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I shudder at “shoulds.” “You should do this” Or “you shouldn’t do that” are often tinged with moral absolutism, a premise that I began to question when I had my first seizure at 10 years old. If good behavior “should” yield favorable results then I “shouldn’t” have epilepsy was my reasoning. I was sure I did nothing to “deserve” my fate so well into puberty I reverted back to two years old every time I heard the word “should” by quickly and repeatedly asking “Why?”
“Why should I?” Or the accompanying “Why shouldn’t I?” were challenging given my condition. But they are very different questions than “Why me?” which I found less provocative, because as a child the standard answer Why not me?” put all the “shoulds” on trial. I eventually made peace with the fact that good and bad things happen and stopped wondering why or if they should. As I grew older when I asked why, it usually involved gathering data. Armed with facts absent the judgment of what “should” occur I carefully considered my options in any given circumstance, without getting bogged down in “what ifs” and remaining free to act despite what “should” be.
Then came cancer. The data available about cancer is statistically and emotionally daunting. As such my information-based approach to problem solving became overwhelming. When I finally made peace with “facts” of the disease I found that my evidence was impermanent. The steady stream of research; the truth, that there is no cure; and the uncertainty of what effects treatment will have in the long and short term blurs the line between facts and conjecture. When life and death decisions rely on a series of best guesses the value of “shoulds” is revealed.
“Shoulds” as it turns out serve more than one purpose. There are the “shoulds” of moral absolutism, like those I encountered when I was a child, that dictate the future based on a belief in the certainty of social mores. But there is a second set of “shoulds” those of moral relativism based on not knowing, but noticing the effect of each decision on the person or people involved. I adopted the latter.
“Shoulds” were now based on evidence gathered from my experience, with the moral imperative to do what I could to protect and restore my personal wellbeing while honoring the people around me. The gathering of personal evidence elevated awareness of my feelings, health and values above the datasets and anecdotes from the field.
Don’t misunderstand, my quest for and comfort with reliable information serves me well. With cancer, ignoring the facts is not an option even when the facts are overwhelming. I just began to balance my habit of rushing to learn as much as I could know about my condition with an instinct to slow down and notice as much as I could about my health, my community and my emotions.
Noticing involved an awareness that extends beyond scientific observation and extended beyond health care. Decisions about work, food, relationships, and even fashion all required me to notice details that were unknowable beyond the “shoulds” that required self-awareness. All of a sudden “what should I do?” became a less loaded question because the answer was not based on some resounding moral authority but instead based on an evolving personal wisdom that whispers in my ear.
Body Scan Mindfulness Exercise
One of the reasons I was able to grasp this concept so readily is that I practiced meditation before I was diagnosed. In meditation the goal is to mindfully notice, not to judge. One mindfulness excercise that I still do most days before I get out of bed is called a body scan. It was important during cancer treatment because it helped me feel at peace with my body as it was changed by treatment. Each morning I took time to notice every physical sensation not only the aches and pains.
In the three minute video below, Dr. Elisha Goldstein demonstrates the Body Scan Practice from The Now Effect: How this Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life.