And I think to myself….
We live in a shitty world because, by and large, we make it shitty; so shitty, in fact, that the Pagun Principle (The Pagun Principle: 90% of everything is crap) is probably wide-eyed optimistic naiveté. That’s reflected in the only aphorism to which I can claim original authorship; a companion piece to the Pagun Principle. Write this down: “A cynic is only what an idealist calls a realist”. That having been said, this realist would like to look at some of the things that fall into that scarce and endangered 10% excluded by the Principle.
As my more devoted readers will already know, I am currently fighting a recurrence of the cancer that we had hoped had been surgically eliminated last fall. After months of chemo, I have now started my course of 33 radiation treatments. These treatments are only available in Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city. That happens to be about 250 kilometres away at the southernmost end of Vancouver Island, about a three-hour drive if the traffic is good. There is a lodge in which I could stay for the entire six and a half weeks this treatment is expected to take but, because of my responsibilities as JJ’s primary caregiver, it isn’t an option for me.
So far, one will have undoubtedly noted, the Pagun Principle is holding up; the foregoing all falls into the crap category.
So let’s look at the ten percent that’s left. I get an up-close and personal view of that every day; for all of the crap, the side effects…the pain, the weakness, the nausea, the exhaustion, the inability to work, the anxiety over failing to provide for my family, the depression, the declining overall health from enforced sedentary living, the uncertainty…for all of that, there are nevertheless some truly uplifting elements associated with this adventure I’m embarked upon. The medical infrastructure, despite the current government’s crusade to hamstring and undermine it, is at times breathtakingly compassionate, efficient, and patient-centred. And it’s more than simply our universal healthcare; it’s the non-governmental, grassroots input from the community that often astonishes a realist like me.
A typical day for me starts at about 5.30 am. I get up and make breakfast for me, Yolanda and JJ. Shower and then send Yolanda off to VIU for her last few classes, and then get JJ ready for the day`s jaunt to Victoria. Pack up his backpack with toys, snacks and books. Sometime after 6, the Wheels for Wellness van arrives to pick us up. Wheels for Wellness is charitable organisation that was formed for the specific purpose of providing transportation to and from medical appointments. The society uses volunteer drivers to pick up patients all over Vancouver Island and take them to Victoria for kidney dialysis, their ophthalmologists for injections for macular degeneration, or in my case, the most common appointment, cancer radiation treatments. There are no means tests, there are no questions asked; if one calls their hotline, arrangements are made and the van is dispatched. Most people require transportation for a weekly trip to stay in the Cancer Society`s lodge for Monday to Friday treatments and a trip home for the weekend; for others, it`s a one-time return trip for a single treatment; for some, like me and the dialysis patients, it`s a daily round trip. Although envelopes are provided for donations, the service is free and no requests are ever made. The volunteer drivers are retirees from all walks of life who donate their time, their compassion, and their patience for absolutely no financial compensation. Without exception, the drivers are kind, decent, friendly, and self-effacing; they make the patients feel as though they are special and very welcome guests.
The road trip from up-island to Victoria is pleasant, even (or perhaps especially) with five or six people with serious illnesses. The people in the van are as wildly eclectic a mix as are the drivers although, just as the drivers all have their kindness in common, the passengers all share the fact of their ill health. Nevertheless, contrary to my expectations, the conversation very rarely centres on cancer or the other diseases for which the patients are being treated.
The BC Cancer Centre itself ought to be a model for similar places everywhere. It is bright, sunny and peaceful. It is, oddly enough, a cheerful place with conversation pits scattered throughout the building and volunteers everywhere; some carrying out specific tasks and others seemingly unassigned and simply stopping by to offer to fetch, carry, provide a magazine, or just chat. Some volunteers push tea and coffee trolleys around and give out hot drinks and offer candies from a bowl. Others are walking around with volunteer therapeutic dogs; their function is simply to bring the dogs to patients and permit some canine-human interaction. JJ has his particular favourite – Bosun, a very gentle Golden Lab.
The radiation technicians are, without exception, kind, friendly and sensitive to the patients. They ensure that nobody has to wait more than a few minutes for their treatments and provide full information as to what is happening and what to expect. Their sensitivity and kindness is demonstrated every day by their treatment of JJ. They are all charmed rather than annoyed by a very energetic five-year-old who has just spent more than three hours confined in a car. They bring him into the treatment room and let him watch from behind the radiation screen; they even let him operate the controls that align the bed and the nuclear radiation apparatus; when I`m done and getting up, there are high fives all around and one of the technicians has developed a habit of giving him a sticker each day.
The one thing regarding all of these extraordinary people – volunteers and employees alike – that really stands out in my mind is how happy they all are. Far from being withdrawn, sullen, or depressed as the result of working in an environment that exists for the specific purpose of treating people with an often fatal disease for which we have treatments but still haven`t a real cure, they will candidly acknowledge that they derive as great rewards from their efforts as do the patients. The Cancer Centre is the most cheerful place I know.
So, in this attempt to make life just a little less shitty, it seems to me that we might have tripped over a piece of the puzzle. Just watching the genuine joy that exudes from pretty much everyone at the Cancer Centre makes it evident that there is a tangible correlation between doing acts of kindness for others and personal contentment. Of course correlation isn`t necessarily causation; I`m perfectly willing to concede that performing acts of kindness doesn`t necessarily make that person happy; it could be that happy people are more inclined to act kindly. We could be committing the fallacy of confusing cause and effect.
Of course it would be unrealistic to suggest that everyone ought to dedicate as many hours and as much compassion as displayed by the many volunteers I encounter every day. Nevertheless, I can offer this suggestion: run a little experiment. Random acts of kindness. Try consciously to seek out opportunities to perform small acts of generosity for one day. Wave someone ahead of you in traffic. Smile at a stranger. Help someone with their groceries. Then try it for a week. What the hell. Make it a way of life.
At the very least others will be a little happier; and there`s nothing wrong with that.