The memoir Grace and Grit by American writer and philosopher Ken Wilber is a sprawling account of his late wife’s, Treya, grueling fight against the cancer that ultimately kills her. Although under Ken’s name, the book was the brainchild of both of them and before her death, and Treya gave permission to Ken to use her very personal diary entries, letters she wrote to loved ones and conversations they had during this time, so her voice is very present. Treya’s journey is a constant reminder of how, even when our body is giving up, our heart and mind must remain strong. The need to have grace and grit, not just for survival but for growth and meaning, is ever present.
From the beginning, we learn that Ken and Treya are well-educated intellectuals and immersed in various ‘transpersonal’ spiritual traditions, making the memoir sweeping in its scope. Questions about the meaning of life and death hover over every page, as well as inquiries into what it means to be fully human, to truly love someone, and the risks and costs of these endeavors. The themes of sacrifice, faith, freedom, science, medicine, and devotion feature prominently.
I recently completed my third reading of this cathartic book. I file it under ‘bibliotherapy/memoirs of catastrophe’ – one of those books you return to when you are going through a hard time and need some perspective, some comfort, a vicarious experience of suffering and triumph.
Through Treya’s own words, we get a sense of her world and where she’s at in her life as the book opens with her and Ken’s very fast courtship and wedding. She is young (mid-30’s), vibrant and adventurous. She is deeply spiritual, having spent some years living in a remote spiritual community. Although accomplished in her own right (degrees from prestigious universities, well-travelled, multilingual, involved in myriad spiritual and environmental causes), she reveals her insecurities – that before she met Ken she was resigned to a life of being a single woman who was unsure of her life’s purpose or daemon. She is relatable because like many women, she struggled with self-criticism and feeling unworthy of love. She died in 1989 and in many ways, was ahead of her time in her pursuit of independence and self-sufficiency.
As one of her diary entries reprinted in the book states: “Sometimes I think my real problem is that I just don’t believe I could ever get really good at something, that I have an inflated idea of how good others are, and that maybe by the time I’m fifty that will have been cut down by experience to match reality and I’ll then know I could be good enough. And sometimes I think I just have to stop chasing my daemon long enough to let some space in my life for it to begin to show itself and grow. I want a full-blown plant right away and have been too impatient to nourish the small shoots enough to see which one I choose or chooses me.”
Treya is diagnosed with breast cancer just ten days after their wedding. This puts a lot of pressure on the young marriage and as the main caregiver and support person in Treya’s life, Ken is under a large amount of stress. He makes a lot of sacrifices to care for her and must deal with the consequences of this while riding the waves of hope and despair as Treya goes through several remissions and relapses, each relapse pushing her closer to death.
As time goes on, Ken finds it increasingly difficult to hold himself together, becomes depressed, ill and even loses his will to write. In his words: “I suppose the simplest and most crushing mistake I made was this: I blamed Treya for my woes, I had freely and voluntarily chosen to set aside my own interests in order to help her, and then when I missed those interests – missed my writing, missed my editorial jobs, missed meditation – I just blamed Treya. Blamed her for getting cancer, blamed her for wrecking my life, blamed her for the loss of my daemon. This is what the existentialists called ‘bad faith’ – bad in that you are not assuming responsibility for your own choices.”
In his darkest moment, Ken considers committing suicide. It takes a lot to pull himself out of that black hole, but he does so and is able to be stronger for himself and his wife. Their journey continues but with more support, more therapy, more spiritual practice, more medicine, more awareness of the pressure they are under.
As her physical health declines, Treya finds inner strength and faces her fears head-on. She has many epiphanies as she learns to surrender to the inevitable – that she will die. She overcomes her fear of being dependent and needy and her harsh judgement of herself and of others subsides. A new psychological landscape emerges in which she is more tolerant, relaxed and free.
From one of her journal entries: “I’m less critical of others. I don’t hold them to the standards of conventional or ‘doing’ success…I’m not only more tolerant of but genuinely interested in the various ways people choose to shape their lives, and a quick judgment isn’t waiting in the wings, ready to pop on stage at any time. I see all of life as more of a game, not quite so totally loaded with importance. It’s more fun, easier. I hold life more lightly.”
She develops a sense of self-trust and is able to let go of the harsh self-criticism and perfectionism that has plagued her most of her life. Her evolution is revealed in the following entry: “I trust myself more. I’m kinder to myself. I believe there is a wisdom guiding my life and that my life doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s to feel good and fulfilling and, yes, even successful.”
The last part of the book recounts Treya’s last weeks as it becomes evident that she will soon die. She makes a conscious decision of when to ‘let go’ and one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the book is when she tells Ken she is ready to die:
‘“Sweetie, I think it’s time to go,” she began.
“I’m here, honey.”
“I’m so happy.” Long pause. “This world is so weird. It’s just so weird. But I’m going.” Her mood was one of joy and humor, and determination.’
Ken writes about this experience of watching his dear Treya fade away and concludes that: “Real love hurts; real love makes you totally vulnerable and open; real love will take you far beyond yourself; and therefore real love will devastate you. I kept thinking, if love does not shatter you, you do not know love. We had both been practicing the wound of love, and I was shattered. Looking back on it, it seems to me that in that simple and direct moment, we both died.”
Although exquisitely written, the last days of Treya’s life as they are recorded cannot come close to the actual lived experience. Years after her death, Ken has spoken about the growth that occurred for both of them through that five year ordeal. If nothing else, the story of Ken and Treya can teach us about the profound transformative power of love. Treya’s own tenacious struggle can give us perspective, remind us of our own mortality and teach us to face our own dragons and challenges with grace and grit.