Jay Lake, Cancer, and God #9: A Tale of Two Tales

This post is way delayed because I haven't known how to avoid being an asshole in it.  Finally I decided, hey, if I'm a blogger at all, I can't be afraid of assholery! 

I'll be contrasting Jay's approach to dying with what I believe is the common Christian approach.  My bias is evident:  I've chosen Christianity.  Which could lead to some awful, triumphalist stuff.  I fear adding one more burden to Jay's back as he struggles mightily with the implications of cancer and mortality. 

And it's unfair, because he's going through it and I'm not.  My path is incomparably easier.

But at last it occurred to me that I was not paying Jay enough respect.  As far as I can tell from his blog, his mind is still clear, and he still relishes a dispute.  Why should I treat him as an invalid?  So I put on my big-boy pants and clicked "post." 


So here is how I want to frame it:  John Donne vs. Alfred Lord Tennyson, one fall, no time limit, for all the marbles. 

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As Jay approaches death, his life and values arise out of the Empiricist/Rationalist narrative (we know what's true because we can test it).  Much good comes from this.  I think he also lives out of a *mythos* of his own, involving care for his family and friends, service to humanity in tracing his cancer journey, writing as his avocation, etc.  What causes him pain is not empirical truth so much, but offense against his *mythos*.  For example, empirically, it is simply a fact that his disease and treatments block him from writing fiction; mythically, it's a direct strike against the values that animate him.  So also with other values.  He struggles; and often enough, he prevails. 

Jay charts a path through the Shadow.  People of faith won't walk exactly the same path.  But perhaps we can shout encouragement from ours, and learn from him, and on this stretch or that, even join him. 

Jay Lake, Cancer, and God #8: The Intersection

Being an essay concerning points of contact, and even agreement, between aspects of Christian thought and Jay's approach to mortality and the spirit.

Imagine a Venn diagram.  On the left, we have jaylake s view of human life and mortality.  On the right, the Christian story as I understand it.  Today we're talking about what both views have in common; the intersection in the middle of the Venn diagram, where we agree. 

Here's the table of contents, a sketch of the intersection. 
1.  Death sucks. 
2.  Any Christian consolation is marred by Christian wrong-headedness or wrong-heartedness. 
3.  Evidence for God and an afterlife falls short of convincing. 
4.  Those outside the bounds of the Christian story can nevertheless live a moral, committed, happy life.
5.  Spirituality and even religion.  This one may be debatable...

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I chew these posts over pretty thoroughly but, when I'm done masticating the next one, it will cover points of difference between Jay's experience of mortality as he describes it, and the Christian experience.  I'll follow through on some incomplete thoughts here (like, "if the evidence isn't convincing, why are you convinced?").  The danger, obviously, is the temptation to set up straw men that my Christian bludgeon can easily knock over.  But... "danger?  I laugh at danger.  Ha, ha, ha!"


Jay Lake, Cancer, and God #7: His Own Self and Mortality

Like the last post, this one attempts to describe accurately how jaylake looks at the world, and specifically one slice of his worldview:  Jay's atheism as it influences his approach to mortality.  Later on I'll compare his wisdom to the wisdom of Christianity; there will be overlap and there will be contrast.  But I want to keep myself honest first by being sure I understand Jay's worldview, and acknowledging that his worldview also makes sense.  Again, these are mostly impressions I've gathered from reading his blog faithfully.  In other words, I could be wrong!  (Jay's response to my last post is here. Thanks, Jay!)

So here we go:

They say that facing our mortality focuses our attention.  ("Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." - Samuel Johnson.)

In fact it's an old Christian prayer technique:  when you're planning your day, imagine your life as a portrait, an oil painting; see how it should look at the end of your life.  Visualize today's brushstrokes, and ask of each brushstroke, does this enhance the portrait or mar it?

So as Jay faces his mortality, what are the broadest and boldest brushstrokes I see?

1.  Reality check.  Okay, sure, depression and anger.  Denial's not an option; Jay's an empiricist.  Bargaining's not an option; there's nobody to bargain with.  (Okay, there are lots of bargains to be made... "what would it take to go to New Zealand?"  "What do you mean, I'm not disabled?"  ...  but not in a vast cosmic God sense.)  Acceptance...?  Yes.  Death is inevitable.  And no...

2.  Death may be inevitable, but the struggle is important.  Poke death in the eye.  Do not go gentle into that good night.  Laugh at death.

3.  Dum vivamus, vivamus.  Live a full life.  Find joy.  Host your own wake.  Go to New Zealand.  Go to Worldcon.

4.  Up With People.  Be kind.  The greatest pain is how this dying business affects people.  Jay finds himself losing some capability for cognition and self-control, which is bad enough.  Worse, he finds himself lashing out at those he loves.  Nevertheless, clearly thechild, Lisa Costello, and a few others are at his heart's core; and many other friends and relations are very near it.  Moving outward, he's open about struggles with cancer, it might help someone.  Put the genome sequence online, it might help someone.

5.  Writing.  Can we have two things at the heart's core?  I put this behind the "People" segment, but it's pretty darn close.  After putting years of effort into producing and improving his writing, at the height of his powers, he finds himself unable to write fiction.  He still produces non-fiction, and he's still plugged into the writing community.  His work will continue to influence people.  Like Richard Derus.

6.  At the last, face death realistically and openly.  Death is final.  There is no evidence of an afterlife.  We die dead.  There is evidence that people can "live forever" through their writing; there is evidence that one's character can "live on" through influence on other people.  But the eternal personality?  It's a nice wish but it's just a way of kidding yourself.

What are the life consequences of this worldview?  First, he's being helpful, being kind, by his openness about living with terminal cancer.  Others who live with the disease see him naming the experience of cancer and in some way helping them more fully live with their own experience.  I myself am not in that circle, but I also find it helpful, in that I understand the experience of cancer more fully because I've read Jay's blog.

Second, because life is to be lived fully, extraordinary things have happened.  The latest example is a tribute at Worldcon (the nature of which I have no clue, but clearly meaningful to Jay).  The coolest thing was a trip to New Zealand with The Child and Lisa Costello.  The biggest thing was the Kickstarter rally to pay for his gene sequencing; both Jay's struggle against death and the importance he places on people were important here.

Third, though he is not at this moment producing fiction, he still has work coming out, and (I hope) can feel like these brushstrokes on the portrait of his life were well done.

Fourth, this worldview has made Jay a great guy.  Human, fallible -- mortal -- but great.

On the negative side, he's expressed the pain of hopelessness.  If you can't hope for an afterlife, what do you hope for?  There have been many answers to that question, and it's fascinating to see Jay work out his as an atheist.  If hope is a part of living a full life, where do you find that hope?  Atheism is becoming more common in the U.S., and so Jay's public struggle with the question of hope seems like a contribution.  

Also on the negative side, if writing fiction is near his heart's core, then the loss of writing becomes a devastating emptiness.  Will that place in his life remain empty?  Or will something positive move into it?  The same is true for his other kinds of work.  Jay values making a contribution , and work is the way to organize that goal.

Let me close this segment with a reference to Jay's own view of whatever wisdom he has.  He wrote a blog post that I find really seminal for my own purposes in this series.  To use a term I learned from Jay, here's the money quote:

"Be kind, and don't miss your opportunities."

Jay Lake, Cancer, and God #6: Jay Lake His Own Self

This post proposes to consider one small slice of a large personality.  jaylake is an atheist.  I want to describe Jay's particular brand of (un)faith, how he deals with mortality, and how the two interact.  In future posts, I'll bring my own Christian viewpoint into the picture, but today's task is simply to hear Jay as accurately as I can.  You could think of this project as a compare-and-contrast essay question, or a case study.  That seems too cold for a hot personality.  I prefer to think of it as "Tuesdays with Jay," an atheist's wisdom literature.

1.  Empirical vs. Mythical truth. 

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It occurs to me that this particular topic would have profited if I'd just interviewed Jay about these things.  Too late! 

I've noticed that I myself rarely read blog posts longer than 600 words, a limit I'm fast approaching.  Jay's view of mortality and his wisdom on that critical subject will have to wait for my next post. 

Edited:  to correct sloppy formatting.  

Jay Lake, Cancer, and God #5: Sounds like a plan

So.  July 15.  My last entry about jaylake, wherein I promised to consider "ritual" in my next post.  Long time passing!  What's up?  Besides the usual - vacation, work, procrastination?

A divided mind, that's what was up.  On the one hand, I think what Jay's doing is important.  He's being open about his struggles with cancer, and writing from the viewpoint of a committed atheist.  This seems significant, especially since the numbers of atheists and religiously unaffiliated are growing in this country.  New ways of organizing an atheist (non-)spirituality may emerge (as at Harvard, for example, with its intentional humanist community).  As a Christian, I want to think carefully about this.  Jay's openness about his experience provides an opportunity.

On the other hand, I don't want to add to Jay's stress.  I can see the danger of this series becoming a cold sociological study on the one hand, or a critique on the other.  "Jay's not dying correctly!"

Also, almost certainly, I'll say hurtful things inadvertently.

Besides all that, I know I have severe tendencies toward fanboyism, and I don't want that either.

I'm not sure I can eliminate these dangers, but here's how I'll try to minimize them.  I'll have four steps in the series:

1.  Jay Lake His Own Self.  I'll describe Jay's faith stance as accurately as  I can, from his own point of view.  I'll want to hear him as accurately as I can in order to ground the series in respect.

2.  The Venn Diagram Overlap.  Points of contact, and even agreement, between aspects of Christian thought and Jay's approach to mortality and the spirit.

3.  Drawing Distinctions.  As you'd expect, Christianity approaches mortality differently from Jay's thought.

4.  Implications for Christians. At this point, I frankly have no idea what these are.  I'll probably unleash my bias for Christianity, but also think about ways Christianity can be more loving and understanding and helpful toward our atheist neighbors.

I thought about adding a fifth point -- "Implications for Atheists" -- but decided I can't represent atheism very well!  Maybe I'll interview somebody.

My intention is to write one entry a week.  It may take several entries to address each point.

Finally, I offer Jay a veto.  If the series becomes stressful or even just annoying, say the word, and I'll end it.

May Grace Smack George Zimmerman

I don't get angry at bad theology very often.  But I went to bed angry last night, and woke up angry this morning.

George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, told Sean Hannity that he didn't regret anything about the incident; it was all God's plan.

This is slander against the name of God.

I understand that by Florida law ("Stand Your Ground") and by rules of evidence (no eyewitnesses to the fight itself) Mr. Zimmerman's acquittal was probably the right legal verdict.

But I guessed Mr. Zimmerman surely would be haunted by the results of his evening expedition.  He'd wake up in the morning thinking, If only I'd stayed home, if only I'd listened to the police dispatcher who said not to follow him, if only I'd let him go when he ran, if only I'd followed Neighborhood Watch guidelines -- never go out alone, never pursue someone suspected of wrongdoing, never take a weapon of  any kind -- if only I'd made better decisions, then I wouldn't have killed that young man with Skittles.

Of course, I guessed, by evening he'd have made all kinds of excuses and justifications to convince himself he acted properly.  But then, first thing next morning, there that thought would be again:  I killed Trayvon Martin.

Apparently I was wrong.  Instead, I guess he thought:  "It was God's plan."

The God of Jesus Christ who said "Blessed are the peacemakers"?  The God of Jesus Christ who died on the cross, though able to summon human and divine aid?  The God of Jesus Christ who said all who take the sword shall perish by the sword?  The God whose "plan" aims at beating swords into plowshares... and none shall make us afraid?  That God?

"God's plan."  Wow.  That makes me angry.

But here's the grace.

Grace is God's favor, extended to us even when we don't deserve it.  The musical To Whom It May Concern defines grace as God saying:  "You screwed up!  But I love you anyway."  We speak of grace as offering forgiveness, reconciliation with God and people, the power to act always out of motives of love for God and people, a mysterious force that draws us toward the mystery of the Holy.

Methodist thought notices prevenient, justifying, sanctifying, and perfecting grace.  

But there's one more.  Convincing grace.  We might call it "convicting" grace.  It's the sacred time when God helps us see that we're traveling the wrong path, the unloving and deadly path, and turns us around.  Knowing we're going wrong is a necessary first step to going right, and God helps us with it, so that we can have peace.

I'm a pastor, not a judge.  But convincing grace, that's the grace I wish for George Zimmerman.  Failing that, at least stop blaming God for the death of Trayvon Martin.  

Jay Lake, Cancer, and God #4: Prevailing

I've known many people with cancer.  Jaylake is unique in my experience because he's very open and public about what he's going through.  This allows public conversation about Life, the Universe, and Everything.  Also God.  Because I'm a pastor.


jaylake's health has taken a turn for the worse and he's been honest about his reaction.  I've delayed publishing my next series of posts because they seemed awfully intellectual to me, where caregiving seems more appropriate, given his bad health news.  But maybe I've tweaked them enough to be acceptable.

Today's conversation comes to us courtesy of a business book, Good To Great by Jim Collins.  It's a book about taking a good organization and making it great.  The third principle his research identified is:  "Confront the brutal facts (yet never lose faith)."  Briefly, the idea is to "maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality."

Jay's not about creating a great organization.  But it seems to me that's a useful guideline for living greatly as well.

I've seen Jay confront brutal facts and I've seen him keep faith, of a sort.  He has "confronted the brutal facts."  I still remember my shock when, back in the day, he wrote that his odds of dying in 5 years were 70%.  I was mostly shocked and worried about the low odds, of course, but also at least a little shocked that he wasn't trying to fool himself.  He has written, extensively, about the bad effects of chemotherapy and cancer on his relationships, his body, his work, his writing, his moods, you name it.

Faith?  He has "poked cancer in the eye," he has "beaten cancer again and again," he has not lost faith until recently.  (Please note we're talking about what Jay calls "small-f" faith , not Faith in some god.  In this case, it's what Collins calls "faith that you will prevail.")  He has even written about "the gifts of cancer,"  which to me resembles a small-s spiritual kind of prevailing.

The problem, of course, is that, barring a miracle, he will not prevail in any physical sense.  And even if a physical miracle occurs, through science or whatever means, eventually he will die.  And so if "prevailing" means "continuing to live," how can one prevail?

As a pastor, this leads me to religious thought, of course, and I'll go there eventually.  But I don't think you have to.  For instance, you can prevail as the 300 Spartans did at Thermopylae, even though they died.  Or you can prevail as Socrates did, dying of poison but influencing human thought and behavior for millennia.  Or you can prevail as a portion of you lives on in others, especially your family, as, um, Mufasa did.  (I'm reaching for the sublime example there.)

All I know about Jay's current struggles come from his blog.  But it seems to me that at least part of his struggles, emotional swings, etc. stem from the question:  how will I prevail?  How will I redefine what it means to prevail?  The answers that come through the blog seem to involve laughing in the face of death.

Which points to my next post.  Its springboard will be another business book, The Power of Full Engagement, and its treatment of ritual.  Authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz define ritual as "behavior that has become automatic over time PLUS is tied to a deeply held value."  Breaking bottles?  Laughing?  Values?  Automatic?  Next post.  

Jay Lake, Cancer, and God #3: Grief and hope

jaylake has been blogging extensively and openly about his experience with cancer.  His blog has stirred up lots of questions and issues for me as a Christian (which Jay is not).  This series of posts takes Jay's writing as a cliff from which to leap into a discussion of those issues. 

Last Saturday Jay's blog, "Last night I had a meltdown," concerned the theme, "I want my life back."  He then detailed a number of activities his cancer has made difficult or impossible.  The thought, he says brought him to "tears of anger and despair." 

There are a variety of lenses through which to look at this:  fatigue and exhaustion, a body awash in strange chemicals and runaway biology, stress.  The part I meditate upon below is despair, or more precisely, grief.  I'll take it in two parts:  first, my approach as a person of faith; second, a search for something helpful to say that would transfer to Jay's situation, as an atheist.  I have no idea if I'll find anything in the latter category. 

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I read this over and it seems I'm being very serious, there's kind of a "buck up, man" tone to this blog.  Whereas Jay has sternly admonished his friends to "poke cancer in the eye," and to raise joy and laughter as a counterweight.  So maybe that is the hope:  in spite of despair that lurks in the background, in spite of all the things that are not pleasant, there is the possibility of, um, fun. 

Somebody buy this man a chain of beads.

God, cancer, and Jay #2: The easy questions

jaylake has been blogging about extensively about his experience with cancer.  His blog has stirred up lots of questions and issues for me as a Christian (which Jay is not).  This series of posts takes Jay's blog as a cliff from which to leap into a discussion of those issues. 

I want to ease myself into this series, so let's take a few easy questions first.

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I go crazy when some preacher talks about how Katrina or Superstorm Sandy or 9/11 are expressions of God's displeasure, or on a personal level, how disease can be explained by "somebody up there doesn't like me."  No.  There are natural causes, and the world is in some ways broken (from a Christian point of view).  But God's working to fix things, not smash them.

I realize that statement requires a lot more support than my mere assertion.  We'll get there.  In the comments, if you like, you can help orient the directions this all takes.  But we're all out of time for today, kids!

(Edited to add links)

God, Jay Lake, and cancer

jaylake's extensive writing about his cancer has moved me to blog again.  (But don't blame Jay!  He doesn't know I'm doing this.)

He's very open about his cancer and its effects on him physically, mentally, and emotionally.  I want to think about his situation in a spiritual sense, and specifically, in a Christian sense.  Of course, Jay is a staunch atheist, and it would be inappropriate to address the issue on his blog.  So I'll do it here.  This is partly for my own peace of mind.  I've posted a few faith-related things on his blog and am never sure when I'm crossing the line.  Here, I can speak freely

But you say, couldn't I just write about it in my journal and not inflict it on others?  Well, years ago I did a few threads that got some reaction -- on why people don't go to church and on how the church deals with the issue of homosexuality.  In each case, I learned a lot.  So I'm thinking I'll learn from any reaction here, as well.

I write with some trepidation.  I value Jay's friendship greatly, and am a little afraid that these posts will come across as trying to convert him.  That couldn't help our friendship.  So let me address the question directly:  do I want to convert Jay?

Well, no and yes.  Let me Speak In Parables:

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These posts won't be exclusively about Jay, I hope.  But his openness about his cancer provides an opportunity to think about faith in the context of one of its most difficult challenges.  I've known many people with cancer, but usually it's a private conversation.  This one's public.

Going forward...  assuming I keep this up...  we'll talk about things like where cancers fit into a good God's world; about prayer; about miracles, and the lack of them; and about other topics as they arise.  Many many books have been written about such things by very smart people.  What I hope to add is any specific insight available from walking among people at ground level.