By Michael Riordan
Sometimes things happen at just the right time. Serendipity? A blessing? It doesn’t matter what we call it. When it happens, we don’t care if it is a coincidence or a godsend. M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, came to me in the mid-1980s. I was burdened with self-doubt and indecision about numerous personal and professional matters. Peck’s book somehow called to me from a bookstore display, loudly enough for me to stop and grab a copy. It became a much-needed roadmap for the rocky road I was on–and for other roads to come.
Peck, a psychotherapist, had borrowed a phrase from Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken. The title of Peck’s book suggests that when we confront a fork in the road, our choice can make “all the difference.” Peck reminds us that life’s journey seldom presents only one crossroad. So, when my wife Stella was diagnosed with breast cancer years after I read the book, I would call on Peck’s bestseller as if it were a wise old friend. But not at first.
In the beginning, Stella’s cancer diagnosis was full of fear, confusion and my clumsy gestures of comfort. My wife needed me, but I was too stunned to know what best to do. I was too overwhelmed to recognize our situation as yet another crossroad. I felt panicked and out of my depth. How do we live now? Stella asked me, but I didn’t know what to tell her.
Things changed. It started with doctors and nurses who calmed us with their wisdom and skill. Then someone called to tell us about a friend of a friend. Then somebody sent an article about some herbal remedy. People recommended a support group, a yoga or meditation class, an article they had read. Some, also ill, shared the burden. They offered advice and told their stories. Friends and family reached out to soothe the wound. These were caresses of humanity that seemed to give us our lives back in small, soothing doses.
And then I remembered Peck’s book, and it all made sense. I returned to its instructive pages and have kept the book close-by ever since.
“Life is difficult.” Peck proclaims bluntly in the first line of the book.
Our difficult lives require bold responses. The author claims that we need to develop some fundamental coping skills. Among them: exercising personal discipline, taking responsibility, and deferring gratification. According to Peck, these are essential competencies to learn and strengthen. We will need these attributes all our lives.
Then the author introduces a subject that at first seems out of place in a “self-help” book. It is the importance of love, which Peck defines as “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” [Peck, M. Scott (1992), The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, Arrow Books]. The author asserts that love is both a choice and a deliberate act. Love is a noun, but it also is a verb. We choose love, but then we must make an effort to love. Love is both being and doing. Asserts Peck, “Ultimately, love is everything.”
A sudden health crisis in the family is shocking, often about life and death itself. Because we are never totally prepared for illness, we initially rely on the white-coated people to take over for a time and lead us by the hand. Our trusted medical practitioners provide treatment, advice, and comfort. In due course, however, your loved one will likely be sent home to continue the task of healing without them. Then there is you. Ready or not, you will be a “carer,” perhaps the prime carer. You will wonder–as I did at first–whether you are up to it.
When someone you love is sick, your “to-do list” will grow long and might include the following: accompanying your loved one to doctors and infusion clinics; buying groceries; picking up kids from school; preparing meals and washing dishes; seeking out ways to keep up morale; researching supplemental treatment and therapies; searching for support groups; creating an action plan; keeping track of medical protocols. Have I mentioned the need to earn money and pay bills? Yes, this is the part about love being an action verb.
“Doing” is one thing. “Being” is another. At first, you might think you have no proclivity for being a carer. But let’s get this straight: you can change; you can be different. This is exactly the right time. Take heart – when necessary, being different is quite doable.
Start by being a believer, and not only in the spiritual sense. Be a believer in the one you love and all you might have already accomplished or experienced together. Your wife or husband or partner or brother or sister or parent or child deserves your faith. Be a believer in medicine and science and in yourself. Believe that things can get better, because so often they do. This is love. With love, everything is easier, especially the hardest things. With love, there is hope. Being hopeful is a skill to practice. It is so much more useful than being worried, downcast, and despondent.
Helping someone get and stay well is a profoundly intimate journey. No matter how you lived your life before your loved one got sick, or how ill-equipped and inept you think you are, you can rise and change the landscape. One day, when you look across it, you will accept and even embrace the view. You may no longer be afraid of what has bent in the undergrowth. You have chosen to help create a place we all desire and need for as long as we live – a place of unconditional commitment and support. You will know this as love.
Michael Riordan, B.A., M.S., is a retired professor of writing and film studies who also co-founded Creative Action Now, a Singapore-based language school. A grateful grandfather of ten, Riordan lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Mary. Portfolio: https://www.clippings.me/wordsticks