One of my favorite classes while an undergraduate at the University of Washington was, “Ideas in Art”. We learned about visual art from different time periods and cultures along with the poetry and philosophy associated with each culture and time period. One of our required reading for the part of the course that covered the early modern art era in Europe was Marcel Duchamp’s, The Green Box. Duchamp was one of the founders of the Dada movement, an avant-garde style that stood with one foot in the absurd. “Dada” after all was named after the babbled phonemes that infants make before they learn to utter full words. Each of the 320 original Green Boxes contained 94 scraps of paper, notes, sketch studies, and more. What we read was an English translation of these items.

The Green Box contained a lot of information about Duchamp’s approach to art. He was a painter, sculptor, and art discoverer. Examples of the last category was his “readymade” art. This consisted of a manufactured object that made into art by calling it art. The infamous of Duchamps’ readymade art was, Fountain, a urinal that he displayed upside down and signed with the pseudonym, “R. Mutt.” Duchamp also made modifications to readymade objects, which he called, “readymade aided”.

As you might expect, the art world was not greatly enamored with Duchamp’s readymade’s, aided or not. Duchamp was provocative, to be sure. But he was trying to test the meaning of art with absurdity and to make his own meaning for art by using found objects. Aesthetics are, after all, highly subjective.

A lot of my experience of breast cancer has been about making meaning of it. I know that as a psychologist, this is a common process in dealing with loss, grief, and for many but not all of us, trauma. Meaning, however, is not something that has already been manufactured; it is a process. Maybe that is a piece of the resistance to labels like “survivor”, cancer metaphors like war, or traditions like wearing pink feathered boas. I have also seen the tradition time and time again of resisting all established traditions by attempting to make a new paradigm.

Cancer research and treatment needs objective standards in order to make discovers in a systematic way and to deliver treatment in a way that makes objective sense. This doesn’t mean that everyone is treated the same but the focus is on standards and protocols. And the things that people consider “unscientific” like rapport and responding to a cancer patient in an emotionally competent manner, are not unscientific. They are included in the science of psychology!

The meaning I make from breast cancer, however, is more about my individual identity. The meaning is subjective; it’s personal. Psychology can study the typical course of grief and loss and it has. I can read about the process and it may help me understand what I am going through. But I still have to go through it. I have to experience it for myself.

There will most certainly always be labels in our culture. To have no labels would make any chance of shared meaning and connection impossible. But labels, used inflexibly, like cookie cutters is not healthy. Language and labels are dynamic because cultures are dynamic. And within every culture, we have many individuals.

In my professional life, I provide information and guidance based on objective research and my subjective experience. A gift of my blogging is that most of the time, I only have to speak for myself. This is a vital part of my self-care and healing.

Just as there are many types of art, there are many types of people. Personally, I prefer to go to museums that feature more than one vision. Before we became cancer patients, we were individuals. There’s no reason for us to stop now! The objective similarity among individuals who have been diagnosed with breast cancer is that we have all been diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in our lives. The meanings can differ but still exist as truths.

Meaning is not readymade.