"Sarah, this is the doctor's office calling to say your mammogram is clear."
The news I had waited for two agonizing days. The news I thought would be received with joyous relief. Relief, yes, but joy, to my utmost surprise, was missing; rather, an emotional flat line.
"Oh, another transition," I thought. Moving from fear to euphoria. Wait. Allow the shock to subside. Allow the news to percolate, and then joy will arrive. It was an annual mammogram. A recall, the excruciating wait, then good news. It was just a blip on my easy life and now, time to celebrate.
Days passed, still the flat line. Gratitude, yes, but ecstasy, no. Then gradually there was a shift. Not toward this elusive ecstasy, but toward an understanding of the flat line.
The hardest thing about the two days was the not knowing, waiting to find out if I had a potentially fatal disease, waiting to know if I should be happy or sad.
The irony of this dawned. The two days were merely a microcosm of life itself. How or when we will die is the unknown that we put out of our minds until forced to confront it. The two days brought "unknowing" front and center. With the reprieve, nothing changed. I just have the luxury now, if I choose, to put thoughts of mortality, once again, on the back burner. Can I only be happy when ignoring the fact of my mortality?
Or can joy coexist with the mystery? Occasionally, while I was waiting for the call, I could forget the situation. When my mind was engaged I could lose myself in distraction. But as soon as the situation flooded back I knew that being lost is a far cry from being at peace.
Distraction is not equivalent to joy. Joy requires presence. When the distraction ended, the mental hijinks returned: "I'm sure I'm fine, don't worry" or "You have cancer, change your plans." All the while I knew that the unknowing was not the truth of those two days, but the truth of life.
How to find peace, even joy, in this reality of knowing I will die, maybe tomorrow, maybe in 30 years? If I couldn't find peace in those two days, how can I ever? And if I could find peace in those two days then maybe that explains why there was no rush of euphoria when the call came. The call really didn't change a thing; it only allowed me to ignore mortality for a while longer, if I chose.
A curious thing, happiness. What else has to be in order for happiness to arise? Maybe ignoring mortality is just the beginning. Surely all the rest needs to line up also: work, money, health, relationship, kids. And even if all these line up and look good for any reasonable period of time, there's always someone else whose picture looks better than mine, someone prettier, richer, smarter, younger. It truly seems an uphill battle if finding peace is dependent on all this.
I am blessed to have a yoga practice that enables me to touch stillness where peace exists. I find a deep source of being beyond the factors of my external life, free from the push and pull of trying to make it all line up.
This place is the opposite of distracted; it is a place of sweet presence. This place has taught me those feelings of happy or sad that arise from life's events: winning the lottery, being diagnosed, being promoted, losing your job, are not the whole story, they are the roller coaster of life that we try so hard (and usually fail) to control.
During those two days when I fell into either yearning for the right outcome, or adjusting to the wrong outcome, I suffered. When I could be with the not knowing, when I could still the mind, I found peace.
So when the phone call came I felt intense compassion for all the people who got the other call.
I felt such gratitude for the gift of each day I am given.
Sarah Swales is a certified yoga teacher in Ashland. Submit articles to firstname.lastname@example.org