The Terminal Diagnosis Meets the Fearless Toddler

I woke up afraid. I recalled a dream in which I saw myself acting in a way that could be labeled “hysterical.” I woke up feeling ashamed and humiliated, afraid of being labeled overemotional, dramatic, maudlin.

Of course, I’m afraid of that. It is rare in this culture that the full expression of grief is acceptable. As a child, my expressions of discontent were labeled, and then disregarded as “whining.”

So this morning I wake and notice I still carry underlying, often unacknowledged fears of being dismissed, labeled hysterical, and feeling ashamed and out of control if I express my feelings.

As I sit with the fear I realize there is more. I’m afraid as I contemplate my inbox. There are too many items in it: too many things to respond to; questions I don’t know the answers to; needs I have no way of knowing how to fill; tour details I’ve forgotten to nail down; supporters who deserve at least a thank you; questions about licenses and future screenings and promotional materials.

At this moment, though, it feels great to sit in the sun on the Maine coast, to drink coffee in the early morning hours, and to write. It feels great. In spite of the incessant highway traffic noise that scars the gentle morning sounds of the yard of this little motel, I feel some peace.

I need to insist that I get coffee and time to write more mornings than not. It is a time for me to feel safe and free. I write whatever I want. There are no demands or expectations when I write in my journal. I don’t monitor my thoughts or my words. They tumble out of me. I have free expression with no shame.

I’m watching a little girl, probably 18-20 months old. She’s walking, then running with a highly unsteady gait but palpable joy in her growing ability to navigate uneven ground, to prove herself against the gravity challenge.

I long for that kind of palpable joy as I engage, unprepared, in this business of being the producer of a no-holds-barred documentary movie.

I’d love a little unbounded joy as I stumble my way into it and face the challenges of it as this young child I’m watching faces the insistence of gravity.

How different I’d feel if I could approach everything I do with her full-on abandon and lack of self-consciousness, no need to do it perfectly or gracefully, not knowing if the next step will entail an unexpected tumble to the ground or a spontaneous pirouette!

These are times that require that I step into challenges I do not feel prepared for. I know others are struggling with this issue as well. We live in extraordinary times. We are being called to extraordinary ways of being.

I consulted with a beautiful, intelligent, talented woman I’ve known for years who finished medical school and family practice residency, gave birth to two beautiful children and passed her board certification exams, in the past several years.

She questions if she is qualified to be engaged as a healing practitioner. Maybe she needs more training, she wonders. I told her to step into it. It’s time.

The Hopi Elder counsels: “We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for.”

We can’t wait for someone else to do the work. We can’t wait until we are more trained, more experienced, more qualified. It’s time to approach our work in the world as enthusiastic toddlers and unselfconsciously throw ourselves into the task.

Another analogy comes to mind. We humans, individually and collectively, are in the midst of adolescent initiation rites.

Follow this analogy and the stakes are higher than if we follow the analogy of engagement in life with the shameless abandon of a young child.

In many traditional adolescent initiation rites, some of the youth never return from the ordeal. According to the stories, they get lost in another realm, or fall ill and weak and do not return.

Or some take their chances on their own and leave the tribe. In any case, there is no shame in the work of initiation. There is no shame, but there is a huge investment: all of oneself.

Initiation is the proving ground of maturation. What is the final outcome of initiation rites? We don’t know. That’s what makes such rites profound passages. If everyone made it there would be no honor in it.

Here’s the story: We are a species engaged in serious initiation rites. There is no guarantee all of us or any of us will come through it alive.

This idea is a powerful one. I feel the power of this story when I personally step into it. I am part of humanity’s initiation into full adulthood. If you choose to step into that story, you are a part of the initiation as well. We face an incredible task and ordeal. We may not survive the rite.

Had I been raised in a culture that applauded effort and heart instead of accomplishment and control, I would approach my life, every aspect of it, with the openness of a child.

I would be excited about the task of learning and experiencing and mastery at every age and season.

If our culture granted honor and esteem for the effort and heart we displayed from the time we were tiny, as adolescents we would approach everything, even the trials of initiation, with excitement rather than with the fear of being inept or messy.

There’s another analogy: that of receiving the terminal diagnosis. When diagnosed with a serious and potentially terminal illness, there are no guarantees. Faced with such a diagnosis some people just shut down in denial or bitterness.

They lack the muster to face an uncertain outcome with curiosity, knowing that every situation represents an opportunity to learn and expand. Even one’s own end.

In this culture, we fear not looking good, of being messy and out of control. There have been shame in those things since we were young. The captains of industry and politics all appear to be in control.

They wear dark blue suits and red ties and scarves, shiny black shoes and heels. They look very good and very in control. They are, however, mostly scared little boys and girls who were shamed and humiliated and at some point vowed never to look foolish again.

That’s the old story. That’s the old paradigm, the paradigm of domination and control. There’s a new story. We’re in the midst of an initiation. This time requires not control but whole-heartedness.

It necessitates not certainty, accomplishment, or looking good. Instead, this time of initiation requires that we pick up the work unselfconsciously and throw ourselves into the task whether we feel prepared for it or not.

What does it feel like when I throw myself into life, into my role as “producer,” into my larger and more poignant role as a member of a species undergoing a life or death initiation rite?

What happens if I step out of all fear of the clumsy act, or inept response, or even of utter failure? What happens if instead, I embrace the awkwardness and a steep learning curve as part of the process?

What happens, at least in my imagination, is that I experience great freedom. My chest opens. My heart expands. My gut loosens. I like this feeling.

I’m tired of the old story. I’m tired of feeling ashamed or afraid when I’m inept or messy or out of control. I like the story that I/we are in the midst of a huge and unknown, unknowable task, an initiation, out of adolescence and into full maturity.

We are going to have to make it up as we go into these unknown and often terrifying times.

At the very least, let’s drop the shame. Let’s step into the noble story that at dawn we awakened, confronted with this profound proving ground of unexpected challenges. None of us feels really prepared for it. And yet we have no choice but to step up to the challenge and to put one foot in front of the other.

I want to return to the image of the toddler. I witnessed her this morning, careening into life, destined to fall, but also destined to find her way, to master those leg and feet and toe muscles, and to gain stability and agility. She’s built for it.

It’s inevitable that given time, and lacking shame, she will master the ability to walk and run gracefully. And if no one shames her, if instead she’s gifted with the encouragement to experience music and rhythm, she will likewise learn to dance with grace and abandon and beauty.

It’s time to drop the shame that we feel ill-prepared for the tasks ahead of us. It is time to step into a huge story of initiation. We are either built for this or not. But either way, it is time to reclaim our birthright to explore our undeveloped abilities with joy and abandon.

There is no guarantee that we will come through it alive. But if we approach this time whole-heartedly, if we careen with abandon into learning all we can and doing our best, then there will be no shame, regardless of the outcome.

Written by Timothy Bennett
An artist and filmmaker who has lived in North Carolina for eighteen years. Born and raised in rural Michigan, he began his inquiry into environmental and cultural issues in the late 80s. His talent for "big-picture thinking," along with his ability to see through the taboos, denials, and orthodoxies of our culture.