Interesting study on cancer and the extended degree of randomness now thought to be associated with most diagnoses. It is humbling and horrifying to think our very existence; our lovers, our children, our passions all hinge on a daily roll of the genetic dice. It is a morbid casino. Dozens of tables hawking multiple different games; Craps over here…Roulette this way… Fortunes won and lost multiple times a day. Inside each of us, cell division is happenings between 50 and 70 billion times a day (who really knows, maybe half that number maybe double; it’s a lot). To keep it simple, let’s agree that cancer results from some error in cell division that results in run away cell growth. I roll the mortal dice up to 70 billion times a day. The research out of John’s Hopkins published in the January edition of the journal Science provides evidence that two-thirds of cancer result from a random errors in cell division. The remaining one-third is attributed to environmental and lifestyle variables. First, I cannot even comprehend the number 70 billion. One million is very hard to visualize. Assuming you can grasp one million (I’ll argue that is at the outer limit for most people to truly comprehend), you would have to take the outer reaches of you perception and multiply that by 70,000. To get where I am going, think of the outer limit of perception and double it. This is difficult. 70,000 times is meaningless. As I worry about the mortgage and paying for a spring break trip, my body is gambling at odds and costs above anything I regularly encounter.
Randomness is something that makes most people uncomfortable. There is something in each of us that treasures the opposite; predictability. We like to be surprised in movies and championship series but not in our daily lives. The fundamental motivator of science, religion and fortune tellers is the powerful drive to understand our world. The idea that something as significant as the death of a family member could be the result of chance is terrifying. Dwell too long on the idea and it can be paralyzing – each of walking around with our own personal time bomb and worse, each of our loved ones. Disease is only one of our dance partners in randomness. Accidents ask for our hand as well. Two cars leaving their driveways miles apart and through a series of unrelated events and decisions meet violently in some nondescript intersection. A new widow or orphan is born. This is an oppressive weight to carry around. Why? Anytime tragedy strikes, ‘why’ is the central question. Why did this happen to me (her, him)? It is as though the incident is less distressing if we can assign a reason. He smoked two packs a day. She was texting and driving. He never took very good care of himself. It was genetic. Anything to convince us it was not simply chance.
What is about a sense of control, false or otherwise, that we find so comforting? Is that it lets us believe we can prevent bad things by not making the ‘mistakes’ others have? When I read stories about drug addicts and alcoholics, lack of control often plays a leading role. The sense that life happens and bad things occur with a disturbing indifference to our efforts. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” as it was described by Milan Kundera in his book by the same name. We have one life to live and events largely out our control shape it. We are along for the ride as unnerving as any backseat motorcycle ride, destiny whipping by in a blur. Always in the back of our minds the question of whether our random selection of a route will lead us to a violent destiny in an otherwise quiet intersection.
Just thinking through this as I write builds an urge to reach for a drink at 7 in the morning (I didn’t). The need for escape is palpable. As I observe my world and the experience of living in it, a lot can be explained by this need for distraction. Books, movies, sermons, concerts, drugs, prostitution… all ways to distract us from our day to day existence and the dreadful truth the we ‘don’t know what tomorrow brings’. Much of the anxiety experienced by people struggling with mental health is focused on uncertainty – what will happen at the meeting, will she love me tomorrow, when will I die. I guess the fine line between normal and insane is the ability to function in the face of the unknowable. This is not say mental illness is a simple matter or that ill people just need to chill. Rather that I see a correlation in well being and the ability to enjoy the ride without obsessing over the daily destination. Simply stated, obsessing over the future is a quick way to addiction through attempts to medicate away the terror.
I do not have any answers. I face the same fear. I fall for the same distractions. I seek the same escape. All I know to do is make an effort toward gratitude and presence. I am saddened at how much I have missed in my life by not being grateful and present. Nurturing the ability to observe while resisting the illusion of control may be the secret to a more peaceful existence. This is the reason I write. Spending time each day (or once a year when I fail to follow through) working through my thoughts on paper helps reinforce some simple truths. We would all be better if we celebrated New Day’s Eve – a brief but thoughtful recognition of all the beauty, mystery and love we encountered during the day and the promise of new encounters tomorrow.