One year ago today, Jeff Stamps died of pancreatic cancer, at home, where he wanted to be -- where he always wanted to be, even at his very healthiest. In the thirteen highly-productive months that he lived post-diagnosis, he pulled together three manuscripts, including his memoir, A Dangerous Experiment, that I've posted from before here.
In thinking about what to post today, I'd planned to include the last sections that he wrote. But I can't find them. Chalk this up to circumstances (I don't have access to his computer today, for example), but there are likely other reasons. Thus, I'm posting a section he wrote on "centeredness," a very good word that arcs across how Jeff wore his fate.
The beautiful little boy in this picture was centered as only two-year-olds can be. Watching our identical twin grandsons today, just a little older than Jeff was when this picture was taken, I thought many times of Jeff as a little boy, wide-eyed in wonderment at the moment. Which is precisely how he approached his death. He is so missed.
From A Dangerous Experiment by Jeffrey S. Stamps
I feel centered. Looking through my notes and at earlier drafts of this book, the word appears often as my attitudinal shorthand. Recently, a friend spontaneously said, “You look centered.”
In simple terms, a centered attitude lies between optimism and pessimism, a middle-way that looks as clearly as possible at the current situation and options, then leans in one direction or the other along the lines of one’s normal inclinations. This centered attitude might be usefully thought of as a third bucket, a third way of being a terminal patient aside from optimist or pessimist.
A centered stance may also go deeper and include a quality of mindfulness.
In my terminal initiation story, I have experienced feelings of calm and acceptance as I dealt with news no one wants to hear. I continued to examine this feeling against the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance stages and found myself already moved into a starkly new personal reality. I did not flip out as the realization hit full force with my friend Dr. Tom Lamont telling me “some of my patients live as long as a year.”
As the days, weeks, and months have unfolded, a time of emotional intensity filled with lots of positive and negative events, I have found a new normal and an attitude of equanimity. For the most part I don’t get too bummed out by negatives, nor do I punch the air with the thrill of victory, particularly not with respect to the course of my treatment and disease. As for negatives, how bad can it get? I’m going to die relatively soon.
I want to emphasize that this equanimity, this centeredness, is not a passive state, some pleasure-pain neuter midpoint. To the contrary, it is a very active emotion, always adjusting to fast-changing circumstances. Sometimes it is struggling to limit feelings of loss, particularly in the wake of my young friend Wangchuk’s suicide. Sometimes it is tamping down feelings of success, like those a good CT scan can bring. Throughout, an attitude of equanimity seeks to find something good, precious, or just memorable in the moment.
Most practically, equanimity is about not getting angry. Of course this means not expressing anger, but, more importantly, not feeling angry, not being angry. There are always exceptions brought about by unique causal conditions and intentions. Sometimes it is very important to be angry, to do something, or not, and then get over it. But I believe that a permanent state of anger is likely to lead to more personal sickness and an earlier death. It also strongly affects people around you as those anger effects ripple on through networks of social relationships…
The real underlying driver is personal transformation, to get as close to “enlightenment” as possible. I don’t know what enlightenment is, so “it” is in quotes. I may know it when I see it, or, more likely, I am seeing it all the time but not recognizing it. In uncomplicated terms, the goal is a better me while simultaneously graciously negotiating the inevitable forced detachment from the things and, eventually, the people that have made me my self.
What I can do is share what I’ve learned about learning, which is to immerse yourself in the stuff you want to know about and watch for the synergistic patterns to emerge. In this case, the “stuff” for emergent discovery is life and end-of-life experience.
Immersion is being mindful, creative, and committed when dealing with the ordinary affairs of life—the proverbial dishes. It often means bringing some life-and-death issue to information overload and forced resolution as time moves along, such as whether to accept a new treatment. New information is constantly streaming in. Much is to be ignored, but some information is life-critical and not necessarily carrying a sign to that effect. Immersion is in life, in the approaching end of life, and the reality of your condition and survivability, which are in constant flux.
I know I can reach beyond where I am, and the knowledge of terminality offers a very simple and easy-to-understand lesson on the preciousness of each moment and the meaning of the admonition “don’t waste time.” The word “precious,” which I have used throughout this memoir, is preciously close to being a cliché. Nevertheless, it is an excellent term for a grand body of spiritual discovery from many traditions that attention to the present reveals the whole in every moment. The word evokes a jewel-like quality and brilliance, catching and displaying light in myriad twinkling patterns. And that, indeed, is the quality of precious time.
I noticed such a precious moment recently in a late-autumn walk in the woods with my daughter Eliza and her dog Sola under a cloudless sky and noon-high sun. A few late-blooming hardwoods painted near and distant woodscapes with splotches of color. The forest floor was coated with brown and crackly dead leaves. Except this morning they shone as pools of light, each and every leaf, creating a sea of rippling light that streamed out of a motley mass of fallen life. Crackling with each step, we strode across a shimmering wooded sea.
I have walked the woods from the earliest years of my childhood but never before noticed the late fall sea of light. Or knew that I noticed it.
The transforming effect of my terminal period is beginning to spread. In my own experience, active equanimity was particularly noticeable in my Terminal Bardo reality. That is, I could apply a nimble calmness most easily to the more difficult circumstances inside the new cancer-bubble normal, while in the regular-life normal, I had the usual range of conflicting emotional experiences about things clearly not so important. Sometime in the early fall I became aware that equanimity had become a more prominent feature of my regular normal, and I continue to work on this all-important path of personal growth. If not now, when?
I will need every possible psychological advantage to navigate more difficult days ahead.
More remarkable, I think, is the spread of some sort of transformative centeredness to those most immediately affected by my death. This does not mean not living with grief as well as happiness, but it is an active engagement with the reality of our situation and the hard growth that requires.
I cannot tell you how to be centered any more than I can tell you how to be optimistic or pessimistic. Nor can I tell you how I got to be centered, if I am.
What I can say is that I am more centered than I thought I would be, if I ever thought about it before. With this memoir, I can show you what trying to live that attitude looks like from the inside.
Centered is what I would like to be when I die, and before.