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Monday, September 3, 2012

"You Don't Deserve to Live."


As a cancer patient, I am now doing daily affirmations. I talk about this in a previous blog post, here.

I'm taking advantage of the many lists of affirmations available on the web. For example at the bottom of this page, one finds these affirmations and others:

I have everything it takes to heal completely.

I am healing every cell of my body at every moment of my life.

It is easy for me to relax completely.

I also tried composing a couple of my own affirmations.

One of the first affirmations I came up with was,

I deserve to live.

I tried to say it out loud. I couldn't. Instead, I cried.

Just attempting to say those words – "I deserve to live" – out loud, as I face a health crisis, turned me inside out.

Some big part of me is convinced that I don't deserve to live.

I was shocked. When composing my own list of affirmations, I did not think that "I deserve to live" would be a hard sentence for me to say out loud. I did not think it would make me cry. I did not think that any attempt to speak this sentence aloud would force me into a confrontation with shadowy, unknown regions of myself.

After all, I have been fighting really hard, every day, for the past couple of months, to survive this diagnosis. I've been begging, demanding, submitting, enduring.

I didn't know that "You don't deserve to live" was in there. I really didn't.

I don't know enough about the mysteries of the body to know if that part of me that is convinced that I don't deserve to live will interfere with my recovery.

I hope not. I know I have to die someday. I just really don't want to die of cancer. It has taken so many of my loved ones, in such miserable ways. I hate cancer. I don't want to do anything to let it have me. I have been spending the last couple of days struggling, really hard, with this message: You don't deserve to live.


I debated with myself about blogging about this.

Part of me said, I am a writer, and it is a writer's job to speak the truth. This experience isn't just about external enemies, or internal tumors. It isn't just about confronting the snakepit of St. Joseph's Hospital, and, with Robin's help, finding a better hospital, a real hospital.

It isn't just about murderous cells being identified and chopped out or burned up.

It is also about a confrontation with my own soul, and my own soul's dark regions.

It's my job, a writer's job, to say that.

That little internal debate did not convince me to blog about this.

Rather, this is what decided it for me: I googled the phrase, "I don't deserve to live," in quotation marks, so that only that exact phrase would turn up.

I was astounded. Hundreds of thousands of internet pages turned up.

The very first page was from Yahoo Answers. An anonymous young person, identified only as "Taylor," posted the following message:

"the truth is...i'm just wasting air and water. i can't think of one good thing about me right now. i don't have many friends, i'm not very good at the sport i do, people don't think i'm pretty, i've never been asked out once, never been crushed on, grades are slipping a little, hard time with economy. what's the point? idk what to do. everyone has such a better life than me. i just figured i should end it soon. i'm too depressed and nobody knows."

Reading Taylor's post ripped my heart right out of my chest.

All I want to do is hug that girl and insist to her that she must never entertain such thoughts.

Destroying angel mushroom. Source: Wikipedia. 
I'm a teacher and I've certainly counseled students who were thinking dark thoughts.

I remember one day, just on a whim, I picked some destroying angel mushrooms I passed on a grassy hillock while walking to class. Destroying angel are very beautiful mushrooms: ghostly white and elegantly formed. I mentioned to my students that just one bite of a destroying angel can be fatal, with little hope for rescue. I then brushed the mushroom to the side of the desk, and began class, and didn't give it another thought.

The last day of that semester, a student approached me. He was a good looking, healthy, well dressed young man who had done well in class and never given me any trouble.

As part of our last day celebrations, I read his tarot cards. I did it for fun.

I saw some troubled cards in his reading and mentioned that, not thinking that this could be reflective of reality. He was obviously a successful student.

"That day you brought the mushroom into class," he began in a very flat, mater-of-fact way, "I had to fight myself not to get up and grab it out of the trash where you tossed it and eat it."

I gasped and stared at him, wide-eyed. I controlled myself enough not to say anything.

He went on. He had been suicidal. He mentioned some life stressors. They were the kind of things we all deal with. For whatever reason, they were overwhelming him.

We talked about the practical things you talk about in that kind of a conversation. Of course I mentioned counseling and told him that though he was no longer my student, I would remain available to him if he needed someone to talk to. He assured me that the crisis had passed, and that his obsession with the mushroom's poison had alerted him to the fact that he needed to do something.

Some students are the walking wounded. You can conclude from their clothes or demeanor or lack of friends that they support actively bleeding injuries and would benefit from attention.

This student was not the walking wounded. He was not conspicuous. And he wanted to die that badly. Was convinced that he ought to die.

I learned something from that encounter.

On a superficial level, I learned that one can never tell what another is going through.

On a deeper level, what did I learn? Is there a Beast out there, ready to prey on us, no matter how lucky we are, ready to tell us we do not deserve to live? And must we combat this Beast, as surely as we combat the more conventional ones – hunger, cold, isolation, chaos, cancer?


The Beast uses logic to make its case to me. It relies on verifiable facts. Readers of "Save Send Delete" are aware of all of these facts.

I am not someone who has demonstrated value to my fellow humans.

I was an abused kid. I was not of value to the people who conceived or the woman who gave birth to me. In fact she threatened to kill me with frequency. I have no great professional success to my name. I am not married. Men have not seen value in me. I'm a spinster. No kids. When I die, no one will miss me.

Objectively, in a Darwinian sense, I have no value.

In the old lifeboat scenario – whom to throw off (or cannibalize) in the lifeboat in order that the other passengers may live, I'd be the first thrown overboard, or turned into human sushi.

This is what the Beast reports to me. It repeats this data over and over. It tells me it is merely toting up the pertinent, objective, Darwinian tally.


I asked this question of the celebrity atheist with whom I carried on the debate in "Save Send Delete."

The Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in that it places as central to its teaching that God loves each person passionately and equally, regardless of gender, birth, nation, wealth or health.

In fact, Jesus is constantly healing people more sensible observers might deem unworthy of life. Jesus not only heals a Woman with a Hemorrhage, he allows her to touch him. This is remarkable.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived in a Hindu village where contact with blood from any woman was profoundly polluting. Devout Hindu women slept outside their homes when they were menstruating. They didn't dare look at their husbands at this inauspicious time, lest they risk their being reincarnated as something vile, like a cockroach.

Jesus didn't just heal the woman with a hemorrhage. He allowed her polluting, bloody body to touch his.

I tear up just thinking about it. Just thinking about it, I am reminded, again, why I am a Christian.

Jesus healed people who were alien, enemy, used up, Darwinian lost causes. Lepers. Blind beggars. Roman soldiers' beloved slaves!

Jesus made pretty clear that non-Jews, that enemies, that used up people, that lonely spinsters, all deserved to live.

I asked the atheist I write about in "Save Send Delete," how about atheism? Does it have an argument that conveys value to people who are, in the Darwinian sense, worthless?

You can read his answer to that in the book.


No conclusions here. I'll be repeating my affirmation: I deserve to live. I'll be asking Jesus' help in allowing it to sink in. I have a battle-weary warrior's respect for the battlefield I face.

Jesus was always healing folks that more rational observers would deem unworthy of life.
Jesus heals the Woman with a Hemorrhage. Source.


  1. Magdalena PaƛnikowskaSeptember 3, 2012 at 11:49 AM

    Of course you deserve to live. There are no ifs or buts about it. It is a pure statement of fact. I hope you wake up tomorrow, look at the sky, and realise this - body and soul :-)

    1. Magdalena, you are such a fabulous woman, I take anything you say to heart. And soul.

      Dziekuje serdecznie.

  2. What helped me greatly was this statement in The Desiderata: "You are a child of the Universe. You have a right to be here." At that point there was much suicidal depression still ahead of me, but that statement was never erased.

    Another thing that helped was of course becoming a writer and a teacher, and seeing that I am of service to others after all. You are a teacher and a writer, maybe mainly a writer at this point, and your words reach others. They matter. You certainly "deserve to live" just in terms of how you touch the lives of others.

    But even aside from that, even when we feel useless for whatever reason, for me there is always that key foundation of being a child of the Universe and having a right to be here, to partake of the beauty. Who gave me that foundation? A writer. Glorious!

    So yes, kochana Danusia, you have the right to be here and you certainly deserve to live. I wish you many more years. Sto lat!

    1. Oriana, in fact that very line from the Desiderata has been going through my mind repeatedly lately. Not just about me, but about others as well.

      Thank you.

  3. Replies
    1. John, I'm ready for life to start loving me any minute now. It's been a long wait.