By Stan Goldberg —

When a sleep disorder forced me to retire at 57, and six months later I developed prostate cancer, I reacted to life as if the music had stopped. My misguided belief that life should always rest on an even keel appeared in the literature more than one thousand years ago in the form of a Zen story. A student said to his Master, “I had a terrible meditation session.” The teacher nodded his head knowingly and responded, “It will pass.” The next day the student again sought out the teacher and said, “I had a great meditation session.” The Master nodded his head and said, “It will pass.” Life for the Zen Master involved accepting loss for what it is — an unavoidable part of living, something that necessarily contains both pleasure and pain.

Many people who have been intensively hurt vow never to allow themselves to become vulnerable again. I did that by initially withdrawing from the compassion of friends and numbing my mind by staying in bed for three months watching endless reruns of Law and Order. Vegetating in bed did cushion me from painful emotions, but it also diminished my life. There is an old martial arts saying, no pain, no gain. I think the same applies to a willingness to experience pain as a price for recovering joy. Tibetans say that you can’t have meat without the bone or tea without leaves. My mother said it to me somewhat differently: “Life is a package deal.”

You can insulate yourself from pain, as I did, but in the process, you stop feeling. Now, six years after my diagnosis, I think of life as an intricate dance with twists, turns, dips, and wild spins. Those who sit and watch can never experience the dancer’s joy.

Yes, the dancers may risk embarrassment by fumbling over their feet or bumping into each other. But if you watch them carefully, there will be times when they are so in-sync with the music, you couldn’t imagine one without the other. And by their ecstatic expressions you can tell the joy they are experiencing is worth the risk they are taking. But unless you are willing to get on the dance floor, you can only experience their joy as a spectator. Unless you’re willing to become vulnerable, life will pass you by.

Sometimes I think of myself as a used car held together by duct tape and bailing wire. Through my losses and service to others, I’ve learned to live better, regardless how long that might be. I would have preferred to learn these lessons from a crotchety old uncle, but destiny chose a more gritty and immediate path.

My knowledge comes from my own losses, 30 years of observation and involvement in the lives of people who lost lifelong partners, became divorced, developed a disability, had their job out-sourced, and lost a beloved pet, just to mention a few. I don’t claim to have original insights, magic bullets, or absolute blueprints for regaining joy, just my experiences and the stories people graciously shared with me that contain timeless truths.

When I listened intently, I was able to serve while learning about myself. So, let’s serve each other. There might be something in my experiences that you may find helpful. I know there will be wisdom in yours. What would you like me to write about? Feel free to contact me at

Stan Goldberg 2009. This article may be reproduced in any format for non-commercial purposes and if proper attribution is given. Stan Goldberg is the author of numerous articles and seven books. His latest is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life. Trumpeter (an imprint of Shambhala Press) 2009.

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Stan Goldberg

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. For over 25 years he taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the area of information processing, loss, and change. Stan has published seven books, written numerous articles and delivered over 100 lectures and workshops throughout the United States, Latin America and Asia. He is currently working on a novel and a book on loss. He also consults on issues of personal, institutional, and corporate change. He has served as an expert legal witness in high-profile court cases and is a consulting editor for Oxford University Press. Stan leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and traumatically changed. He serves at the bedside hospice volunteer in San Francisco for Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. and is a featured columnist in the Hospice Volunteers of America quarterly magazine. His published magazine articles, essays, poems, and plays have received numerous national and international writing awards. Written with humor and sensitivity, they have appeared in magazines ranging from Psychology Today to Horse and Rider. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life It’s a memoir of his six years as a bedside hospice volunteer; an experience that taught him to accept his cancer and live fully, no matter how long that might be. He can be contacted at Numerous downloadable articles appear on his website

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