Thursday I head into the hospital for surgery on my sacral chordoma at UCSF Medical Center on Parnassus Avenue in San Francisco. I'll stay at UCSF for eight to 10 days before moving to St. Mary's Medical Center on Stanyan Street for a few weeks of physical therapy and rehabilitation. I welcome your cards, letters and visits, though it's not possible to know what condition I'll be in. As soon as I can, I hope to resume writing the daily column.
I was at a meeting Saturday, planning to share my experiences and my feelings about going into the hospital for surgery, when the speaker suggested the topic should be what we get out of sharing our feelings and experiences. This sent me on a brain loop. I got so caught up in thinking about what good it would do me to share about what was going on with me that I found myself hesitant to raise my hand. I was thinking about what I would say about what I would say, and why I would say it and what I would say about why I was saying it, and how what I would say would affect me and whether it was self-indulgent or egotistical to share what was going on, and on, and on. I ended up sitting there mute. Not only that, I also inwardly castigated myself for possibly using my illness as an occasion of drama. It's part of this ongoing battle between the part of me that loves the limelight and the part of me that feels it is unseemly to attract attention. When I am in a balanced frame of mind that is not a problem. If I am off balance or threatened, it comes out. I become afraid of how people will view me.
Having this tumor and facing surgery has thrown me off balance.
It is not often that we can contemplate such an experience and prepare for it. It is like preparing for an auto accident.
A friend once told me that all my letters to him were written as though for posterity. I was writing as I imagined a writer writes letters to friends. It was a show, a demonstration. It is true in a sense: I behave as I imagine myself to be; I present to the world my imagined version of myself. Now, let's not be too hard on ourselves. To some degree, this imagined self is the true self; it is the higher self we would project if we were not afraid; it may be a formal, high-minded self easily ridiculed in our casual, pop-culture world; it may be a perfectionistic, striving self that asks much of others and seems faintly elitist and undemocratic. We may be trying to make this true and ideal self visible by using elevated language; if we are not careful, this elevated language may sound stagy and artificial even though what is behind it is an attempt to show our true self.
The "common-sense" assumption is that "underneath" we are all just regular joes. The true self may be extraordinary and fine. It is axiomatic that if each of us is unique, our true self will be something the world has never seen before. If we are completely ourselves, we may not be recognized. We hide the true self, fearing rejection by the crowd. So we "dumb down," you might say. We find a million ways to conceal.
One of the tricks I have learned is that by seeming to reveal all we can conceal much. The more we reveal, the more we can hide. What we really wish to conceal lies at the bottom of the heap of revelations. Often what we truly wish to hide is our own weakness, fear and vulnerability. That is how I felt at that meeting -- weak, fearful, vulnerable. Yet I found myself thinking my way through it and not acting. "What, indeed, is the exact effect of speaking to others about our condition?" Blah, blah, blah.
Then the words of a wise mentor came back to me: You can't think your way through this.
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