One of my dad’s favorite old movies is Zorba the Greek. One of the best quotes from the movie is this: “I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.” It’s such a funny and yet accurate way to describe what Hinduism refers to as the “householder” stage of life that the quote has stuck around decades past the point that the movie itself is often forgotten.
(I admit I haven’t seen the movie. It’s cringey to see a Mexican-Irish man cast as Greek…or Native American, Middle Eastern, or any of the other ethnicities that Anthony Quinn was pigeonholed into playing during his long career. What makes the casting cringey is the assumption that White America wouldn’t know the difference and wouldn’t care even if it did…plus the hard fact that Hollywood won’t hire unknown, talented minorities to play roles when a known actor can be blackfaced into it, or when the role itself can be whitewashed to fit. It brings up all the hard questions about racism, stereotypes, appearance, expectation, talent, the acting profession itself, and dollar signs. But I digress…)
Other than its cleverness, the reason the phrase “the full catastrophe” has stuck around is the book Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Though the quote is lighthearted, the book is serious business–it’s been in print for more than thirty years. He decided on the title of the book because of Zorba, and credits it as part of his philosophy. And make no mistake, it’s a philosophy.
Full Catastrophe Living is a long, methodical, step-by-step explanation of mindfulness and how to apply it in times of life-altering illness. Much of it isn’t new information to me, an applied Buddhist. But the MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) program that Kabat-Zinn developed, plus its inheritor MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), remain background players in the world of cancer treatment. They absolutely shouldn’t be in the background. They’re helpful. Stripped of their overtly Buddhist flavor, MBSR and MBCT can provide anyone of any faith a way to preserve their sanity and dignity and meaning during their most difficult times.
But mostly, I just like the phrase “the full catastrophe.” It somehow makes even real catastrophes feel smaller–like they can (and already have been) enveloped and diagnosed and contained.
Today marks four years since I was diagnosed with MS (on top of OM2- and Hashimoto’s). It didn’t feel like a catastrophe at the time–I was mostly grateful to have some answers. I ignored the simmer of despair in my chest and focused on trick-or-treating with my kid that night.
But as the days wore down into the darkest parts of that year, and into the grinding cold of January and February 2019, the catastrophe loomed larger and larger. I’d managed to beat the odds on OM2- for two years and counting at the time…but MS? Suddenly I wasn’t looking at dying quickly of a nasty disease, but rather living with something painful and degrading for the rest of my life.
I discovered I was less frightened of dying quick than I was of living with pain and degradation.
February 2019 was, in short, brutal. Not because I was experiencing anything terrible with my newest disease, but because I now had a diagnosis I had to learn to live with. OM2- had come on so fast that there’d been no time to consider my feelings. But with MS, I now had (in theory) time to consider exactly how much a disease could take from me before it killed me.
The surprising lesson of the four years since then has been to look at MS, not in the context of the “rest of my life” (whatever that is), but as an effect on today. What is today’s mood? Today’s sleep situation? Today’s cog fog, or spasticity, or continence? I’ve learned not to worry overly about tomorrow or anything after, because I have no idea which “me” will be there that day.
You’d think OM2- would’ve taught me that lesson–the lesson of “one day at a time”–but I’d been so focused on the hard work of surviving that I’d kinda forgotten how to live.
MS is helping me view “the full catastrophe” not as a diagnosis that must be “gotten through” (because there is no such thing), but as the texture of my days. And the texture of my days begins and ends with the things I care about most: the marriage, the child, the house…you know. That full catastrophe.