Today’s topic is about chemo and hair loss, although there’s a whole lot more going on than just the demise of my dearly beloved fierce pink tresses. The real subjects are attachments, fear, and letting go–three much more powerful issues that affect not only those in cancer treatment but pretty much all human beings at some point in life.
I went through the whole hair loss thing with the first cancer experience. Taking what measure of control I could, I had my head shaved and sent the ponytail to Locks of Love. It really didn’t bother me that much that I can remember. Perhaps it was because I was sure it would grow back, AND I’d have the added benefit of an outrageously expensive but effective perm. (Note: You have to look for the small bright spots and opportunities to laugh when dealing with cancer or any other life-threatening medical condition.)
This time felt different. Perhaps it was the difficulty of letting go of that brave, bright color my daughter so lovingly applied to my hair–a hot pink badge of courage. Maybe it was the comments from folks that this time my hair might not grow back like it did a decade plus ago; after all we’re dealing with long term treatment now as opposed to a once and done experience. It could be the reality of just one more indignity and loss of the illusion of control. After pondering the situation for a couple of months and getting used to my rad baldness and wardrobe of really cool hats, I think it’s something more–something that affects virtually all of us. That something is the power of attachments and the fear of letting go.
You see, the initial tears and sadness of having my beloved shave my head have given way to acceptance and even a kind of love for my bald look. It’s sassy. It’s real. It doesn’t try to pretend that my shorn skull is a fashion statement rather than a side effect of chemo. It’s not, in short, a cover-up of all that’s happening in my life. And therein lies the dilemma.
I am now quite okay with my bald pate and the many lovely, quirky, and precious caps and hats that so many friends and family have made and/or given (I treasure your love and care. Thank you!). Yet sometimes I wonder if I’m becoming too attached to the present state of being. You’d probably never know I am living with stage four cancer if it weren’t for a shiny noggin (and the persistent fatigue). After all, bald IS beautiful, and I’ve embraced rocking the look.
My Buddhist friends will say that nothing lasts. The Buddha teaches that almost all of our struggles–anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, grief, worry, despair, etc.–all stem from one source: being too tightly attached to something or someone. Jesus had a few things to say about attachments and possessions, too (Check out Mark 10:17-31, Luke 6:32-36, Luke 12:15, Luke 14:33, Luke 15:11-32, Luke 18:18-22, Matthew 5:1-7:29, Matthew 6:2-4, Matthew 6:19-25, Matthew 16:24-26, Matthew 23:25-26 to get started. Pastor, teach thyself!).
I can understand how past attachments may have contributed to my present state of dis-ease, and I confess that for me letting go is definitely not as easy as I would like for it to be. I also know I’m not alone. If it was easy to let go there would be far fewer struggles and pain. We humans are not experts at holding loosely to our lives, possessions, and relationships. Sure, some things are easier to let go of than others, but we all have our “sticky stuff” that prevents us from being truly free.
To learn to let go of attachments takes intention and practice. Whether you choose prayer, meditation, or some other discipline, the important thing I’m learning is to be gentle with oneself in the process. My most difficult attachment is to the value (both real and perceived) of my vocational life. I’ve been taught to work hard, to work until the job is done, and to do the very best work possible. Unfortunately, a good teaching has become over time both a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with past pain in my life and an attachment that is detrimental to my overall health and well-being (not to mention that of my loved ones). I could definitely take a regular seat in an Overworkers Anonymous meeting!
And here’s the thing: There is no badge of honor for working oneself to the bone, to ill health, or to death. My friends, don’t wait for the death part to figure this out, no matter what attachment(s) to which you may be clinging with ferocity. Learn to let go while you have the choice and opportunity. Do it better than I have done until now. Don’t wait for cancer, heartbreak, or other life altering event to stop you in your tracks and force you to learn. Oh, and rock your wonderful self just as you are. You are enough. You are beloved! It’s okay to let go and be you.
Note: Need somewhere to start? Check out Leo Baubuta’s blog post “The Zen Habits Guide to Letting Go of Attachments.” He offers five practices you may find helpful.