As brilliant and important as Illness as metaphor (codified by Susan Sontag) is, the other counter narrative is the prevailing one, namely that the body breaks down, that 1 in 2 women and 1 in 3 men will experience cancer in their lifetime. (Hopefully a cancer as treatable as mine!) This is what statistics tells us and they leave the soft science to psychologists, mystics, pot smokers, and miracle workers and other well meaning people who seek to examine the problem along new boundaries.
I will say, in my own case I don’t have a sense of knowing where I contracted the hpv virus and for how long I’ve had it. I only know that i’ve known something was brewing in me for well over 3 years. I complained regularly and heard repeatedly that everything was ok. I left 2 doctor’s over their mostly cavalier attitude towards my aches and pains. I was almost grateful on February 14th to learn they added up to tonsil cancer that had moved to my lymph glands in my neck. Finally, I was relieved to know I had a malady and the course to cure it.
But I’ve been thinking through the illness as metaphor aspect. And for purpose of this post, I’m gong to consider it here. I think this is something internal and its veracity can only be tested by considering it deeply. Turning it over and over in your mind and comparing it or examining it with others, those who are willing to go there with you. My wife, my psychologist and so on. But in the end it is for me to discern the efficacy of any claim. And I have a few.
Stress is reputed to be the cause of much disease in our culture. and we have plenty of it just living in our times. (I think there was plenty of it in other times too. To stress is to be human or any other type of animal and insect life.) Most everyone’s life is spent getting food and getting sex or the myriad of stand ins for that foundational stuff. But thats the stress everyone has, nest pas? What about me, my own particular stress.
Political stress. I’ve thought about this deeply. Firstly, I’ve thought about the local politics of my department and its political stress for years. Getting tenure is a grueling process. Colleagues can turn on you on a dime. Or they can also just be against you and anything you do, no changing their mind. They’ve tallied you up and you’’re out. And they can also be for you and I was fortunate to have a great mentor and we continue to have a great friendship. Then one day you get tenure and your a made man (man in my case). Then there’s a whole new set of concerns.
What’s interesting is people’s strength and weaknesses in the political arena are mostly right up front adorning the sleeves of their shirts and coats. You can quickly see if someone is out of their depth even if they know it. You can evaluate the people that see into and through the system and understand hierarchy and how to play effectively to it. The most apparent tell of people’s political ambitions and skills is when they meet power. Just watching closely you can tell oh so much about your colleagues, who to watch out for and who to trust.
And then of course, trust comes hard, if at all. People who cannot trust at all will wall themselves off and probably make up the most of your academic colleagues. They tend to be hurt and miserable in their jobs. It reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song “All Romantics share the same fate someday: cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.” You must give something of yourself to create healthy work place political relationships.
And then there are people who are your competitors, sometimes just on principle because you represent the “type” that their politics demands you should be against. I have two of these. At this point I won’t broadcast further only to say its sad. People can do so much more together than apart.
This cancer has reminded me of my purpose all the more. And what is that? It is not teaching people who don’t want to learn! Or at Least learn the stuff I have to teach. It is to quote Kurt Vonnegut “to remind people that they are alive”.