Intro to the Guest Blogger: Sam Newland is a graduate of Tufts University, with myriad interests and intersections in the world. Amongst those, Sam is committed to becoming a practiced humanist, good friend, and capable meditator. He is fascinated by the challenge that rock climbing provides at present and is a well decorated salsa dancer. During the day, he works as an insurance agent.
Title: Strange Bedfellows
For the last 6 years, cancer and I have been strange bedfellows. On the one hand, watching your father who has dedicated his whole life to punching the clock to support his family be diagnosed before graduating high school is pretty tragic. Being away at college, not knowing if he is going to be alive to watch you receive your diploma is pretty terrifying. Returning home for vacations to find clumps of hair in the drain made my stomach turn.
Cancer, for most, is what kills us. And death is scary.
But on the other hand, my father’s cancer diagnosis was and is the best thing that has ever happened to me. And the funny thing is, he would say in a lot of ways it is the best thing that has happened to him.
It is hard to explain how I can come to this conclusion without talking about how the ripple effects of my father’s diagnosis had caused my life to evolve. So, the following is every detail of the last 6 years of my life.
I was a senior in high school when my dad was diagnosed. And right about the same time, someone I had known personally had just committed suicide and made national news for it allegedly being driven by a deepened depression because of bullying through sexting. Following the suicide, other friends of mine quickly followed suit in attempting suicide as well as if it were the trendy thing to do.
I was not immune to it either. I had a phantom vision of committing suicide while driving. And by that time, I realized a couple things: Firstly, I needed therapy - which I got. And secondly, life without happiness is pointless.
What threw me into a panic was that I had it all on paper. I never went a day without food. I had lots of friends and had a very active social life. I did well in school and was accepted into my top school. And I was a varsity captain of a pretty successful lacrosse team.
Yet even with all this, I felt empty inside. Every time I laughed, the happiness would literally be poisoned by sadness and swallowed whole by the depression.
I knew I had to change.
When you don’t know where to start, start with everything…
So my journey to find happiness and meaning began. I marked the beginning of my journey with ink on my rib cage of a picture my dad chose of the closest bond we shared - John Lennon.
I tried several different avenues in order to find happiness. First, I tried nutrition. It only made sense. I was very logical and linear at the time, and hard science was my one and only God. And my God was telling me what you put in your body strongly affects the happiness receptors in the brain.
I changed my whole diet and was a vegetarian who ate fish. I even stole boxes of fruit from the cafeteria to bring back to my dorm to juice. To all my friends, I was the happiest person on the planet. And it worked! Until it didn’t anymore and became stale like old quinoa or the other rabbit food I was eating.
So nutrition and working out weren’t working out for me.
So then, I decided to copy the celebrities. They always seem happy. It was time for sex, drugs, and EDM.
I happily gave away my v-card to the first person who would accept it - my first girlfriend. She was great both inside and outside the sheets. She taught me a lot and probably understood my raging hormones better than I did. We had a lot of fun together, and she insisted on a new-age, contemporary open relationship because she wanted me to explore, experiment, and see what’s out there. It was not a hard sell.
Truly, this was just a continuation of my drug habit in high school. I was a pothead - but a motivated one. In college, I joined the rugby team with some friends. It is safe to say by government standards that I far exceeded the limit for alcohol consumption to not be considered an alcoholic. I even went to bar-tending school for a certification and studied more in that one week than I would study for an entire semester for a class.
I actually hate most techno music. Especially the music played at the college parties when a student. But I did decide it was important to pick up dancing. As a Jewish, white boy growing up, I was not expected to be the greatest dancer. So I was a wallflower at dances. My junior prom date didn’t dance with me. Consequently, I decided to stay home for senior prom. I decided to change that in college.
I took a lot of dance classes. Girls seemed to like it, and that is all that mattered to me. I later learned that I actually enjoyed dancing, but that is for another blog post.
If you had not guessed by now, the sex, drugs, and EDM scheme did not work for sustained happiness either. It was fun for a bit, but by the winter I was starting to feel the blues again.
The chance encounter that changed my life forever…
Everything changed one day when I went to the Cantab Lounge to watch spoken word poetry. I saw this spiritual-looking hippy guy performing the worst poetry I have seen to this day. But he looked so damn happy, I pulled a When Harry Met Sally and remarked to the stranger next to me that I wanted whatever he was having. Because whatever drugs he was on, they were clearly working.
He and I happened to have had a mutual friend. I bluntly asked him if he was really happy because of drugs. Funnily enough, he said not anymore. That was the past. I quickly assumed because of the spiritual/Indian garb, “Oh, you must meditate.” As if his smile couldn’t get bigger, he got even more excited about my suspicion and confirmed my belief.
(The truth is, I had watched a few talks on TED.com about meditation and happiness and already knew about the mental health benefits of meditation. But they were talking about meditators. I was not a meditator. I was a pothead. That worked for them. I couldn’t sit still.)
He told me about a free, 10-day, silent meditation course - Vipassana - that he went to that changed his life forever. His smile and enthusiasm convinced me to sign up for a course during the summer. I was accepted off the wait-list the day before the course started. I quit my summer job, packed, and left.
I won’t bore you with the details of the course, but I will let you know that there was lots of meditating, it was silent... and a lot of fun. There was a lot of physical and mental pain. And rolling bouts of laughter during various parts of the day. And, most importantly, the food tasted better with every passing day.
In short, it was the best 10 days of my life.
Every year, they are the best 10 days of my life.
And my life - mistakenly or not - feels like it continues to get better and better every year.
Why I’m grateful to death…
And this daily mindfulness/meditation practice over the last 5 years is precisely why my dad’s cancer diagnosis is nothing I can be mad about. The diagnosis set the Lennon tattoo drill in motion that has given me my life’s most cherished moments.
Without being touched by the winds of my father's mortality, I never would have asked myself the bigger questions about life and happiness that are so intimidating to everyone including myself: Why am I here? How am I here? What do I want my life to mean? More importantly (I think), why do I want my life to mean anything at all?
Without my depression at the time of achievements, I never would have explored and experimented with different ways of trying to be happy. And without that direct experience of failing in different ways to be happy, I would have likely fervently chased the next big goal - professional or personal - as the solution to my misery until I laid in my own deathbed. As my friend says, I never would have seen “beyond the carrot."
My father, admittedly, focused on the carrot his whole life. Even though he has three kids, a wife, put everyone through private schools, he was still deeply bothered whenever he saw someone driving a better car than him or living in a nicer house.
It was his cancer that forced himself to reevaluate how he wanted to live the remainder of his life. Because of this, I was able to convince him to do a Vipassana course with me.
Those ten days we meditated together at the course were some of the best ten days of our lives.
More importantly, my father meditating has made our relationship ever stronger. And most importantly when I am asked by others who know me and my situation well about how I feel about there being a 1% chance of my father living to see my 33rd birthday, - after swallowing the lump in my throat - I can proudly and confidently say I did my part as a son in giving back to my father and making his life tangibly better. I gave him the nudge to learn the tool to teach himself how to live the rest of his life more happily than the first 52 years and to face death with more peace and conviction for having lived a good life.
In the end, we are all going to die. We might as well help each other maximize our enjoyment while it lasts.
As for myself and my father, death has been our greatest teacher in how to live happily ever after.
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