There’s an interesting article in today’s Guardian entitled “Smile! You’ve got cancer” by Barbara Ehrenreich in which she confronts the evidence on “positive thinking” as a cure or andidote for cancer; and whether the self-help movement is a force for good or bad in cancer recovery.

She speaks of a sense of isolation from the bloggers and book writers who take the ‘cancer is a gift’ stance. They don’t have the sense of outrage and anger that she feels is justified in the circumstances. Why can’t we be be cancer “victims” rather than fighters, survivors or “the fallen”, she asks. Why is dissent against the power of positive thinking seen as an act of betrayal?

My favourite line – is the glass still half-full when it lays shattered on the floor?

As I’ve said before, there is no hard psychological evidence that positive attitudes positively impact cancer, and there’s nothing that certain either that negative thinking or stress is a cause of cancer. Cancer happens. Blame your genes.

If you attribute your cancer to your inner self, in a sense you blame yourself. If you see it as an external force, you do not.

Maybe this seems hard. Maybe the books on self-help are just encouraging you to think happy thoughts; to lift you from the morass. But I re-quote Alain De Botton: “There’s a widespread view that when someone is sad, what they most need is cheerfulness. But in truth, what they need is a dose of pessimism so powerful that their own problems will come to seem minor in comparison.” Alain wrote an FT essay in May 2009  in which he says “it is time to recognise how odd and counter-productive is the optimism on which we have grown up“. He says that the Roman Stoics (and Seneca in particular) can tell us how it really is (“What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears”). Actually, that’s a bit unfair on the Stoics – they were really teaching us to accept what happens.

To go further, the philosopher Frederich Nietzsche tackled all this when he wrote about life not requiring a meaning. The ‘goal of life’ is mostly an illusion and chasing it gives us no insights. Our goal is not to stay cancer-free in life. Our goal should be to affirm that when it happens we do not slip an anchor or lose our footing on the precipice. Rather we have a choice – to use it as a stepping stone to a higher ground. Our life becomes better (the “ubermensch“) when we do.

If we affirm one moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.
— The Will to Power

And we need no religion as in Church or Shopping Mall to achieve it. When Nietzsche was ill and thought himself close to death he implored his sister:

Promise me that when I die only my friends shall stand about my coffin, and no inquisitive crowd. See that no priest or anyone else utter falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer protect myself; and let me descend into my tomb as an honest pagan.

To go back to De Botton – “One shouldn’t mistake pessimism for despair: it is its mischievous but independent twin.

On Christmas Day the American singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt died. He was paralysed, sang from a wheelchair and was constantly broke paying his medical bills. He died from an overdose-induced coma. In a well-written blog it’s mentioned that Vic described himself as a “brokeback atheist” and so wishing him to heaven was not appropriate.

Heaven, even the hypothetical heaven that nonbelievers believe in, is deadly dull. Chesnutt was many things, but he was never boring. It’s impossible to imagine him in that sterile libido-proof realm, this beautiful broken man who plucked blossoms from the muck, who found his consolation in the imperfect here, in the brutal now.

There’s a line in one of his songs about confronting death:

When you touched a friend of mine I thought I would lose my mind
But I found out with time that really, I was not ready, no no, cold death
Oh death, I’m really not ready.

Vic Chesnutt – Flirted With You All My Life

What’s the moral? Take it where you find it, in the here and now. Don’t wait for higher goals to be achieved. Don’t blame yourself, but do claim yourself.