Fr. Brendan McManus SJ, Gardiner Street Parish Dublin, recorded Oct. 25, 2020

As I reach the halfway point in chemotherapy this week, I’m making a special effort to take things one day at a time. So let me tell you about a terrible, horrible, maybe kinda good, not-so-bad-after-all day I had last week. As no doubt you guessed, I’m playing with the title Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the book by Judith Viorst and the 2014 movie based on the classic children’s book. Political commentators and their headline writers, ever eager for a new cliche and/or a cutsey-poo headline, have used it to call out Presidents Biden, Trump and Obama, the Senate Democrats and the House Republicans, among others in the world of politics. So why not me?

How, you ask, can a day be terrible, horrible, kinda good and not so bad all at the same time? Well, that’s what chemo has been like. And, come to think about it, that’s pretty much what life is like, isn’t it?

So here’s something that happened Friday. I’d been dreading an appointment at the eye doctor’s. My treatment for an ailment called WMD (wet macular degeneration) involves regular injections in the eyeball. Yep. A poke in the eyeball. Literally. But I wasn’t sure how, or whether, it would interact with chemotherapy. Plus I had a new doctor.

Spoiler alert: It turns out I liked the new doc, and the injection went smoothly. But as I was headed home, I noticed a black disc, a floater, in the lower quadrant of my field of vision. What’s this? Yet another complication of chemo? It was perfectly round, maybe 3/4 of an inch in diameter, bobbing around and blocking the view so I had to look around it when I lowered my head. Alarming.

So as soon as I got home, I got on the phone. Asked to speak to the doc, but she was with a patient.

“What’s going on?” asked the receptionist.

As I described the black floating disc I was seeing, I thought I heard a chuckle on the other end of the line. What’s this? Is she laughing? It was scarcely perceptible, more like a little intake of breath. So I couldn’t even be certain.

“Oh,” said the receptionist while I was gathering my thoughts. “It’s just an air bubble, and it’ll go away.”

Which is exactly what it did.

By Saturday morning, it was gone. In the meantime, I went online and learned “it is common to have a tiny, sterile air bubble in the eye immediately after an injection,” according to a tip sheet on injections by a retina center in Texas. “This will be perceived as a mobile small circle at the bottom of the visual field and usually disappears by the next day.” Yep. That’s me. Crisis over.

I’ve always been a maestro of the worst-case scenario. I’m one of those guys who doesn’t feel comfortable unless he goes into a new situation with a Plan A, a Plan B and at least a vague outline for plans C, D and E if at all possible. Like the bikers’ do-rags in red and blue bandana patterns I ordered online when I got my diagnosis. I’m starting lose hair since I began chemo, but I haven’t had to wear them yet. So far.) That said, I’m beginning to sense that planning ahead hasn’t been working so well for me lately.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups, and I’ve been reading a lot of a Jesuit priest in Ireland named Brendan McManus.

We never know what tomorrow’s going to bring, and we do know today is either: (a) full of its own challenges; or (b) a welcome respite from them. So I take refuge in the cardinal principles of 12-step recovery. One day at a time. Easy does it. Keep it simple. There’s a lot of wisdom in the old 12 Step slogans, and they’re not just for alcoholics. (“We thought we had a drinking problem,” you hear old-timers say in a recovery group, “but it turns out we had a thinking problem.”) Let go and let God. Nor is it solely for believers. “The point lies far outside of religion,” says a treatment center in Florida. “It’s about giving up control. And if you can’t accept that, then you’re precisely the type of person who might benefit from letting go every once in a while.”

It’s about giving up control. All of my planning-ahead worries about the appointment with the eye doctor? One day at a time. Tomorrow, or next Friday, is out of my control. Let go and let God. Again, out of my control. And things worked out fine when Friday came. There’s another side to this equation, too. By taking things one day at a time, letting go and letting God, I think we open ourselves to redeeming each moment as it comes.

In a post to the In All Things blog on a Jesuit website in Dublin in catastrophic early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, McManus not only echoed the 12-step wisdom, I think he took it to a whole new level:

The challenge is to live every day like a resurrection day. To be so fully present, in the moment and living the paradoxical tragedy-wonder of life. It is all about gratitude: to see the absolute giftedness of every moment, the wonder of every encounter, the silver lining on every cloud. The mask of mundanity is pulled away and I see the wonder of things, fragility and strength, the way we are held in being at each moment.    

Then in the fall, when Covid cases were on the upswing in Ireland, throughout the Northern Hemisphere, really, and Ireland went into an extensive lockdown, McManus returned to the theme in a set of notes for an Oct. 24 Zoom workshop at Gardiner Street Parish in Dublin, outlining “Ten Ignatian tips for surviving autumn lockdown” (A video of the workshop is embedded above.)

“Everything in life passes – savour the good and let go of the bad,” said McManus. “Feelings come and go. Learn to watch them like clouds coming into your life, and remember just as you can’t hold onto a cloud, your job is to let your surface feelings go too.” That reference to surface feelings is important. As might be expected at a Jesuit parish church, McManus relied heavily on St. Ignatius, founder of the order, who suggested our deeper feelings are the ones that matter:

At a deeper level, there are desires or impulses within us towards God (consolation, life-giving) or away from God (desolation, dryness). We need to wake up to what brings us real life, and a lasting sense of peace/fulfillment). In these Covid times this becomes critical, how to keep well and falling into despondency, a hole. The rule of thumb is to act against desolation and try to keep oneself in consolation as much as possible. [Underlining in the original.]

Whatever McManus meant by “act against desolation,” I can’t help but be reminded of another 12-step slogan: Fake it till you make it. McManus is talking here about a principle of what St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order, called the discernment of spirits, a process for determining whether an impulse reflects God’s will. As a general rule (but not always!), feelings of consolation do, and feelings of desolation don’t. (I journaled about this, “U-shaped curves” and what McManus calls resurrection days, HERE just the other day.) This ‘U’ shaped curve pattern seems to apply to almost any human process of change: things get worse before they get better,” he said at at the workshop in Dublin. “This is also the spiritual process sometimes called ‘the dark night’ or the ‘Way of the Cross’.” Acting against desolation (or faking till you make it, for that matter) is one good way of getting through the bottom of a U-shaped curve.

Prayer is another. Drawing on another Jesuit principle, McManus echoed another 12-step slogan. “Prayer is about finding God’s will,” he said at the parish church in Dublin; 12-steppers address it to God, or to whomever their higher power may be, like this: “Thy will, not mine.” Says McManus:

This is the most challenging thing as it demands prayer is not about my needs, rather I need help from a higher power to face situations and make good decisions. A bit like charging a battery, there is no shortcut for being plugged into the source for a certain time and frequency. This prayer has to result in some positive, practical action, acting more like Christ, reaching out to others for example. It becomes easier with practice.

Concluding on a personal note. I wasn’t sure how I was going to end this post — after starting with a poke in the eyeball and working it around to Jesuit discernment, there aren’t too many places you can logically go next. Then Debi asked if I’d like to join her in working out to one of the Jane Adams “Beginning, Gentle & Senior Yoga Videos” she recently ordered online. We’ve only had it a week or two, and it’s all I can do to get through a 17-minute session. But I need to learn the routine. Fake it till you make it. And I need the exercise. One day at a time. So, yeah, my form is terrible, horrible. But I do need the exercise, and maybe it’s not so bad after all. Maybe that’s what life is like, with or without the chemo.

Links and Citations

Jane Adams, “Jane’s Yoga Bio and Approach to Teaching,” Jane Adams Yoga: Beginning, Gentle & Senior Yoga Videos

Justin Kunst, “10 AA Slogans and Their Deeper Meanings,” May 3, 2021, Amethyst Recovery Center, Port St. Lucie, Florida

Brendan McManus SJ, “Resurrection in dark times,” Blog — In All Things, Jesuits in Ireland, May 5, 2020

__________, “Ten Ignatian Tips for surviving autumn lockdown,” Blog — In All Things, Jesuits in Ireland, Oct. 27, 2020

Joseph Tetlow SJ, “Discernment in a Nutshell,”, Loyola Press, Chicago

[Published Feb. 1, 2023]

6 thoughts on “12-step wisdom and a terrible, horrible, kinda good, maybe not-so-bad day halfway through chemotherapy

  1. Giving up our illusion of control isn’t easy, but necessary for the best outcome complying with our treatment, You we’re named at the noon service today at Ascension.


  2. Why thanks, Shri! I have a lot of fun writing them. (A little too much fun sometimes, as you can tell by the puns.)

    If you can get out this way, we’d love to have you visit. You’re right — it’s been way too much time since we were F2F, and there are some very nice, magical Abraham Lincoln sites in the Springfield area. You might say he’s the Mahatma Gandhi of America. I never get tired of going back and studying him.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s