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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

The Force of Life

by John Lawson © 1997, 2008

One gets rid of a neurosis; one doesn't get cured of oneself.

Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words

    Life is a powerful force.  Yet life, when it is not lived fully, becomes destructive.  Today, we see all about us the signs of such destruction in our culture.  This is so much the case that at times we may feel that we inhabit - in the words of Henry Miller - a "universe of death."  Death, however, is a natural phenomenon; and what is ultimately distressing in life cannot be death itself.  We all must die.  But how many of us are reconciled to our mortality?  Very few of us, I think, can claim that distinction.  We know, however, that animals functioning in a natural state are capable of surrendering to death.  If we have witnessed such a death, we may have been struck by how calmly and peacefully the animal "slips away."  Struggle must occur as long as life is possible; but in the end, struggle is no longer meaningful.  One gives up.  Such a surrender to our fate is possible, however, only when we are fully identified with life.  This paradox tells us much about the human condition and what it means to live. 

    A good account of a difficult death can be found in D.H. Lawrence's autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers.  In that book, Lawrence depicts the tenacious, bitter holding-onto-life that characterized his mother.  "My father's people," he writes, "are frightened and have to be hauled out of life into death like cattle into a slaughter-house, pulled by the neck; but my mother's people are pushed from behind, inch by inch.  They are stubborn people, and won't die."  His mother herself knows the senselessness of her refusal to die, and yet she feels powerless - indeed, she is powerless to alter the situation.  Lawrence writes that his mother "... silent, was still alive, with her hard mouth gripped grimly, her eyes of dark torture only living...  Darker and darker grew her eyes, all pupil, with the torture.  In the mornings the weariness and the ache was [sic] too much to bear.  Yet she could not - she would not - weep, or even complain much...  She kept her hold on life still." [1]

    Lawrence's mother died of cancer, and as we all know, cancer is one of the principal degenerative diseases of our age.  We also know that there is no "cure" for cancer, and many people understandably contemplate with dread the prospect of such treatments as surgery, chemo-therapy, and radiation, with their often devastating effects.  Yet in spite of the absence of a cure for this malady, considerable knowledge has been gained about the cancer process itself.  Otto Warburg, for example, showed that cancer cells are - compared to healthy cells - anaerobic in nature, meaning that they require less oxygen than normal cells in order to survive.  He received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine (1931) for his work in cellular respiration.  Albert Szent-Györgyi, another Nobel Prize winner (1937) and the man who isolated ascorbic acid, also investigated cellular respiration.  He remarked that the cancer disease involves a two step process in which cells, tending toward the anaerobic state, begin to proliferate.  The second part of the process occurs when the cancer cells stabilize and become "constitutive." [2]  Wilhelm Reich, engaging in cancer research in the 1940's and 1950's, described the cancer state as one of organismic shrinking resulting in tissue suffocation linked to a characterological attitude of resignation and a disturbance in breathing and sexual function.  He detailed his understanding of this process in his book The Cancer Biopathy.  Similarly, Alexander Lowen, a former student of Reich's, observed that cancer patients often show a loss of hope and a tendency to give up on life. [3]  Recently, Lawrence LeShan has commented on the personality trait of underlying despair that he has consistently found in his extensive therapy with terminal cancer patients, therapy conducted over a period of many years.  His book Cancer as a Turning Point is a good introduction to his work.

    Since the subject of the present discussion - the force of life - is neither cancer nor death, we might ask: what does the theme of cancer have to do with our topic?  In answer, I would say that the cancer process represents, in part, an organismic turning away from life and that its understanding, therefore, can tell us something important about living.  If we take seriously the work of Reich and other researchers, then we must consider that the cancer process involves several facets which, taken together, constitute a syndrome.  That syndrome involves an underlying - though typically unconscious - sense of resignation and despair and an inhibition in the breathing function; a generalized tendency toward organismic stasis or sluggishness, which may be masked by a strong show of determination and a tenacious will to survive; a diminished pleasure in life; a decline in the willingness to fight for one's own happiness and for self-fulfillment; and the oxygen starvation of healthy tissues, accompanied by the growth of cancer cells, which proliferate in an oxygen-poor environment.  As Reich pointed out, life is such a powerful force that when its natural expression is frustrated (e.g., through respiratory inhibition and vital depletion), the organism continues to function, but at a more primitive, less differentiated level of development.  Cancer cells represent such a stage.

    The point that I wish to make is that our current social and cultural order - insofar as it tends systematically to engender despair, hopelessness, and the inner experience of defeat - may itself be said to be carcinogenic (i.e., cancer producing).  If this is true, then we are well served in seeking to identify those aspects of our culture that produce in us a deep sense of resignation, that dampen our life force, and that lead to the inner depletion of our energies - even to a secret desire for death, a desire which LeShan has observed to be present in many cancer patients and which prompted him to entitle his first book describing his work with these patients: You Can Fight for Your Life.

    What, then, in our society tends to foster despair, resignation, and diminished functioning, and how are we to contend with these forces?  The answer has to be that one of the main predisposing factors is the childhood experience of not having one's needs met and of not being loved for one's real self.  This conclusion is borne out by the research of Reich, Lowen, LeShan, and others, and I have discussed the importance of the childhood situation in my book The Affirmation of Life.  For the purposes of the present discussion, however, I would like to suggest that the widespread presence of despair in our current cultural situation is itself a source of despair for many people.  Again, the phenomenon of cancer can help to illustrate the point.

    Like many other people, I have known friends and relatives who have developed cancer, and I have observed that it is not only the cancer sufferer who is touched by the illness.  Those who are close to the sick person may also be deeply affected.  Despair and helplessness may brew, often silently, within their thoughts and feelings, creating a vicious circle.  This, however, does not have to be the case.  The cancer situation, if it is confronted honestly by those involved, can lead to a deeper commitment to life.  The key to such a commitment is honesty, for unless we are honest about who we are and what we feel, we are doomed to experience life as something foreign to us.  We become alienated from ourselves.  This is why LeShan speaks of cancer as a turning point, for in his view it offers all those affected an opportunity to confront more openly their own genuine feelings so that their energies can be mobilized for deeper living.  This suggests that the best way to confront the spectre of cancer is to live passionately and deeply.
  To do so will not solve all of life's problems.  We may still get hit by a truck one fine spring day or be exposed, for that matter, to an environmental carcinogen of such toxicity that we cannot ward off its deleterious effects. [4]  Yet, at a functional level, the best insurance we have against a hard death is a vigorous life.

    Admittedly, it can be difficult to maintain our vigor when we see so many problems about us and realize the depth of despair that keeps so many people immobilized in the face of obviously unacceptable social and cultural conditions, such as pornography and the epidemic of child abuse, which rages unabated.  Yet, there is an old saying: De te fabula narratur!  "Of you the story is told!"  None of us is immune to the depletion of our vital energies.  If we are to counter that destructive process, we must fight to breathe more freely, to deepen our understanding of ourselves, and to increase our awareness of our true needs.  In this regard, it is important to recognize that there is a difference between fighting for and fighting against.  Fighting for our lives (and for life in general) is a positive action because it is based on the desire for genuine pleasure, meaning, and personal fulfillment.  It is an act of self-expression.  It is based on the realistic acknowledgment that in this world there are many obstacles to our growth and development that must be confronted.  Life requires that we mobilize ourselves.

    In the end, we cannot get cured of ourselves, and we cannot get rid of the deep impulses of life within us unless we cease to breathe altogether.  But if we identify with these genuine impulses in our depths, we will not be inclined toward morbidity.  Death will come, in due time, to all of us.  The educator A.S. Neil - who lived to an old age - once commented: "I'm not afraid of dying; I'm afraid of not living!"  Not living is not death; it is life held at bay.  We owe it to ourselves to live.

[1] Lawrence, D.H. Sons and Lovers, Chapter XIV, "The Release."
[2] Szent-Györgyi, A. The Living State (New York: Academic Press, 1972).
[3] See Lowen, A. "Some Notes about Cancer" in Bioenergetic Analysis, Vol. 3, Number 1 (New York: International Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis, 1987), pp. 1-28.  Also see Lowen's remarks on cancer in his monograph Stress and Illness: A Bioenergetic View (New York: The International Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis, 1980), passim.
[4] Reich notes that, "... unfortunate experiences in later life may force even the most vigorous life apparatus into resignation and shrinking." Reich, W. The Cancer Biopathy, trans. T. Wolfe (New York: Orgone Insitute Press, 1948), p. 340.  Nonetheless, he remarks: "As long as education and social conditions are going to produce resignation and muscular armoring en masse, so long is any radical elimination of the cancer scourge out of the question." The Cancer Biopathy, p. 345. (This passage appears in italics.)

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