“Find A Place Inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”
– Joseph Campbell
In September of 2006 my wife, Kendra, underwent a partial hysterectomy due to degenerating fibroid tumors. One afternoon, after she had recovered from the operation, I came home and she said, “Honey, sit down.” A pathology report had come back and it revealed an endometrial sarcoma — a form of uterine cancer. Kendra handled the news much better than I. A complete hysterectomy followed in November and then the endless rounds of chemo and surgical procedures. But we always kept hope alive. At one point we thought we had it licked, with a PT Scan showing no detectable cancer cells. But the cancer came back and moved up to her lungs.
On July 11, 2008, I took her to the oncologist to discuss putting her on a phase 1 clinical trial drug. However, after hearing how labored Kendra’s breathing was, he said she needed to go straight to the ER.
We were in ER most of the day and then she was put in one hospital room and then another where she was monitored and had to wear a breathing mask. Several x-rays and a CT scan had already been taken and after studying these, the resident oncologist told us that the cancer had progressed to such a point that all we could do was make her as comfortable as possible, put her on a morphine drip and wait. I can’t tell you how much that hurt, to hear there was no more hope. It felt like a sledgehammer blow to my gut.
By Friday morning it was obvious the end was near as she was unresponsive and even with oxygen her breathing became quite poor. Her mother, stepfather and I were with her when she finally stopped breathing and was at peace. She died at twelve noon on Friday the thirteenth.
A week later we had a beautiful memorial for her under a favorite bowing oak tree where we lived.
At the hospital when the resident oncologist had broken the news to Kendra and then asked if she understood, my dear wife had raised a finger, looked at me and rasped through her oxygen mask, “One day at a time.” At the time I thought she still believed there was hope that she would get better. I now believe it was a message for me: all we can do is live life one day at a time. And keep hope alive.
I grieved deeply over the loss of my wife, my best friend, my life partner and still do. But I’ve also moved on. I joined a grief support group and that helped immensely. My family has bolstered me more than I can say.
But it is a spirit of hope that has kept me moving forward. Maintaining hope is not dependent upon the fulfillment of expectations. It is not merely wishful thinking. It is, indeed, essential to living every day of my life in an often uncertain world.
In conversation last night with a new friend– a bright, giddy, impassioned young woman, a fairly new vegan whose activism and commitment to the animals is in full flower and whose embrace of life is an inspiration — I attempted to delineate my philosophy of hope, using the above story as an example. I then made an attempt at connecting that idea of the essential quality of hope, and the need to maintain joy, to our activism. In our work as animal advocates we are continually faced with grim realities: ten billion animals slaughtered each year by U.S. agribusiness; sentient beings devoid of any creature comforts, confined and tortured; a general public in the grip of an entrenched ideology which author Melanie Joy has coined carnism which causes many people to view the work we do on behalf of the animals as extremist and the eating of animals and animal products as normal, natural and necessary.
Where’s the joy in all that?
Let me share with you another quote from Joseph Campbell:
“The way to find out about happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.”
I became vegetarian, and eventually vegan, because of the logical arguments laid out by philosopher Peter Singer. But my continuing work on behalf of the animals and veganism is an expression of love, kindness and compassion. Knowing that I am doing my small part to help end the suffering of animals fills me with happiness. Not naïve self satisfaction or the blithe delusion that by merely “loving” animals I am making their lot any better, but the happiness that comes from being involved in real work that matters, in a cause with a long moral arc which, I truly believe, is bending toward justice.
My advocacy work also allows me to tap into my creativity with projects such as The Veg Monologues or Vegan Street Theater. Working in collaboration with other creative and compassionate people has been a source of bliss for me, even in times when loneliness and depression seem to have temporarily derailed me.
I tend to share intimacies, to reveal myself far too readily. My attempts at playing it cool, of adopting an aloof persona are continually thwarted by an overriding need to open up, to connect, to love. But I can’t imagine a detached life. I can’t imagine not falling in love – not just with other people, but with ideas, art, music, life itself. I also realize, however, that the thrill of falling in love is temporal and often something of a distraction; working wholeheartedly to bring about animal and human liberation, to alleviate suffering, to ensure a sustainable environment, to create real change that has positive, global implications for all beings, requires a different kind of love. It requires an expression of love that does not often see immediate results; it requires real work that is not often thrilling or romantic; it requires hope and courage that are often met with derision or apathy; it requires relinquishing personal drama in favor of tactics that are more effective in the long run.
But it does not have to be devoid of joy. I feel a profound sense of joy in being part of a cause that is so much larger than my own personal concerns. I feel joyful to have real meaning in my life. I feel joy in being able to feel compassionate, empathetic, even grief stricken. Those feelings tell me that I’m alive, not just existing but fully sentient and aware, connected to Life and all its vicissitudes. And the work continues.
–for Kara, thanks for the inspiration!