This piece is an extract from an article published at Slate. You can read the full text here.
I was dying. Not just in the way that we’re all inching inevitably toward our own deaths each moment; I was hurtling toward a specific death with a name, a shape, and a timeline. I was 37 years old and I was dying of leukemia.
I was lying in a hospital bed, so ill that diagnosis, when someone finally named the doom I had been feeling in my body for months, was a relief. At least the sense of vague terror and impending catastrophe I had been feeling had a name. A cure, in the shape of a stem cell transplant, was possible, but it required the complete and utter dissolution of myself, dangling my broken body over the edge of the very cliff a cure is meant to postpone.
It wasn’t just my body that dissolved in those weeks: My mind and soul were also broken apart, fragmented, and brought to the edge of ruin. In medical terms, I became depressed, hallucinatory, and delusional. And in medical terms, the team of doctors really didn’t have jack-shit to prescribe me except for patience.
I was visited by a mindfulness practitioner during this time, but I was too far gone for prolonged mindfulness practice, unable to bring myself to a set of exercises that had sustained me prior to illness. There was simply no self to bring. Instead my visitor asked me to count to four, in line with my breath. And then to do it again. And to come back to this simple counting whenever I needed it. I could get to four, and then four again. I could get through my pain, my nausea, my misery, for the count of four breaths. And then I could ask myself to do it again.
This practice didn’t make me feel better. I was still miserable and broken and absent. But it gave me the space to sit with that misery, call it by its name, and know its shape. That was valuable, just as the name and shape of the leukemia diagnosis had been valuable some months before.
Three months after my stem cell transplant, I returned back to my home, my husband and children, my life. One year later I returned to work as a professor of chemistry and environmental studies, teaching the same material I had taught before my illness. Some of it was banal: procedures for balancing chemical reactions, reassuring in their straightforward clarity. But some of it took on a new emotional significance—specifically, teaching about climate change, biodiversity, and extinction.
This planet is dying. Not just in the way that life on Earth is always, inevitably beginning and ending, that species are rising and falling, that extinction and evolution occur, and that temperature and sea levels cycle dramatically and irregularly. In the 21st century, Earth is hurtling toward a specific death with a shape, a name, and a timeline. It is dying of global warming, climate change, extinction, biological annihilation, and ocean acidification. The exact names and the exact timing is debated, but the overall trajectory of life on Earth is well-understood: We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, and the odds of human civilization reaching the 22nd century are often estimated at no better than 50/50.