Some years ago, I read a book by Nick Hornby called ‘How to Be Good’. (Amazon tells me I purchased it on 11 June 2002, to be precise.) The blurb: ‘According to her own complex moral calculations, Katie Carr has earned her affair. She’s a doctor, after all, and doctors are decent people, and on top of that, her husband David is the self-styled Angriest Man in Holloway. But when David suddenly becomes good – properly, maddeningly, give-away-all-his-money good – Katie’s sums no longer add up, and she is forced to ask herself some very hard questions. Nick Hornby’s brilliant new novel offers a painfully funny account of modern marriage and parenthood, and asks that most difficult of questions: what does it mean to be good?’
I remembered the story this week when I was thinking about how deeply I am striving, post-caaancer, to be a good person. To lead a ‘good’ life. Which is not about giving my spare room to a homeless person, because it’s also my office and that just wouldn’t, y’know, work. For me, being good means: being kind, giving and receiving love, maintaining mental and emotional equilibrium, going with the flow, being true and genuine, being faithful, being in the moment, choosing to fill my life with joy, forgiving myself and others, responding rather than reacting, listening, paying attention to my inner wisdom, looking after my body, being there for my friends and family, achieving my potential, being cheerful.
And not: spending waaay much time in my head, being something of a fantasist, procrastinating, being angry, cold, and hard, withholding love, shouting, being impatient, wallowing in intermittent Black Dog days, being lazy, being resentful, trying to control everyone and everything, taking no exercise, drinking unhealthy levels of wine, worrying about what everyone thinks of me, spending too much time on social media instead of playing with the children, not supporting others, being too busy for the people I love and care about, not smiling, being absent, feeling guilty, being utterly selfish. Being horrible to DH, mean to my precious babies, critical about everyone.
I am all those things, and more. Trying to Be Good requires a monumental shift in the way I am in the world. Often, I don’t think I am a very nice person. People who don’t know me well may think I’m delightful, because I’ve only ever been polite and funny and sweet to them, or they may despise me, like the poor postman whose head I bit off recently. But I know I have the potential – and certainly the desire – to be a better, kinder, gentler, more authentic, more loving and lovable human being. Connecting with the pure love and light at the centre of my being: that sort of thing.
There’s a coaching exercise called ‘Eighty Today’ where you imagine you are 80 years old, and consider what you would like your friends, partner, children, colleagues to say about you as you near the end of your life. It’s basically the same as fantasising about what people are saying at your funeral, though less morbid. I have to say, with my literary proclivities, I quite like the Gothic aspect of imagining everyone in black crepe talking in muted tones at my woodland burial, over the strains of Mumford & Sons’ ‘After the Storm’ between the oak trees, about what a bloody marvellous chap I was. No-one wants, Scrooge-style, to be thought of as not a terribly nice person to have around. I don’t want the people I love deeply (but don’t always show it), to be shouting gleefully: ‘Thank goodness that miserable old bat has shuffled off her mortal coil, let’s have a partay!’
But there’s a motivation to Being Good that is far, far more important than what everything thinks of me when I’m old, or dead, or both. It’s my belief – I might even say my knowledge – that the physical body, the emotions, and one’s thoughts are interconnected so closely that you cannot separate out what’s going on in your head and your heart from what happens in your body. My body expresses or manifests everything that I think and feel. I’ve written before about my lack of surprise at being diagnosed with breast cancer, precisely for this reason. There’s no blame attached to this, by the way: I don’t think it’s my ‘fault’, I just understand that it was inevitable. According to Louise L Hay, cancer is always connected with deep anger and resentment, often directed at oneself. Every physical dis-ease or ailment is connected to a thought pattern. Identifying and releasing those old patterns of thinking and being, and replacing them (through tools such as affirmations) with something healthier, can help to heal. If holistic stuff isn’t your bag, this probably sounds bonkers, but even Western doctors accept that numerous physical conditions, ranging from digestive and skin disorders to stroke and heart attacks, are rooted in emotional disturbance or ‘stress’.
And so Being Good could mean the difference between life and death, for me. Post-cancer existence is like being in a post-apocalyptic territory. Every familiar feature of the landscape has shifted. Finding a new reality is hard, and painful, and fraught with wrong turns. I am acutely aware of the need to make the right choices about what I think and feel and how I behave, because I really, really don’t want to go to the Badlands of Cancerville again. And as I said in June, every ache and pain and twinge in my body and bones makes me scared shitless that I have secondaries lurking somewhere. Perhaps this is just about the illusion of control, but I know I feel so much better when I am calm, and sober, and have plenty of sleep, and eat well, and get fresh air, and laugh, and am kind and loving to everyone, especially me.
Perhaps it’s not about battling to change completely, though. I Am, as Birley Shassey belted out, What I Am. Perhaps it’s simply about being a Good Enough person, like childcare guru Donald Winnicott’s concept of the Good Enough Mother. Not trying to be perfect, because it’s impossible and you set yourself up to fail, creating a vicious circle. But being a little bit kinder, a little bit more cheerful, a little bit more chilled, a little bit healthier, a little bit more forgiving. As my health creation mentor Kit once wisely remarked to me, ‘Having cancer doesn’t turn you into a Saint’.