Tell me if this has happened to you before: you’re confronted with a problem that you don’t know how to solve, and so, rather than react, you wait. And while you’re waiting, this problem magically takes care of itself. It could be an email that you don’t know how to respond to, a request for help from a needy friend that you just don’t have time for, or a work problem that you’re not sure how to tackle. And sometimes, as with a computer glitch, all you really need to do is turn it off for a while and leave it alone. It’s the equivalent of shutting down and rebooting your system.
I’m the last person to advocate ignoring a problem in hopes that it will just go away. I’m a doer. Anybody who has worked with me on one of the plays or films I’ve produced knows that I’m about 100 miles from lazy. It is simply not in my DNA to do nothing.
But sometimes in life, it’s important to take a beat. Sometimes waiting and letting the dust settle is the only thing that can be done. Sometimes, inaction is the best course of action.
Since I’ve become the girl who writes about very sad things – don’t blame me, blame the cosmic forces at work in shaping my life’s trajectory over the last twenty-four months – allow me relate the power of doing nothing back to another very sad thing.
When my Dad was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic and liver cancer in the spring of 2012, he decided that the best course of action was to do nothing. The tumors in his liver numbered at least ten – too many to operate successfully – and the pancreatic tumor he had was so rare that the only chemo drug available was brand new to the market, experimental at best, and wouldn’t eradicate the tumor. In short, there was no cure. His only treatment option might buy him some time, but it could also make him very sick. Why add more years to your life, if the life in your years was full of vomiting, pain and misery?
Dad, ever the pragmatist, opted to let his life run its inevitable course. He figured that at 81, he’d lived a good life and he was going out on his terms. Plus, any chemo meant that he would have to stop drinking, and there was no way the Irish rascal was giving up his booze, especially not with a looming expiration date. As Dad’s internist said when his diagnosis came down, ‘If I had your prognosis, Bernie, I’d buy a one-way ticket to a Caribbean island, park myself on the beach with a tropical drink in hand, and lie in the sun until my time was up.’
I thought my Dad’s decision was brave, and it was the one I would have made had I been faced with the same set of circumstances. My Mom, on the other hand, couldn’t accept it. I had numerous conversations with her in which I laid out all of the facts on the ground and explained how all reason and logic necessitated that this was the only way to proceed. And after all, it was Dad’s decision, and we had to respect his wishes. But no amount of reasoning or logic ever got through to my Mother. She became obsessed with the idea that this experimental, unproven, non-cure of a drug might work, or that there had to be something else, some unseen solution, something no doctor had ever heard of that just might be a miracle cure.
Accepting that there is nothing that you can do when someone you love is going to die is probably the toughest form of acceptance there is. There’s a reason why there are five stages of grief and acceptance is the last one. It is not an easy road to get there. But as I reflect on the way that my Mom obsessed on Dad’s decision – to the point of making herself literally insane – and how that obsession exacerbated her own addictions and the numerous issues she was already battling, I can’t help but see her behavior as a cautionary tale.
I am my Mother’s daughter. I am anxious like her and I worry like her and I make endless to-do lists and I lose sleep over the contents of those to-do lists. I would always, always, rather do something than do nothing. But, I am trying to learn to be OK with the fact that sometimes there’s nothing to be done.
I can be impulsive and a bit rash (blame the stars, I’m a Sagittarius). Often, I try too hard and do too much and in doing so, I can turn a situation that’s just fine on its own into a mess. I am impatient, and frequently just want to get on with it. But there’s an art to knowing when to act and knowing when to let it be. When to do something and when to do nothing. When to take a breath, and relax and let life take care of itself. And to realize that sometimes, time is the only thing that heals.
Until next time, friends.