After being diagnosed with cancer, a self-described “Love Extremist” outlines a good case for getting out of bed in the pandemic world.
Two and a half years ago I was in bed with a high fever, struggling to fall asleep. I oscillated between wrapping myself in blankets to stay warm through freezing shivers and uncovering completely, hoping the air would eradicate my hot sweats. Once I finally managed to drift off to sleep, I was awoken with what felt like a moving muscle spasm. It started in my right foot, the tendons tightened up my right leg, arm, hand, shoulder and into my jaw, then the spasm took control of my whole body, running down my left side and buckling my spine, arching to the point of breakage as my thoughts went into panic mode. Somehow I willed myself off the edge of the bed and lost consciousness before hitting the ground.
The next day I found myself in urgent care looking at the results of a CAT scan showing an egg-sized tumor in my brain that had caused a grand mal seizure the night before. A cycle of life-altering events unfolded within the following weeks: an ambulance ride, an MRI, two days in the hospital on seizure watch, six-hour brain surgery in Boston and, eventually, a diagnosis of grade three brain cancer.
I had a tumor that could be treated but my doctor said it would probably come back in three to five years. It would very likely kill me.
The events of July of 2017 will forever be a turning point in my life. The following months were equally disruptive as I changed my behaviors, diet, health care routine and outlook on life. When I look back at that time, I realize it initiated my conscious dance with death. It quickly became clear that I—like all people—was going to die.
It was my choice to live as fully as possible, while my body was still intact.
I also awoke to a deeper sense of purpose as a human being. I became committed to love. Alua Arthur, the death doula who founded “Going With Grace,” once told me the two most common questions people ask when they die are: “Did I love?” and “Was I loved?” When I faced my diagnosis, it became crystal clear to me that love was the only thing that truly mattered.
“Love” is a charged word; no two people approach it the same way. For many of us, love is riddled with trauma, challenging family histories and heartbreak. As someone who has identified love as my personal purpose, part of that work includes offering clear definitions anyone can use to engage with love in their daily lives.
I’ve learned to view love through three lenses: self-love, interpersonal love and collective or universal love. My definition of love is informed by that of bell hooks (her lowercase style), who wrote All About Love. I define “love” as studying, listening for and accepting historic and present truths, for oneself, others and the planet—to inform genuine positive action that supports the future for oneself, others and the planet.
When I got sick, I was forced to focus on self-love. I had to heal. Right now the world is sick, literally and metaphorically. This time of pandemic and social-isolation is driving us inwards: We’re forced to press pause on life and listen, review how we love ourselves and begin to act from that place for survival. We’re forced to confront our mortality and decide how we choose to engage and move forward. Will we love ourselves through this challenging time? In my view, the alternative is fatal.
The four most important tools for self-love that I discovered when I was recovering from surgery, chemo and radiation follow below.
Asking for it from others I’d harmed and forgiving myself, there’s no time to hold grudges or bad blood for anyone, especially for yourself when death could be imminent.
Allowing things to happen at the pace they’re meant to and releasing control is a key part of healing. When we get frustrated and impatient—which will be inevitable at times—we delay our healing and increase stress and anxiety in the body. By accepting the reality of our circumstances, we allow ourselves to act realistically and with patience in a loving, compassionate way.
Once we understand our situation and accept where we are in relation to healing, it becomes abundantly clear where our energy doesn’t serve us and where it does. When it comes to self-love, any energy leaks or attention that isn’t in service to healing can slow our recovery or make us sicker. Setting boundaries and directing our attention effectively is a huge part of self-love. This may mean taking a break from negative news for a while, stepping away from toxic relationships or ensuring you’re consistently getting a full night’s sleep.
Shortly after I finished my radiation treatment, I saw an energy healer in Los Angeles who told me to figure out what my perfect day was and live it once a week, then twice, then try to live my perfect day every day. This perfect day exercise led to a shift in my routine. I started listening for what scared me or excited me and allowed those emotions to guide my days, often simply going for walks or taking the train somewhere new.
For one perfect day, I bought an old Honda sports car. The next day, I painted it in a crazy expressive style. Then, the day after, I picked up my friend, Dan, and we drove it from L.A. to Cabo and back over a nine-day New Years adventure to ring in 2018. After the trip, we put together an art show and sold paintings, photos and artifacts from the journey.
Those perfect days led to others: Our gallery show led to my becoming a professional visual artist. I was hired by Soho House to design their upholstery fabric, opened my own art studio and started getting commissions to paint more vehicles, murals and other objects. Every day was becoming a perfect day. I realized I could share my personal purpose devoted to love as a visual artist.
This perfect day metaphor can apply in simple gestures, too. Is it meditation? Being outside on a walk? Creating something from scratch? Cooking? Name those things and push yourself to incorporate them into your routine. It’s okay if your perfect day keeps changing, it should. Notice what drives you: What is the core value you want to feel and ultimately share with others?
I met Michelle at a dinner party early in the summer of 2018. We had a special connection. We were both living lives we loved and were passionate about our purposes as individuals. Because of this sense of security in our own identities, we were able to come together in partnership as two independent people bringing more love and purpose to each other’s life. This secure attachment allows us to continue to follow our personal goals, live with purpose and support each other while building a strong, committed partnership.
When we are focused on our personal purpose, we are able to connect with others and build stronger relationships. Loving ourselves enables us to be better lovers of others.
A purposeful life quickly challenges us to give back. Purpose engages us to live for something greater than ourselves, the perfect day quickly becoming a platform for engaging with others. It may be creating art like what I often do, or it may be building a business, teaching, researching a topic to widen a field of knowledge, inventing something totally new or being engaged in civics. Whatever you discover as your purpose, it inevitably becomes a path to give back. That means when you’re loving yourself and you’re engaging with others from a place of passion and compassion about what you’re doing, there is usually a collective effect that expands outwards into the world.
There’s a common phenomenon in certain spiritual and wellness circles where folks choose to focus on “love and light” instead of darkness and shadow. This is the concept of spiritual bypassing, disregarding the difficult stuff because it doesn’t contribute to a loving world. As a “Love Extremist,” I’ve learned that truth and love are synonymous even when the truth hurts or hides in the shadows.
Sometimes in order to find what’s true, we must learn how to listen. Listening can be one of the most profound acts of a Love Extremist. When I was diagnosed with brain cancer, I needed to listen closely to the doctors and all those who could help me to face difficult truths. For me to heal, I had to accept my diagnosis and move forward with the awareness of possible solutions (and the patience to let them work and support my ultimate healing). I went to a psychotherapist, saw healers, changed my diet and began exploring alternative therapies. I could face my disease honestly and take steps to address it.
Being a Love Extremist has challenged me to go a step beyond the first instinct of collective love, which is often selective and isolated to chosen families of similar economic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds. I’ve learned that in order for our planet to heal, we must listen for and face difficult and painful truths. When we listen closely, we can see we face environmental catastrophe driven by our economic, political and cultural institutions which also promote systemic oppression towards people of color, LGBTQIA+, Jews, Muslims, those who are disabled, poor folks, women, transgender and indigenous peoples—among others.
We aren’t taking care of each other or our home.
These difficult truths are the ones that kill us and our neighbors every day. When police target people of color at an alarming rate due to systemic racist policing policies, death is often a result. When indigenous people’s land becomes valuable to business interests, entire cultures and communities are destroyed. When a virus begins taking hundreds of thousands of lives, it’s not just about oppression and pain, it’s about life and death—especially for those most vulnerable without the resources needed to survive.
Our planetary health is on the brink: As a human species, we are being tested but we have a choice. We can choose to ignore those who don’t look like us. Or we can choose to show up in a new way, as Love Extremists.
Will you wake up with me? Will you start listening to what is truly needed from within and around you? Will you act with love for all your fellow humans? Will you take steps towards healing our suffering planet with all your purpose and all your gifts?
Together, every day becomes a perfect day, for all people, when we commit to being Love Extremists.