Aspects of Spirituality (Part 3): Life with a Terminal Diagnosis

The Psychology of Acceptance, Adaptability and Hope 

“If you don’t like something, change it.  If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou 

In Part 2 of this ‘psychological’ series on ‘Spirituality’ I shared some of my experience of life with a terminal diagnosis. The article suggested that, psychologically speaking, our attitudes are the shared bedrock of spirituality and wellbeing. The first attitude described was a kind of ‘openness’ to what Karl Rahner called  “the whole of concrete life with all its adventures, absurdities and incomprehensibilities”. 

One of the benefits of this attitude to wellbeing is that it enhances our adaptability. Openness brings an acceptance of whatever has been experienced (in my case a highly aggressive cancer) but with the understanding that the meaning of one’s life does not stop there. Accepting an experience changes how we feel about it. And feelings are obviously important when the experience calls for some kind of adjustment. 

Being adaptable means we can make such adjustments. It means not getting stuck when our circumstances in life change. And one does not need a terminal diagnosis to learn that life has many ways of bringing unanticipated changes to circumstances. Once the changes come we can only adapt to what we accept. 

But the meaning of ‘acceptance’ is important here. Acceptance is often portrayed as some kind of submissive attitude or acquiescence. However, the acceptance I am referring to is something more engaging, more self-directed than directed by others. So this acceptance is not some kind of docile passivity but rather a part of how we proactively deal with realities for what they are.  

With acceptance we never separate ourselves from our experience. As far as the acceptant mind gives its assent to the reality of adverse situations it is only to say “Yes, this is what I’m experiencing”. Acceptance, in other words, involves knowing what is going on. It is not about giving up hope or foreclosing on the possibility of new experiences. 

Reflection on Hope

Hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he or she sees?” – St Paul.

Mature acceptance can also be a kind of awareness of limits and possibilities. It is where we lose our illusions without losing hope. Loss of hope drains the soul like loss of blood drains the body. The resultant despair can take many forms, some more self -defeating than others. And some more dangerous than others. If hope is a matter of openness towards possibilities and new experiences then despair is a matter of closure where neither the limits nor the possibilities are accepted.  

My counselling work has been instructive here. The critical stage of a therapeutic dialogue often occurs when experience is confronted.And the movement of the therapy at this juncture can depend on what limits and possibilities the client sees. Accepting the limits can be a matter of the client coming to terms with the fact that what has happened is anunchangeable experience. Accepting the possibilities can be a matter of learning what the prospects for the future might depend on. 

Of course if we knew the future with certainty there would be no place for hope, no potent role for it to play as a human capacity. And hope would not be the only casualty here – consider the impact knowing the future with certainty would have on other wonderfully human capacities  – such as imagination, creativity, courage and optimism.  

I am not suggesting here that our natural preference for certainty should somehow be exchanged for uncertainty. It is not as if uncertainty is necessarily a good thing in itself. It seems to be far more often the case that humans do wonderful things in spite of uncertainty. As a counselor I have found people to be at their ‘most inspiring’ when they are forward-moving and being responsive to the uncertainties of their present and future lives.  

On the other hand, the most ‘certain’ clients were often the most concerning – the antiseptic language of the sociopath, the hardened dogmatism of the religious fundamentalist, the rigid thinking style of suicidality, the self-assured egocentrism of the narcissist. Certitude can be an enclosure of the mind, impermeability dressed up as ‘conviction’, leaving so little room for the possibility of error, so little space between mind and heart.

On the other hand, the unfounded doubts and fears that characterize human neurotic insecurities can be just more of the problem. And we quite often seem to be better off when acting ‘in faith’ – acting with confidence (for all appearances ‘as if’ certain) but without sure signs that all will go well. Perhaps this is one reason why so many spiritual writers tend to describe hope and faith in symbiotic terms. Faith has enough trusting confidence to ‘walk the talk’ of hope. 

Logically, then, my basic proposal is that there is a case for acting with more or less sureness in different contexts. But such proposals can be logically satisfying without being adequate. We are human beings first and foremost, and our humanity involves, and inevitably requires, something more than logical understandings. Hope, for instance, is nurtured by imagination and before we can undertake any course of action (for better or worse) we first have to imagine it as possible. 

‘Doing’ Spirituality 

Every sign of change in me, the very things I fear to lose, are a call for new beginnings.” – Joan Chittister

Faith and hope also point to something more, something better, than what logical thinking can guarantee for us. This is where it becomes necessary to pursue the deeper meanings of human experience, and ultimately, the wisdom that radically surpasses all other forms of human knowledge. By ‘wisdom’ here I mean something far more profound and inspiring than the contemporary cultural substitutes for it (such as expertise, clever technical skills and strategic thinking).  

Genuine wisdom is understood here as being both practical (in helping us negotiate the actual progress of our lives) and profound (in helping us to address the big questions of life such as what we can ultimately hope for, or place our trust in).  As with faith and hope, ‘wisdom’ is also referenced here in its active sense (as a life-long process to engage, rather than just another ‘thing’ to possess).  

If we follow this ‘active sense’ (or process-oriented paradigm) then spirituality is not essentially a question of what we accept in faith and hope – it is really more about what we do with what we accept. It also becomes less reducible to the fundamentalist preoccupation with what we ‘believe in’, less concerned about whether we have enough faith and hope, but more engaged with ‘the doing’ of faith and hope in life situations as we encounter them. 

In my own ‘life situation’, it is not a case of ‘fighting cancer’ (‘against the odds’ so to speak). That militant posture (along with the triumphalist rhetoric of ’beating it’) reflects a particular view of how to respond to a crisis. With the competitive values of our western culture, a ‘long battle’ with cancer apparently demonstrates one’s spirit and character.  

I’m more inclined to view spirit and character in terms of how we can make our present experience (including the experience of adversity) more meaningful, how we appreciate the love of family and friends,  and how we continue to do constructive things with our time. 


Geoff-2Dr Geoffrey Arnold is an experienced counsellor who has worked with people with anxiety and depression issues (including ‘at-risk’ of suicide), grief, and general adjustment to life’s challenges. He is also a marriage counsellor and educator. He has a multidisciplinary PHD in education, philosophy, psychology and theology that focused on the big topic of ‘wisdom’.

To me, Dr Arnold goes by the name of Dad, Dadsie, Daddy, or Daddo. He is my rock. The person who I’ve always been able to rely on. The person who has been my guiding light through every crisis, small or large, that I’ve ever experienced. He is the most caring and giving person I have ever met. The first person to help loved ones, and strangers, who are experiencing difficulty. The ultimate advocate for the underdog. He has saved more lives than he will ever know. He is my hero, in every sense of the word. I’m so happy to be able to share some of his knowledge with you on my blog.

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