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Illness Speaks: Healing from Cancer, Addiction and Racism in the Age of Rush Limbaugh

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As I approached day number six of a full on "chemotherapy detox" process in the peaceful isolation of the Tucson desert, I was reminded how noisy and all consuming the mind is.

The parallels of healing disease, addiction and racism had never penetrated my brain before receiving a diagnosis for stage four uterine cancer two years ago. Similar to facing addiction or admitting racism, upon confrontation of the sobering pronouncement of malignancy came utter shock, disbelief, denial, sadness, acceptance and eventually, grief.

However odd to say, fighting a life threatening disease was the perfect assignment for someone who identified themselves as a soldier of peace.

Until cancer, I gave dutiful lip service to silence and contemplation but mostly devoted my attention and energy to combating injustices -- whether racial, social or environmental -- and very loudly.

My personal outrage fit perfectly with a 24-hour news cycle that cranks out grievances that pummel us into accepting celebrity infidelity scandals, embittered political "battles" or technological developments (that drive us farther from ourselves) as worthy of our undivided fixation and obsession.

For some -- depending on political and ideological identification -- the transgressions of Tiger Woods, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and the latest healthcare reform debacle can feed the cancerous rage within. Not unlike multiplying white blood cells in a compromised immune system, noxious headlines in rapid succession inhibit our discernment and inspire a fight of flight response -- anger and retaliation. Like cancer cells feeding on sugar, with every toxic news morsel we fuel a craving for more indignation.

Outraged by Tiger's infidelities and yet can't stop watching for updates claiming he is beyond rehabilitation or redemption? Still reeling from the latest Palinist book tour faux pas or Rush-ism with racial overtones? No fear, the next installment of Keith Olberman might just assuage the sting and even the score. And if you hate all things Obama and fear we are careening our way to hell in a hand basket of socialism just flip on Fox to Bill O'Reilly and feel the relief.

What is the essence of our addictive outrage?

Are we capable of looking beneath the spin of Tiger Wood's alleged "harem" and what inspires our deepest disdain? Are we compelled to peek underneath the collective racial rug for the debris where many of our fears and biases have been hastily swept away now that we have a black president? Perhaps whites and blacks alike suppress grievances hovering just under the surface.

That Tiger has publicly denied his "Blackness" is a source of great disappointment and sadness for many African Americans and yet perhaps part of the very reason so many white institutions wholeheartedly embraced him as the 'face of golf.'

That all of Tiger's mistresses who have stepped forward thus far are identified as white certainly unearths biases, fears and unrecognized pain for everyone involved. Is it possible that there is some 'extra' delight in chastising and ridiculing him because of what lies unacknowledged beneath the rug?

Before chemo I accepted 'fighting' was the only way to effect change and had made a name for myself taking on issues with a vengeance -- which made a cancer diagnosis the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the 'inner warrior' persona I cultivated for many years.

It wasn't until chemotherapy that I understood that although endurance is essential, rather than engaging in battle, what is required for healing and change is respect, submission and surrender.

Respect for a lethal cocktail of drugs that would take me to the edge of death without actually killing me, submission to a protocol that required absolute trust and faith in healthcare providers and surrender to the internal grief of of my life B.C. (before chemo).

B.C. it had never occurred to me there might be a link between grievances, grief and healing. That the toxicity of grievances--whether personal, societal or cultural--beckons us inward to reconcile not only what is no longer--perhaps even what never was. How humbling to recognize that my response to the external world of injustices was far more instructive than the events themselves.

Counter to the prevailing vernacular often used to describe encountering cancer, for me it was (and is not) a battle, struggle or a fight to win. It is not a 'war'. Although the treatments involved with cancer are certainly violent, cancer, for me was the opposite of war.

Cancer is an invitation that demands humility and a willingness to take fearless inventory of our lives thus far. It can also be a discovery of the grievances harbored within that are reflected in our reactions to the social, political and cultural battles we engage in.

How disarming to learn that a crusade 'against' illness doesn't foster healing and change any more than waging war on poverty, violence or racism bring about peace, justice or equality.

The paradox is that without vulnerability we may never muster the courage to confront ourselves and as a result, continue to obsess and demonize the 'enemy'. Without ample reflection our all-consuming outrage and judgment of others is often a cover for our own disappointment and shortcomings.

Why for some is Tiger Woods meant to exemplify faithfulness, fidelity or purity? The man is a golfer who created a fortune by attaching his name to products that make billions in an industry dominated and catering to (predominately) wealthy men and women who love one thing. Golf. Interestingly enough, imposed on Woods are conditions, expectations and projections of a public incensed by deceit and outrage for his marital betrayals. And yet, powerful, wealthy men addicted to privilege have throughout history indulged themselves sexually -- with or without the agreement of their partners as a condition of the relationship.

What if instead of umbrage at a celebrity for betraying his wife, we glance at the infidelity within ourselves? What if we allowed ourselves to grieve the part of us that has betrayed another? Whether it is a marital partnership, business collaboration or a relationship with a particular community. What if the question became: how does Tiger Woods reflect our own personal infidelity? Where have we become untrustworthy? After a few moments of reflection, is there any outrage to spare?

What if before responding and identifying the enemy 'over there', we look inward for the residing conflict--at the 'inner Rush Limbaugh' if you will -- in order to grieve the part of us that is angry and subtly (or not so subtly) reinforcing hostility in the guise of righteousness?

When we embrace, ingest, consume and internalize every news headline in a feeding frenzy without self-reflection, we engage in a collective addiction that feeds on sensationalism, dishonesty and distraction. Under the guise of being informed, engaged and politically astute some of us nourish ourselves with toxic reports feeding a tumor of contempt and disdain until a stage four-diagnosis demands submission.

Healing involves the courage to be vulnerable and the willingness to look beneath the surface of the wounds to unearth the root causes of illness--collective and personal. Our addictions to political conflicts, celebrity betrayals and racial privileges are only symptoms of what keeps us embroiled in daily battles.

This in no way suggests that we should not vocalize opinions about political matters, perceived injustices or refrain from taking action. Just that cancer, racism and addiction are equally toxic and reside within all of us. By surrendering to the grief beneath our grievance we can then speak and take action with strength, compassion and clarity.

Anything else is just illness speaking.