Meet the ‘Miracle Lady’

Has she found the fountain of youth?

By Alan Muskat

Maureen McCarthy was supposed to die twenty years ago. Her lungs, filled with tiny tumors, are like a sack of marbles. They weigh ten times more than normal. She’s supposed to only be able to talk in a whisper. Yet she’s a vibrant public speaker. And she feels like the luckiest person alive.

Maureen lives in Flat Rock, North Carolina. Thirty years ago, she started having migraines. The latest one started seventeen years ago; it hasn’t stopped since. To top it off, Maureen is allergic to pain meds. There’s nothing anyone can do. Except her.

Maureen doesn’t just tolerate her migraine. She doesn’t try to forget she could die any minute. She doesn’t just put up with her life. She has learned to love it. She hasn’t lost her marbles. They just don’t bother her anymore.

Maureen McCarthy: her doctor calls her “the miracle lady” (Erica Mueller)

Faced with her diagnosis, Maureen realized she had no room for negativity. To think, “this should not be happening” could literally kill her. It’s as if each negative thought is another little tumor, another marble. Any resentment, any resistance would weigh her further down.

Maureen came to see herself like a fly caught in a web. Every attempt to break free would lead to another stuck place. The good news was, the web was all in her head. She was making her life into a problem. Did it have to be?

They say life is a terminal condition. Aren’t we all going to die? Could our resistance to life, to things not going “our way,” be the very reason we age? Could it be a contributing factor in degenerative disease?

We know that life expectancy is shortened by chronic stress. Isn’t constantly saying no to life precisely that? It’s like driving with the emergency brake on. You can do it, but it’s going to wear you down. Is Maureen showing us the opposite: that without resistance, we can go on forever?

We’re not immortal; that’s not the point. Wanting to live forever is a form of resistance too. But wouldn’t you want twenty more years? Why live in conflict with life for even one more day? In other words, why suffer?

It’s not that Maureen doesn’t want anything. Of course she’d rather not have a migraine or 10% lung capacity. But as spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle put it, she doesn’t pile suffering onto her pain. This has enabled her to go through twelve surgeries to reverse collapsed lungs without pain medication or anesthesia. How is that possible?

Have you ever seen a tree growing out of a crack in a rock? Regardless of how much soil it finds, it seems to live an equally happy life, sometimes a surprisingly long one. We’re not trees, and trees aren’t us. But with so much resistance in our lives, so much struggle, it’s worth asking, how much of it is really necessary? Is it all worth it? How much of life is really a problem?

If you ask Maureen, she’d say none of it. I know. I’ve asked her. I’ve known Maureen for thirteen years. She makes me wonder, in a “Cats in the Cradle” sort of way, how much of my life I’ll look back on in twenty years — assuming I live that long — wondering, “why did I bother?”

It’s one thing to watch a soap opera or horror movie; it’s another to live it. Why so much struggle? Maureen says she doesn’t need drama, yet her life is more exciting than ever.

Do you like rollercoasters? I don’t. That’s why I think Maureen has something to teach me. Maybe we all have to ride rollercoasters. Like George Michael says on his album, Older: “what we have to learn, we rarely choose.” In other words, we might as well enjoy the ride.

The lesson is simple. It’s about flexibility vs. rigidity. Which one sounds better to you? Think of water; doesn’t it go with the flow?

This is easy to write about; is it easy to do? For me, hell no! How many times have you heard, “just let go,” as if it were easy? It’s one thing to tell someone they’re carrying baggage, that they are the ones dragging it around. That doesn’t mean “letting go” is easy. Telling someone they don’t have to be so guarded, so armored against life, could be like telling a turtle to “let go” of its shell.

What, then, is reasonable to release? What can we really ask of ourselves? As I stop to think about it, a huge gust of wind blows outside my window. It’s cold out there. I’m glad to be in my “shell.” But I don’t think the wind is “wrong.” I don’t dis gusting. I think, the wind is like a fart: unpleasant, perhaps, but not wrong. Maybe even funny.

As Maureen explains, some resistance is automatic. For example, we all get scared sometimes. We can’t help it. But if we look for the thought, “this should not be happening,” then we can help it: we can question that assumption, helping the fear to not happen as long, or as intensely, or even as often. And just as we can live without suffering and still want things, we don’t need fear or bitterness to function.  You can build a house without cursing the wind.

Maureen teaches me that life is never “right” or “wrong.” It goes on regardless of what I think. Only I won’t go on if I keep resisting it. Like they say, you can’t change the wind, but you can turn your sails.

You’ve probably heard a lot of this before. It bears repeating. It’s why we still need mindfulness, or any practice or religion that says, “Thy will be done.” It’s why we have science: so we can follow nature’s laws. To live well is to give up control.

This is why Maureen is not a motivational speaker. For her, life is not about overcoming or beating the odds. It’s not about getting our way. Like Pema Chodron, Maureen sees hope as just another form of resistance. Joy, on the other hand, comes from embracing our lives. It’s why Maureen lives for the day. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to help the world; she just doesn’t see any of it as bad.

So what’s bugging you? Is there anything in your life that you’re treating as a problem? I bet the answer is yes. It sure is for me. Can we say “yes” to life? Can we say that from here on out, whatever happens is OK, including our own resistance? There’s always some level, Maureen says, at which we can say “yes.” Otherwise, we’d be dead.

Maureen is not alone. There are many who say that giving life your blessing is not just healthy; it’s all you need to do. Antonio Porchia writes, “this is what good is: to forgive evil. There is no other good.” Arnold Patent says “forgiveness is not letting bygones be bygones; it is recognizing that nothing wrong ever took place.” And Marshall Rosenberg declares, “I am confident that you have never and will never do anything wrong.”

Do you believe all that? Imagine going through life believing that no one and nothing is ever “wrong.” Wouldn’t you call that enlightenment? If so, I’d call Maureen a saint.

Can we all aspire to sainthood? The first step, and the biggest, is to see that “wrongness” is a noose we tie around our own necks. Instead, Maureen says, “there is nothing to fix. What do we want to create?” In this world of fear and anger, can we focus less on what we don’t want and more on what we do?

Rosenberg says harsh judgments are “life-alienating.” Embracing the present, on the other hand, is life-affirming. Can we meet each other where we’re at so we’re not slowly killing ourselves? Never doubt that a single ungrumpy person can change the world. What if that’s all that ever has?

Maureen’s website is CollaborativeAwareness.com.