Spring cleaning; Lev turns 5; more notes on fear

Spring Cleaning

There’s a feeling in the air that I want to clean up all the old stuff. That includes things, habits/systems and thoughts. I’m knocking out the most mindless todo’s that I’ve had on my list for a long time: clean the office, the closets, ditch old clothes, maybe tackle the garage. Feels like I need to sweep around all the build-up from the past months. And it feels liberating. I’m going slow to go fast and this feels like an appropriate way to start revving my engine again!

Lev turns 5

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 5 years since that day. Lev was home birthed. It was not smooth. Michelle had what’s called back labor; think baby’s spine against mom’s. He had been oriented in a favorable position most of that pregnancy but turned last minute in the womb, and there was nothing to do but keep pushing.

Happy birthday Lev! We did some woodworking last weekend and he made a coaster. I love sipping my green tea while it sits on this thing.

Michelle had no anesthetics and the midwives really didn’t have much in the toolkit to support her. Neither did I. We were too far along to make it to the hospital so we hunkered down. I felt helpless to help and it was one of my worst fears – not being able to help in a situation like that. She was in the most excruciating pain one can imagine. It was traumatic. That was exactly 5 years ago.

But from this incredibly hard birth came this amazing child. Lev means heart in Hebrew. It’s a good name for him. He’s one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met. He helped me get through my this hardship with the deepest compassion and tenderness I think I’ve ever known. He touches me to the core every day and reminds me of the special opportunity that being a father affords. The opportunity to nurture and bring these kids into the future is a miracle. Happy birthday, Lev!

Yet more on fear

What’s the right role for fear in modern life?

Sure, if the threat is real then go ahead and feel it. But fear misfires. Often. Anyway isn’t fear an intermediate step in the chain of survival instead of an end-point of it’s own? What I mean is fear leads to adrenaline/altered state, and that state change leads to action of some sort, presumably toward better survival outcomes over time; hence it’s conserved – fight or flee! The relevant question then, is what role does it, or should it play in our daily lives when (for most of us) 99% of the time there’s no actual threat to life or limb. We’re all dead in the long term so does that mean we should all be fearful about it too?

Useful to ask: what fruit might fear bear? If the answer is nothing, that it’s just a state we feel with no useful output then it’s probably worth swapping out for some better emotion. We should fear if the threat is real AND imminent. Else we should transform it.That’s easier said than done but still worth a shot. How? Can it be transformed into useful energy? Try to replace fear/anxiety with excitement to ‘get up’ for whatever it is that’s on the horizon. That’s easy enough to do when there’s a single event coming up. But how do you ‘get up’ for fighting cancer or for a chronic condition that’s always with you like a devil on the shoulder? It all starts with recognizing fear before we do something with it.

I’ve actually come to equate (my) cancer with fear. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In asking the question of which degrades quality of life more it’s actually not clear which is worse: cancer or fear?

One of my working hypotheses is that I’ve experienced a high amount of low-level fear and anxiety over my lifetime; that’s contributed to compromising my immune function, thus setting the stage for cancer to take root. To be clear I have little evidence for this causality but I don’t imagine much of a downside to believing it anyway (placebo!) and making some changes in support of that shift. Living without fear seems a reasonable bucket-list item, probably for most of us.

So what am I anxious or fearful about? I just got some amazing news! I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Oddly I feel I’ve been handed a precious gift in getting this cancer and I do not want to squander it. One part of that is it’s afforded me an opportunity to address fear (of cancer, and anything else) head-on, with urgency. I believe this is of vital importance toward keeping cancer at bay. I’ve spoken much about fear through this journey since it’s such a central theme in battling cancer – for anyone. I’ll take this a bit further in hopes that it’s helpful for others, and as a reminder to myself.

Should I feel self-conscious, fearful even, about sharing these? TMI? Maybe. But addressing fear starts with mini steps. Laying them out for others is an act of doing something scary. So I’ll go first and pay it forward in hopes that you too, reader, will also do something that makes you scared today!

And while these feel deeply personal, in-fact they are generic. They are instantiations of categories, variations on a theme. Fear is in all of us, part of the operating system.

I’ll list these out, something akin to Selichot (סליחות‎, loosely translated as apologies) that Jews recite as repentance for transgressions. These are done with a light ceremonial fist punch against the heart. I’ll call it the fears (but it sounds better in Hebrew, The Pachadim, הפחדים).

So, the fears:

fear of taking more than I give OR the fear of forgetting:

I’ve been shown such love and support, and been given so much that I don’t want to forget and move on. And I certainly don’t want to lose the momentum of dealing with this to start all over. It’s a hard headspace to occupy, that of fighting cancer – as anyone that’s been through this ordeal would attest. But I hear plenty of stories about recurrence, specifically regarding follicular lymphoma. The odds of recurrence are high but over what timeframe is not clear – is it months, decades? This experience has changed me and I’d be remiss if I didn’t reflect and integrate some updated habits/systems into my routine to ensure that expanded awareness and focus on giving remains accessible amidst the insults of daily living; I want to quickly rub my sleeve against the dusty buildup of the day and access that polished state of awareness. Also, this fear is related to the fear of judgment (below) in that we live in such a high-stakes environment that it’s easy to turn our focus inward on ourselves and lose sight of others.

SOLUTION: (1) Adopt mindfulness practices e.g., meditation, yoga, being with nature, etc. to stay grounded; (2) Give back! Contribute & support people/patients going through hardship. 

the fear of being judged by others (inadequacy)

This is a biggie. I could label this the fear of not being good enough, or imposter syndrome. Sometimes I don’t care what others think – in fact that’s my natural state. Generally I don’t care what people think. Until it matters and I feel I’m being judged (which is compounded by me judging myself more harshly than anyone else ever could or would – it would just be mean). I’ve valued independent thinking and not giving much of a shit what others think. That’s when I do my best – when I have energy-plus stemming from a focus on outcomes. With that the ‘people in the room’ become fuel stoking the fire of positive outcomes versys draining fuel in unnecessary mental overhead in the form of recursive judgments (what I’m thinking about what they’re thinking about what I’m doing etc. – have you ever been there?). Of course I’m judging myself more than anyone else is – such is life for perfectionists. I don’t do well when I’m focused on myself – most of us don’t. Things are better when I connect and charge with larger contexts and outcomes that extend beyond my small self. Optimal performance comes when I get lost in the work and the joy of the doing it, flow (vs. over-emphasizing how things might be perceived, what’s called ‘optics’, they matter sometimes, but not much).

SOLUTION: Identify and surround myself with energy-giving vs. energy draining people/contexts. Bias towards situations where authenticity isn’t something to be cast aside but rather celebrated over posturing (what I try to do in my writing; and why silicon valley tends to be a great place for independent spirits). 

fear of not making my future self proud

God made each of us for a reason; it’s our job to find that and do it. There’s a saying that hell is to die and meet the best possible version of oneself. That gap is suffering; the pain of what could have been! So strive to minimize that gap. This is another way of saying opportunity cost.

Also, I hate repetition but I love routine. It’s not as weird as it sounds. To my mind repetition suggests no growth (in tech we have a mantra called DRY – don’t repeat yourself!), like you’re an animal that can’t learn. Routine, in contrast, is a scaffold we build (using our big brains) to support our growth. The fear is of NOT growing, of being left behind in repetition while others around us grow. Maybe a bit esoteric but I think of it like: fomo => fomoog (fear of missing out on growth)

SOLUTION: Be confident that the future is hopeful despite the inevitable hardships. Remember we only see a small piece of reality. Enjoy being on the steep part of the learning curve and meet hard things head-on. If you do things with the right motivation (know your ‘why’) then aiming high is easy!

fear of insufficient means

If I were to step outside myself and the bubble of good fortune in which I live I would be quickly reminded that we live in a time and place of great abundance, with greater means, prospects, good fortune etc. than have the majority of humans through history. There’s a saying (I think from the Rebbe) that resonates: He who has enough to sustain him for the day but is apprehensive about the morrow is considered to be wanting in faith. For me it’s about creating that desired future with force of will/certainty versus building a wall to to ensure all is protected.

SOLUTION: Mindset shift of abundance over scarcity.

fear of recurrence

This news of remission does not erase the fear of cancer. Paradoxically if not heightening it, at least it’s morphed. Why? Maybe because the scary monster has moved into hibernation – what you can see is less scary than what you can’t. I suspect that’s why the movie Jaws worked so well: fear was something sub-surface, rendering it more frightening because it’s fueled by the imagination(archetypes and all the Jungian stuff), a machine that is nothing if not great at concocting-very-scary-shit. What’s interesting to me is that it’s not quite dying that scares me so much as not living well. Fear of not leaving a mark, enjoying myself fully, or doing what needs doing from this tiny vessel of mine is all wasted opportunity and that’s where the fear resides, in living sub-optimally.

SOLUTION: make what I do deeply personal and resonant with meaning (whatever it is I’m doing) and love it/find my way in. Or, better, burn that shit bright! No regrets. Note the opposite is to live for the money so you have security – blech! 

Using fear as a tool to optimize outcomes (a feature of the operating system, not a bug!) comes in 2 parts. The first is to understand and classify the fear type. Second is understanding the right thought to replace the fear with, that will come with reps. Finally, understanding what emotion to replace the fear with (unless the fear is helping). Generally I’m finding that enthusiasm or excitement is a better way to handle fear and anxiety. So it moves from useless into useful energy; fear/anxiety => excitement.