The Importance of Looking Up

There is a simple story I often retell from one school-day afternoon in my teens. Autumn was perhaps my favorite time of the year and the maples and oaks that arched over the streets of my hometown always burst into spectacular colors. We were allowed to walk off campus at lunchtime in those days, to stroll the blocks into the city park or the town square. One day, in particular, I recall walking with my friend Mike, observing the branches above us in their flaming glory. That is when he made one small, off-handed comment that changed my perspective on everything.

These were not the exact words, but the statement was essentially this: people who are always looking down have no idea what they are missing.

Finding the beauty in the world around us

It was true and certainly somewhat obvious in the literal sense. It was true of me more often than I would have liked to admit. Heck, I slouch a lot, especially when I walk, and I have often watched the path my feet were trodding rather than the open world into which that path led. But on that bright, crisp afternoon, I was stunned by what would have been missed if we had our heads down. While we gazed at the light dancing through the branches above, Mike talked about how it seemed people paid more attention to their own shoes than to the wonders around them. We were seventeen or so, kids in the age before social media, tilting toward adulthood and responsibilities in a relatively sleepy town. But the lesson of that day has only grown more resonant for me as an adult, especially as I head toward “middle age” facing the long haul of metastatic lung cancer treatment.

Wisdom often derives from simple beginnings and unexpected teachers. Opportunities to grow and learn are all about us, every day, if we take note. But wisdom is useless if it is not put into practice. I am grateful for that long-ago conversation, just as I am grateful for having been in the midst of such simple magnificence. Had I not taken it to heart, however, I wonder how my life might be different today.

Beyond the stigma

When I was diagnosed, I was immediately inundated by people looking down at statistics. I heard story after story about patients who had succumbed to their disease and how those experiences still rang clear in the memories of their tellers. One friend told me about a person she knew who was diagnosed and could not stop talking about how he was dying, until his chemo put him into remission, and then during a brief recurrence some years later, began to again bemoan his untimely death — only to once more go into a period of long remission. She and I used that story about her friend to begin a conversation about cancer stigma and the false narratives being purveyed even as extraordinary advances in medical science have changed the prognosis for so many patients today.

As lung cancer patients, we have our own special stigmas to deal with. There is a lot of victim blaming, even when personal habits play no part in the disease. Research is grossly underfunded considering the overall mortality rates compared to other cancers. And misinformation abounds through the rapid exchanges on social media and sometimes poor levels of scientific literacy among the general population. There is plenty to keep us looking down if we let it. It seems like every step is another opportunity to trip and fall. But looking down prevents a view of the beauty around us, the things that give life meaning, reasons for optimism, and views of roads possible to travel only with the wider perspective we get by looking up.1-2

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