FIRST, DO NO HARM

by Jane Brundage

Words. During these last three weeks, there have been so many of them used and abused, and used again. Sometimes I have to reach for the off button on the TV or the radio, because there are just too many of them. And as hungry as I am--as we all are--for information and some kind of perspective, I have to say, I often find myself hitting the off button in desperation or disgust, as if I have eaten too much heavy food. Like fried fare or fast foods, some words just don't agree with me.

WAR. Now, there's a big offender. I don't much care whether it's the literal variety or the metaphorical kind like the "WAR" against cancer or drugs, WAR is a word that is simply not digestible for me.

My heart closes down around this word WAR, like a jaw trying to chew what is too hard or too tough to process. I cannot take in WAR. I refuse to take it in, as I sit and listen to the news, to the elaborate speeches before Congress, to the press conferences, and all the various interviews. I refuse it every time and I push myself away from the table, sick from the excess and yet, still so hungry.

When I close my eyes and think about WAR, I think of the following: killing, destruction, fear, hatred, violence, terror, bloodshed, heartbreak, and death. Retaliation, attacks, air strikes, landmines, bombs, battlefields, carnage, and sorrow. I think of casualties, lethal weapons, exploding firestorms, smoke, chemicals and ash. I think of children without their fathers, siblings without their brothers, parents without their sons, wives without their husbands. I think of loss, huge, unimaginable and irreparable loss. I think of the World Trade Center. I think of waste and devastation and revenge. WAR makes me think the unthinkable.

We try and make WAR a good thing, a necessary thing. It is the bad tasting medicine that will make us all feel better. Close your eyes and hold your nose and gulp it all down. It's that unpleasant, but necessary means to an end. That end, ironically, being a peaceful and safe world. I wonder, has this line of thinking actually ever worked before?

As far as I can tell, WAR is not a palatable alternative, no matter how many good words we use to dress it up. You know the ones I mean: glory and honor and freedom? When I flip back to my list of all the things I know about WAR, I don't find anything about honor and glory listed there. I don't see quite where the freedom comes in. And I don't find any words that have anything whatsoever to do with peace, that much needed haven we all roam about searching for in our sleep.

When I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, I was "drafted" into a WAR they call THE WAR AGAINST CANCER. Once you are diagnosed with cancer, you are automatically enlisted into this WAR. This is of course a metaphorical war; they don't really mean WAR. Though, having visited the battlefield, I have to tell you, it doesn't feel all that metaphorical when it lands into your life like a scud missile gone awry.

Once you are enlisted in THE WAR AGAINST CANCER, you earn the distinction of victim and/or casualty. Accordingly, you are offered an array of hideous and deadly drugs, which have been specifically designed to wage WAR against this dreaded disease. This, I believe, has something to do with the weapon matching the target.

Here, the concept of "First Do No Harm," which ironically is part of the Hippocratic oath, is abandoned for the time being, because, with cancer we are at WAR, and doing harm is not only a given in WAR. It is the desired effect. What is then appropriately offered to you, the victim of the WAR AGAINST CANCER, is a course of treatment that is as deadly as they think you can stand. Oh, and sometimes they get that part wrong.

Make no mistake about it. Don't pretend you haven't noticed that everyone else is wearing an iron vest and running out of the room while the one with the cancer is getting radiated. Don't pretend you haven't thought about the fact that those people you see in the grocery store with no hair and hollow eyes look just like WAR victims. This is not a coincidence. As my dear old friend Alice once said of her own chemo, "they need me to look the part."

My point is this: once you adopt the phrase WAR, you take on the mindset of WAR. You "attack" the problem, instead of understanding it. You strike, instead of listening. You blast loud and hard, instead of hearing. You hack and tear down, instead of healing. You make everything worse in some sad, misguided hope that you are making things better. But you aren't.

As I said to my doctor five years ago: "if your goal is to heal me, then heal me. Don't obliterate my immune system with chemo and radiation." But she was too busy waging WAR. She couldn't hear me over the cannon fire.

So I left her there on the battlefield, crying her valiant cries, and I went on a journey. I said to my cancer: "Okay then, what is it you have to tell me? What is it I need to learn? If I promise not to kill the messenger (and quite possibly the recipient), will you show me the way?"

I never called cancer my enemy. I never declared WAR on it. I instead tried to listen and learn, and embrace the challenges it presented me. And in return, cancer saved my life, and became one of the wisest teachers I have ever had.

You see, it doesn't matter what kind of WAR you're talking about. Waging WAR doesn't lead to anything good. Think about it: have we found the cure for cancer? That WAR has been officially waging for about fifty years. Have we stopped the proliferation of drugs? That WAR's about thirty years old. Have we made the world safe? Free? A tolerant, peaceful place to live? That WAR, well, we all know how old that WAR is.

As the work slowly continues at the site of the World Trade Center and the aftermath ensues, we all struggle to sort through the wreckage in our own heads. The event which was so very hard to absorb when it first occurred, is now being carefully picked through and categorized into our collective brain.

When the events of September 11 were still new, I remember how I struggled to assimilate them, how I worked to process them all. Each time the images and the reality of the event would present themselves to my consciousness, they would spew back out again. My brain strove to relegate them to the world of the non-real, the bizarre and sensational world of pretend, that it had previously experienced only in movie houses. This isn't live footage, dear, it kept saying. You're shoving this one in the wrong little box.

We have all begun a mental and emotional sift through the rubble. The category of "Bad Things That Happen" has expanded ten-fold. The slot for "Bad Things That Might Happen" has expanded a thousand-fold. The compartment entitled "How to Survive in the World" has lost it's compactness, and hangs open, waiting for daily additions.

It's hard to know what to keep and what to toss. It's hard to figure out what information we might require down the line. The brain struggles to keep up, aims to be careful and diligent in its selection process.

So many of us unearth tragedies of the past as we sort. We pull up the memory of a loved one who died or the Oklahoma bombing or the Vietnam War or a tragic accident we once witnessed or experienced. We pull them close and measure these losses against this new one of September 11, and we compare. Does it equal or exceed? Apples to apples, or apples to oranges? New category or old? Everything is weighed carefully and thoughtfully, because it seems now that our lives depend upon making the right choices.

Not surprisingly, all this talk of the WAR on TERRORISM has brought back to me the early days of my cancer, when I was conscripted into another WAR. I take this new WAR and I hold it up against the old one. What do I think?

Well, actually I don't much distinguish between WAR that's figurative and WAR that's literal. To me, they are both wrong-headed. Both use the wrong words and start off on the wrong foot. Both support the necessity of destruction and have a chilling complacency about the loss of life. Both court danger like it's a best friend. Both rely rather heavily on fear to support the need for their aggressive tactics. And neither of them ever quite hits the mark.

We might say WAR is just a word, but nowadays words are powerful things. The power of words cannot be underestimated, particularly in the times in which we currently find ourselves. To choose words recklessly and thoughtlessly now, particularly where the audience is vast and impressionable, is no less harmful than driving a car under the influence of alcohol or shooting a loaded gun off into the air. Sometimes you make contact, and the results can be deadly.

I think in some ways there have been attempts made by the powers that be at handling words more carefully and correctly. For instance, we have been cautioned that this WAR AGAINST TERRORISM is unlike any WAR we have ever known. It somehow defies categorization. In other words, while you work at your sorting task, please take note. Our leaders feel we need to make a new box for this one.

So, not the "WAR to end all WARS". Actually we had that one, remember? And not the "great WAR," because we had that one too, so shouldn't this one--seeing as how we're in a new millennium and all--shouldn't this one be even greater than the great WAR? Maybe we should push the envelope just a little here--I hope you'll agree with me on this--and go so far as to make this one "the greatest of all WARS"? That should do it, yeah, that should ensure peace in our world.

WAR is like Gertrude Stein's rose. It is what it is what it is. You can't dress it up and take it out without incurring some collateral damage, without the shedding of innocent blood. WAR is not as selective as we might ideally wish it would be. Just like all those healthy cells that get obliterated right along with the cancerous ones, once the chemo hits your bloodstream.

As much as I ache for the loss of life on September 11, I ache also for the prospective loss of some man or woman or child somewhere in this world who will look up into their part of the sky in fear, who will look at Americans as terrorists, who will wonder how a people they don't know can steal the life of their loved one. No matter how noble the intention, we cannot bring liberty and freedom to the world at the point of a gun. It doesn't work that way. It will never work that way.

WAR is not the road to peace. It is a road away from it. All the "peace" we have ever known in our collective human memory has only been gained by default. Because one side or another was too battered to go on. Too beaten down to continue the fight. That is not victory, and that is not peace. That's an intermission. What we know is that those who are beaten will return another day to fight, with a new name or a new ally, a new weapon, or a new bone to pick. They will come back. Again and again and again. They always come back.

What if we just cut to the chase? What if we acknowledged that it is peace we've always wanted and prayed for? What if we made that our watchword and our mission? A Coalition for Peace, instead of a Coalition Against Terrorism.

A Coalition for Peace. Now there's a noble mission. There's a platform on which to deliver a message about liberty and freedom for all, about the right of every human to live in a world that is safe from terror. There's the example I would like to set as an American. There is the best way of saying: we have no more appetite for killing. We have seen too much. We are sorry it took so long for us to wake up, that once upon a time we didn't understand what it was to live in fear, what it was to have the life of someone we loved wasted in meaningless sacrifice.

It is a simple truth that we will never have peace until we alter the conditions which gave us the events of September 11. Getting a wake-up call means that something completely different is being asked of us now. Our responsibility is to figure out what that is, not revert to the ways we always did things before.

That's what cancer taught me, once I made the decision to listen instead of shoot.

Here's another thing it taught me: peace will always come in the end, one way or another, it will come. That might be the day you start listening to your heart or the day you die. Either way, you still get to the same place. We don't choose the lessons here; we just choose when we're going to learn them.

Some sweet day, we, as Earth humans, will study WAR no more. Where we are right now, we have a choice. The day could come now, with no more bloodshed, it could come later, after the loss of a thousand more earth lives, or still later, after a million, or even later, after ten billion. We can take the direct route, or we can take the long and winding road through hell. Our choice.

I try to imagine the so-called peace that might come at the end of this WAR AGAINST TERRORISM I hear so much about. It seems like it might be an awfully quiet peace. Our dear Mother Earth will be in her place, sailing reliably along her well-worn path around the sun. The birds, and the chatter of humans, the crickets and car horns will all, of course, be silent. She will sigh, alone, but peaceful at last, because all of her noisy children will finally have managed to obliterate themselves, playing a game they always liked to play. A game that seemed to prove to them which groups were better than others. It was a big, bloody game, with a lot of funny rules. She never could see much sense in it, but they sure played that game a lot over the years. No one actually liked the game, this game they called WAR, but they played it because they felt they had to; they felt they needed to live and breathe and eat and die for it, and eventually, that's just what they did.




Jane B. Brundage
Brundjane@aol.com



Reprinted with permission

 

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