I composed the post below before reading Diamante Lavendar’s powerful paean to spirituality on this site. The benefits of spirituality that she describes are undeniable, but I believe they are also available through other means and without reliance on a supreme being. Here’s my take on one such alternative pathway.
In previous posts, I described some strategies that sustained me during my prolonged treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. Here, I add one more item to that list. While many people rely on religious faith in a medical crisis and while I respect such beliefs, I followed a different road.
It didn’t start that way. My parents were nominal Catholics and I was raised in that tradition. I was baptized, took first Communion, was confirmed, and attended Sunday Mass with my family into my early teens. With the onset of puberty and a teenager’s classic sense of immortality, however, Catholicism lost its relevance for me. I fell away from a religion I had never fully embraced.
After drifting through my teenage years, I enrolled in college and became enamored with philosophy and sociology. I found their emphasis on scientific observation, logical reasoning, and rational explanation to be much more compelling. I became a “child” of the Enlightenment, a practicing sociologist, and a secular humanist.
One benefit of this world-view is described in Philip Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. He notes that secular-minded people may actually weather challenges such as a life-threatening illness more readily than someone who is religious. For the latter, such an event may precipitate a crisis of faith and a quest to restore that faith while also dealing with their illness. For the secular-minded, there is no crisis because there was no ultimate faith to be shaken in the first place.
This could allow secular-minded folks to more readily adopt a pragmatic, problem-solving attitude toward life’s misfortunes. This attitude was certainly reflected in the pro-active stance that I brought to my treatment. Whenever possible, I sought to act and solve problems in ways that would foster my recovery. When that wasn’t possible, I learned new levels of patience and non-judgmental acceptance from my practice of mindfulness. And finally, I also accepted that there was an irreducible element of luck or random variation that would determine the outcome of my treatment.
My beliefs allowed me to arrive at a good place during a bad time. The secular world view I had nurtured my entire adult life was like a comforting companion on the roller coaster ride that was my diagnosis, treatment, and eventual recovery. Standard disclaimer: I have no idea if my secular practicality had any direct bearing on my successful outcome, but it certainly sustained my sense of self over the long haul.
Steve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor. In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness. His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.