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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The lost self

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian

Judy is 49 years old when she finds what all women dread: a lump, in her right breast. She visits friends that evening and after much wining and dining, goes home and falls into a deep sleep. Late for work the next day, she dresses in a hurry and remembers the lump. To her distress, it is still there. Her morning is busy; during lunch she has a manicure and pedicure scheduled. The next day’s lunch hour is devoted to tinting her hair, which she has done every five weeks. Her period arrives like clockwork; the lump, not difficult to locate, is painless and not very big.

Finally, Judy tells a colleague, who urges her to get checked. She has a mammogram at a local clinic and is told she needs to return for a biopsy. The lump is more than 2 cm. She surrendered her medical aid when her credit card bills became too high for her to meet minimum payment; she decides the lump can wait.

A year later, it has grown to the size of a golf ball. She tells her sister, who was once a nurse, and lives near a public hospital in the city. Judy waits her turn for a week to get biopsied. The result is fourth-stage breast cancer. Before the breast can be removed, she must have chemotherapy to shrink the tumour.

‘Why on earth didn’t you get checked the minute you felt the lump?’ demands Judy’s sister. ‘I don’t know,’ is the reply. ‘There was a lot going on at work and I guess I hoped it would go away.’ ‘You’ve been married three times, you’re slim and gorgeous, you spend a fortune on the right food, your hair, your nails! What were you thinking?’

‘Nothing. I’ve always taken good care of myself, it’s like a habit,’ says Judy.

‘And now,’ declares her sister bluntly, ‘that habit might kill you!’

Ryan, on the other hand, has always taken his body for granted. He is obese, never exercises, eats whatever he wants, drinks up to 10 beers three or four times a week and is adamant that ‘he is not an alcoholic’. For up to year, after a toilet visit, he notices blood. He has had haemorrhoids before. He has some stomach pain and puts this down to indigestion. Then he has a massive bleed and goes to his GP, who insists on tests. Ryan is shocked when he is told that he has fourth stage bowel cancer. Without chemotherapy, he may die within six months.

Judy’s sister claims Judy’s terror of dying prevented her from even thinking about it. Now she thinks of nothing else. Her body, her best friend, has become her prison.

Perhaps it was always her prison. She spent much time and money grooming it, deliberately overlooking the obvious in favour of looking pretty. Ryan knows he took his body for granted before the cancer, but says it had never given him problems.

The inaction of both these individuals is not uncommon. People often define themselves by their appearance, like Judy, or have given up on it, like Ryan. What these two people have in common is a life-threatening disease, and their response to it. Consumed by fear, they react with animal instinct: they run, they hide from the danger. Unlike animals, they are equipped with awareness, which they choose not to exercise. Despite this, they cling to hope that they will beat the odds and their bodies will rescue them. As they always have.

Consciousness, of ourselves, of others, is what defines us, is it not? It is what makes us human rather than animal, individual rather than herd-driven. Yet behaviour such as Ryan’s and Judy’s brings into question not only the awareness of self, but its very existence. Are we truly different from animals, or do we, like them, rely on instinct for survival? Are we, whether king of vagrant, truly individual? We claim to be defined by our differences rather than by what we have in common, but our behaviour towards ourselves, towards one another, appears to demonstrate the opposite: rather than respecting the self, the conscious being we are privileged to be above all other species, we focus only on how we appear, or disappear, in the perceptions of others.

History tells the human story as one of slavery to an array of addictions, the most prevalent and pernicious of which have been, and remain today, war, power, money, religion. We are obsessed with what we can see, what we can lay our hands on, what we consume. Technology meant to enhance our lives in practice dominates them: yet another obsession. While purporting to improve our communication with one another, it distances us in ways yet to play themselves out.

We appear to place little or no value on the individual self, despite the noise about rights and responsibilities. Nor on what is invisible, the multiple organs beneath the skin, the spirit that ignites and motivates us that some call soul. When it comes to individuality versus the herd the latter wins. Hands down. The question is, at what cost?

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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