interest to people with tumours and their families and also have the ‘Brian App’ ( yep that is spelt correctly, it is ‘Brian’) which offers advice and the ability to track your symptoms, appointments and treatments.
My Brainstem Playlist.
Since my diagnosis I have found myself looking at life differently including reflecting on my past life. Music has always been important to me so I decided to put together a playlist that includes songs that I love, songs that remind me of places and times in my life, and tracks that I have discovered more recently that help me to keep positive. I hope it’s something that you might enjoy too and always play in ‘Shuffle’ mode.