The Other Side of the Hedge: On Death, Heroism, and Faith

I’ve spent the last thirteen months away from Patheos Pagan, fighting cancer. The battle continues and, if I survive, will go on for years more. It’s not the midlife crisis I would have hoped for. I would have preferred an overwhelming urge to buy a Ferrari.

"Pyramid of Skulls" by Paul Cézanne. From WikiMedia.
“Pyramid of Skulls” by Paul Cézanne. From WikiMedia.

Over and over in the past months, it has been suggested to me that facing death will, or should, somehow change me. The battle for my life is supposed to bring about knowledge of my mortality.

Here’s the rub, though: from a young age, I have always been aware of my mortality. Joining the battle for my life wasn’t a shock. It was like slipping into an old glove.

HEROES

During my recovery from my second round of chemo, my mother came to visit. I was just really starting to go downhill, and I had to force myself to eat through the nausea, one calorie at a time. My mother sat there and watched me eat some leathery hospital meat, mashed potatoes, and green beans. When I was done, she referred to what I did as nothing less than heroic.

"Hel" by Karl_Ehrenberg. From WikiMedia.
“Hel” by Karl_Ehrenberg. From WikiMedia.

But it wasn’t heroic. Saving our own lives is never heroic. I was less a hero than every assistant, nurse, and doctor who has worked so hard to keep me alive. I was less heroic than every Pagan, Christian, Jew, Muslim, and New Ager who has prayed for me. And so much less a hero than my wife, who has stayed by my side through all the fun.

BEING TRUE TO YOURSELF

I wasn’t being heroic. I was determined, focused, and unwilling to admit the possibility of failure for more than a few minutes a week. I did everything I could do at 100%.

I sought out research and opportunities and wasted hours or days for a 1% better chance of success. I learned the science, and when faced with decisions that were beyond my power to approach rationally, I used my intuition to make the best decisions I could.

I did not approach this battle as a “Pagan.” I did not turn away from any opportunity. I took to heart the words of the Sword Saint, Miyamoto Musashi:

“This is the truth: when you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn.”

If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that we need to be true to our deepest selves, and trust that Self in the face of anything. That means not wasting our time shaming others who believe differently. It means not wasting our time screaming about the state of the world or decrying its impurity.

Faith is not belief. That’s a weird, post-Enlightenment Protestant Christian, non-Pagan thing. Faith is connection to whatever spiritual power guides your life. Accept nothing less.


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