Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

8 Every Victory Is Temporary

with 4 comments

This is part 8 in a series of posts. If you want to read the whole series, scroll down until you get to 1.

One of the worst things about January and February of this year, when I was sick with more than the cancer, was that I couldn’t read, pretty much at all. I managed to finish one book, a traditional mystery, in January, but I forgot to write it down. I think it was an Agatha Christie.

In February, I tried to reread Gaudy Night, but couldn’t finish it.

Then we called 911 the first time, and everything went to hell. I did the hospital for 2 weeks, came home, had to call 911 two days later, and then spent the next three weeks in a nursing home.

Which is a story for another time, and I hope to get to it. I have a lot to say.

Anyway, even though I felt steadily better through March, and got pulled back from the brink of almost-died, I still didn’t read anything in the first 3 weeks of March.

Anybody who knows me knows how really odd this is. I learned to read before I was 3 and I have been reading compulsively ever since. Other stints in the hospital—for a broken leg once, for C-section pregnancies twice, to have my gall bladder removed—didn’t even slow me down.

When I finally got home again, after the Really Bad Diagnosis but actually feeling pretty normal (although tired) otherwise, I went into a kind of hypergear with the books. I also went back to my customary method for choosing what to read. I followed fiction with nonfiction, liberal with conservative, back and forth.

It was this back and forth that landed me, this month, with reading Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West followed by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blindsided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Between them I read Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die, which was definitely a change of pace.

Goldberg and Ehrenreich don’t have a lot in common politically, although they both hate Donald Trump.

And the two books are not even ostensibly on the same topic.

Except, oddly enough, they are.

Jonah Goldberg is writing about our retreat from Enlightenment commitments to objectivity over subjectivity. Barbara Ehrenreich is writing about our desperate clinging to the idea that our feelings control our reality.

Both of them are writing about our terror of living in a world where there is no permanent security, not ever, and never can be.

Oh, we do have temporary control. If you study hard and work diligently, you will definitely do better than if you start drinking every morning as soon as you get up and never venture out Excrpt to buy another bottle of booze.

But it’s like John Maynard Keynes said. In the long run, we’ll all be dead.

For most people on this earth, that particular problem has been solved by religion. Religion gave us an afterlife that meant that death wasn’t really death at all, and religion gave us a structure that said that this mess was controlled by somebody or something, if not by us.

In the 21st century, large numbers of people have abandoned religion for either nothing, or for what we call “spirituality.”

As far as I can figure out, “spirituality” is about keeping the parts of religion we like while jettisoning the parts we don’t. We keep heaven and get rid of hell. We tell ourselves that “everything happens for a reason.”

In the end, though, I think spirituality is a less powerful deterrent to terror than traditional religion. I think that may explain why so many people are so desperate to nail down “what you did” to get cancer.

This was the thing that drove me craziest when Bill was dying. The man had a form of cancer so rare there weren’t any risk factors for it. He couldn’t have “done” anything.  And yet, this was what most people wanted to talk about. Did he ever smoke? Maybe it was his weight? It had to be his fault SOMEHOW.

One of the wonderful things about Ehrenreich’s book are the chapters on her own breast cancer, and the way she was driven absolutely wild by people insisting that she maintain a “positive attitude,” as if a negative attitude must have caused the cancer or would prevent her from being cured of it.

The woman was trained as a molecular biologist. She wasn’t having any.

And she quite rightly pointed out that the real problem with the positive attitude approach was that its flip side is the worst kind of victim blaming. It’s YOUR fault you got cancer! It’s YOUR fault you died of it! You should of changed your attitude!

Living in the world is a scary thing. The universality of death is even scarier.

Jonah Goldberg is right. Every victory is temporary.

I wonder if we’d all do better—yes, even in enduring cancer—if we could figure out a way to accept that.



Written by janeh

May 25th, 2018 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to '8 Every Victory Is Temporary'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to '8 Every Victory Is Temporary'.

  1. What can I say? We don’t even, really, have “temporary control.” We have a sort of statistical control, if you will. We have a bunch of things which, if we do them, will mostly work out better than if we don’t. But the steady hard worker can be killed in a traffic accident his first day on the job, and the lazy drunk can win the lottery or inherit a fortune. All we can be sure of is our own deaths.

    And we only have, I think, two serious responses, but there are two. The pagan seeks a sort of immortality in family or “undying fame”–children, epics and monuments. The children of Abraham–Jews, Christians and Moslems–believe you not only can live forever, but must–and that it comes with obligations and consequences.

    What we’re seeing now is mush. The “spiritualists” are as you say–religion without obligation. It’s very modern Western: somehow they’re going to attain the heavenly weight loss without the earthly diet and exercise, under a heavenly parent who always dishes out dessert but never insists we eat our vegetables. And it’s no wonder they really hate St Paul. What he’d say about them might be even worse than what Augustine or Luther would.

    But I think the “he must have done SOMETHING” school of modernism is different. They have to figure out what it was he did, you see–because now in place of families and fame going on to the end of time, the modern pagans are fighting for months. Eat this, don’t eat that, perform this exercise, and somehow time and chance will NOT happen to all things: you will be exempt. For about five years on an average is my guess. If the only thing you want to do in your life is to keep your heart beating, and you sacrifice everything else to that goal–well, we’re back to statistical control. You’ll probably live longer than you would if you tried to do something with your life.

    I think Homer or Julian the Apostate would look at such people and laugh themselves sick.

    What comes next, I don’t know. But this stuff is not serious.


    25 May 18 at 12:38 pm

  2. There’s a very strong tendency in our society for people to believe that we have – or can/should have, if we do everything right – control over ourselves and our lives. I think myself this is tied to the incredible value so many of us put on autonomy. I don’t see it as strongly connected to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd who mostly seem to value feeling good rather than controlling the universe – at least, the universe as it affects them. The desire for control is more widespread – and also, people want an explanation – something more than “well, life isn’t fair”, which is more or less what it comes down to. It’s almost like a carry-over from the childhood cry “it’s not fair!” crossed with the fantasy that we can control our lives. I don’t know why otherwise sensible adults buy into such a fantasy – but people do desperately want reasons for illnesses, particularly disabling or fatal ones, and there aren’t many other reasons on sale other than religious ones. My father died of an extremely rare lung illness – no one knows why or how he got it. It was almost certainly completely unrelated to the fact he was a smoker. My mother, at one point, responded to this situation by developing the conviction that his mother, who was, as far as I ever knew, one of those rare non-smokers who die from lung cancer, didn’t really have lung cancer, but the same thing that was killing my father, and because it was genetic (which the doctors didn’t know, due to its rareness), any time I or my siblings coughed, she thought we had inherited it. That sort of reaction to a loss I can understand. I can’t understand the conviction that you can cure an illness by positive thinking or never get sick if you eat a (ever-changing idea) good diet. No one’s yet said to my face that I got cancer because I’m fat, although I’m sure some have done so behind my back – maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. A lot of cancers arise spontaneously. I have been asked about genetic reasons – in my case, the family heath history doesn’t support the idea that there is any genetic component in my illness. I’m not going to believe I could have avoided this illness if I’d done something different, like my mother thinking that she could help us by treating a disease we “inherited” from our father and grandmother. Maybe I could have, maybe not, and in any case, it’s irrelevant to the situation as it exists now.

    So how does this tie back into earlier ideas about control – that is, if I accept that some illness might have simply arisen spontaneously, is that different from accepting that my poverty and inability to hold down a job has also arisen spontaneously, and is similarly out of my control? I don’t agree with that – or do I? Is saying “I’m going to try to shift the odds of having good health in my favour by taking care of my body, but accept that I might fail because of factors outside my control” the same as “I’m going to try to shift the odds of having a financially comfortable lifestyle by studying and working hard. but accept that I might fail because of factors outside my control”? Or do both attitudes lead to passivity and victimhood?


    6 Jun 18 at 6:45 pm

  3. Hi, Cheryl!

    I’m really glad to hear from you again.


    10 Jun 18 at 11:07 am

  4. I missed you – but wasn’t checking the blog all that regularly so it took me a while to notice you were back. I’m not on Facebook, so I miss things sometimes.

    I saw the blog about the new book some time back – I bought it and enjoyed it.


    10 Jun 18 at 2:39 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 864 access attempts in the last 7 days.