The Questions We Ask

This post is another one from the draft drawer. It was written February 2014 about half way through my chemo treatments, but not posted at that time. The information still seems very relevant to me today, as I am still actively questioning and reframing.

Therapeutic sudoku
Therapeutic sudoku, hopefully to help me keep some brain.

I read voraciously. When the bakery was getting started I read lots and lots of books on business, the brain, collaboration, cooperatives, accounting, facilitation. . . the business bibliography I made up has over 50 books. (Don’t get me started on the 100’s of cookbooks I perused) I also was lucky enough  during that time to take part in a Ford Family Foundation community program.  One of the most useful things I learned there was the practice of Appreciative Inquiry.  Basically when problem solving if you ask “What is Wrong here?”  all your time is spent putting out fires. When you ask instead; “What is working here?”, and “How can we build on that?” a world of possibilities opens up that can help move you forward in a positive direction.  Ultimately the answers you receive are completely dependent on what question you ask in the first place.

One interesting aspect of this is that the kinds of questions you ask, actually influence what part of your brain will work on the answer. This is because our emotional state influences what part of the brain is active, so that we can apply to any situation. We learn best, and are most creative when we are relaxed and calm.  When we are stressed, i.e. worried, angry or scared, we don’t have access to our best creative thinking.  So, by seeking out  the positive, by looking at what is working, we can be more effective. Because of this knowledge I knew I needed stories to replace the fear based stories that were filling my head.

In December 2013, when I was diagnosed with stage 3C breast cancer,   I started asking myself questions.  I found the question “Why?” to be a rabbit hole that doesn’t end well.  So I asked What? and How? questions instead.  Such as “What is cancer?” “How is my body compatible with it?” and  “What am I grateful for?”

The days I wake up feeling sad and weepy, I notice that my line of internal questions tend to be more bleak.  I am constantly having to reframe things. The question “How will I still be a woman when I no longer have hair, breasts or fertility?” was replaced with the question “What makes me most fully a Human Being?”  and “How can I live my purpose more fully?” Luckily since I am such an external processor, any question I ask myself,  I eventually ask the people around me.  Joe, Miranda, Kestrel, Betsy, Sam and Martin have all been really good at helping me reframe my thoughts towards more productive lines of questions whenever I have gotten all morbid and hopeless.  I knew I needed stories to replace the fear based stories that were filling my head.

Part of seeking out other perspectives has drawn my attention to the ways so much in my life has prepared me for this journey.  Did I read books about the brain so I could cope better with Cancer-ing? Of course not, but it is helping me now. Other things too, the fact that my brain is hardwired for a more optimistic world view does not make me a better person than the folks who are born hardwired for a more pessimistic view.  It does however make it easier for me to reframe things.  The degree to which I am coping with all this with a “positive attitude” is probably more influenced by my inborn brain chemistry than anything else.

A positive attitude alone is not going to guarantee successful treatment. What all this reframing and positive thinking does do is help my journey contain more joy, and a greater likelihood of relaxed and calm moments. Those relaxed and calm moments are not only helping me with problem solving and decision making, they are also  essential to my body repairing itself.  I still have plenty of moments filled with worry & fear- that is a natural part of undergoing treatment for any serious condition.

Applying appreciative inquiry to my current situation, I still need to face up to the facts. Cemeteries are filled with indispensable people.  The fact that my doctors are treating me with intent to heal, that most of my side effects are not making me feel utterly and completely miserable, that I have family and community support on this journey are all factors of luck. It is very easy to think of how much worse this could all be.   However, when I am living out a positive story line, created from the right kind of questions, I feel pretty lucky, and feeling lucky feels a whole lot better than feeling like a victim.

Each of us have periods of adversity and hardship in this life, and we have the privilege of different life experiences that provide tools that help us cope as best we can.  I have practice asking questions and making up stories.  I don’t have the skills of meditation, a yoga practice, or a daily swimming or running routine to help out.  I’m not particularly good at remembering to eat regularly- which probably contributed to my being compatible with cancer-ing. (Fluctuations in blood sugar levels support cancer cell growth.)  Bottom line most of us are doing the best we can with the tools we have.

People far wiser than me know that any event we experience in the world is less impactful of our happiness, than the Story we tell ourselves about the event. These stories start with the questions we ask ourselves.  Two great books; The Happiness Hypothesis and Mind Sight, both talk about this.  They cover the brain, happiness, overcoming trauma, and healing.  Take away message?  Reframing the story of a traumatic event changes how you move forward. Of course, sometimes this reframing is easier said than done, but it is worth the effort.

BTW Right now in the spring of 2016, I am finishing up a bibliography of cancering books to include in the resources here on Pookaride. look for it later this month.

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