Happiness is accepting that which we cannot control
On the weekend I was listening to Quirks and Quarks on CBC radio. Host Bob McDonald was interviewing George Johnson who has just published a book called “The Cancer Chronicles”. It was a fascinating, and yet an initially depressing, discussion about cancer. The depressing part was Johnson stating that we are not at all winning the war on cancer and with few exceptions, the survival rate and incidence of most cancers has remained the same over the last 50 years. He points out that the reason people are living longer than we did even fifty years ago is that we have made an impact on treating and preventing cardiovascular diseases which are the number one killer in North America for both men and women. While some research shows that the treatment of cancer is improving survival rates, this is most likely because we are diagnosing it earlier and therefore treatment is more effective. The overall incidence of cancer is not declining.
Johnson points out that the main cause of most cancers is aging and entropy. Aging of course is very much related to entropy (disorder in a system). Another reason we are not winning the war on cancer is because we are living longer and the longer we live, the more likely we are to develop cancer. When you think about it, it is amazing that our bodies do such a good job limiting cancer from developing. Of the more than ten trillion cells in our body, most of the cells undergo a process of needing to copy themselves before they die out. The process of a cell making two identical copies of itself is called mitosis. Some cells copy themselves every few hours whereas others may last a year or more before undergoing division. It is amazing to think that every second approximately four million cells make a xerox of themselves. As you can well imagine in that xeroxing of themselves, things are bound to mess up once and awhile. Often when a copy job doesn’t go well, the body recognizes the cell as a bad copy and destroys it. Cancer occurs when a cell xeroxes itself a bad copy and does it over and over and over again.
Naturally, as we age, the chances of making bad copies of our cells goes up. It is the nature of life that as we age the quality of our cells, tissues, and organs goes down. It is an inescapable fact of life. The disorder in the beautiful act of mitosis becomes the rule, not the exception, as we age. We do know of course that there are some things that contribute to the entropy and increase your chances of developing cancer when you are younger. Things like smoking, excessive drinking, and environmental pollution do contribute to entropy and increase the chances of cells dividing without control. Diet and exercise while having significant effects on cardiovascular diseases, are less significant in their effects on cancer.
When I heard Johnson state that exercise and diet makes very little difference in the incidence of cancer it at first sounded so depressing. I thought to myself, “So other than not smoking, there is really not much you can do about avoiding cancer? How depressing!” As I continued to half-heartedly listen to Johnson I found myself getting his message more and more. His book the Cancer Chronicles is both a professional and personal tale. His wife was diagnosed with cancer while he was writing the book and his brother died of cancer the day the book was finished. His research demonstrated that cancer is very difficult to treat and is more or less a random striking disease but becomes a more lethal weapon as we age. It appears from the interview that Johnson has also come away with a perspective that is one of almost relief. He seems to accept the fact that if you live long enough, you will succumb to the disease. By letting go of the control or the feeling that by getting cancer you somehow failed in your efforts, you have the chance to live life with more freedom. It is not your fault and it is not in your control.
While none of this may be very comforting to hear, if you develop the mindset that you control that which you can control and let the rest be, it might be a relief. I think it would free us from anxiety and fear if we could learn to accept the randomness with many things in life. Cancer is of course only one example where there is uncontrolled randomness. In fact, most of our lives are a product of chance. In statistics we call this a probability. Even the chance that you were created and born into this world occurred despite a low statistical probability of it happening. If you make it through life without spraining your ankles, you beat the odds. As humans we obsess over this idea that we have control over the statistics but the truth is we really don’t. We have no more control over the events in our lives than a gambler who believes he controls the outcomes on a slot machine.
When it comes to health, research has shown that by exercising regularly, not smoking, eating a healthy diet composed primarily of fruits and vegetables, and reducing our stress, we can improve the odds or the probability of disease expression in our favor. Beyond that, we could learn to let go and live like there is no tomorrow because our number could be called tomorrow. Perhaps the way to find true happiness is letting go this idea that you are in control. The fact is that we do not have any real control in the universe. Even Einstein grappled with the idea of randomness in the universe. He is famously quoted as saying to Niels Bohr, “God does not play dice with the universe.” In reply, Niels Bohr said, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” As it turns out, Niels Bohr was right and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle shows that at a quantum level we are all just waves of probability.
Here’s to letting go of some control!