Cancer is a chance to do and be (or not do, or not be) a lot of things. It’s a chance to feel sorry for yourself. It’s a chance to hide or check out of relationships. It’s a chance to complain, to crumble, to grumble, to feel bitter, to live in a space of anger, resentment and basically wear a t-shirt that says:
Well, it’s true. Life isn’t fair. Though I take a different tack on that one. People say life isn’t fair when they experience pain or loss because they presume themselves to be morally upright, relatively speaking. And this, somehow, gets them a pass from experiencing pain.
I find that to be a strange, selective way of looking at things. If we’re honest, we can see how often we escape, by the skin of our teeth, consequences of all the not-so-perfect things we do – lying a little bit (or a lot?) cheating in any number of ways, stealing (ideas? credit? Post-it notes?) rudeness, superiority, gossip, passive aggression, blaming others for our failures, jealousy over…everything. Road rage, anyone? How about resenting others’ success? In fact, one could argue, we often get more good stuff than we deserve – love in spite of our mistakes and imperfections, we keep our jobs even though sometimes we don’t know what the heck we’re doing, the extra miles to get to the next exit even though we’ve been on E for quite a while.) I would argue that we reap not nearly the amount of crappy stuff we ought to from our sowing of wild, selfish, apathetic oats.
So if we can set aside the “life isn’t as fair as I feel like it should be” issue, gently helping each other down out of the seat of God’s throne where we occasionally plant ourselves…we can consider that suffering perhaps isn’t undue punishment. So what might it be, if not that? I can’t tell you what your suffering is for, or even what mine is for, in certainty and in its entirety. But I can tell you what it’s an opportunity for:
It’s an opportunity to grow in empathy. For some people, like me, it’s hard to empathize with something we haven’t experienced. I, unfairly, sometimes tend to have a “it can’t be that bad” attitude when people complain of pain or fatigue or physical or emotional difficulties. Cancer is making me softer. More understanding. I care more about people’s pain. Before it was easy to know someone was having surgery or whatever and see them two weeks later and go “look! they’re fine….that wasn’t so bad.” I am now intimately familiar with the long nights in the hospital, the pain that meds don’t touch, the struggle of long-term nausea. I know more about struggle. And I regret the attitude I’ve occasionally had in the past about how bad something I didn’t know anything about can be. I am grateful for my growing capacity for sympathy.
It’s an opportunity to galvanize my faith. Do you notice how when you’ve gone through something difficult like a test, or scary like a giant waterslide, that even though it wasn’t easy, once you’ve been through it, you are less anxious about the next one? Life is like that, too. You go through a bad break-up with your first love, and while it’s painful…you lived, didn’t you? The next break up doesn’t destroy you quite like that first one did. Whatever level of “strong” I am is probably a direct result of how much tough stuff I’ve been through – seeing that God comes through, in one way or another, every time. I’m going to be so freaking tough after this. You’ll think I’m on steroids.
It’s an opportunity to be loved. I am amazed at how loved I am. Of course there is the occasional disappointment – the person you thought would be there that just sort of faded away or disappeared suddenly, altogether. But mostly, I feel like there is a persistent army of caring, loving people beating down my door with cards and flowers and bubble bath and prayers and dumpling soup and hugs and special tea and chocolate covered strawberries and trips to the grocery store. Thank you, to the people who are loving me so well and generously through this. I feel cherished and cared for like never before.
There is this story that Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in NYC tells about this group of elder leaders of a denomination of a European country. Their denomination was basically dying off, not having had growth in many years. They wanted to appoint this young, up and coming, high energy pastor as their new leader. They all respected him and liked him and felt he was on his way to great things. But they stopped in their tracks when one of them pointed out that the young pastor hadn’t really been “put through the fire.” He’d yet to have a life experience that truly tested him. They knew, once they realized this, that his time had not yet come. Many years in the faith and in leadership had taught them that to really be able to lead people effectively, you have to have been through some pretty tough stuff. I’ve found myself in leadership of some kind, throughout most of my life. Perhaps I am not ready for anything further until I’ve fought this particular battle.
I think you make some key decisions in any life chapters that you might title “SUFFERING.” And one of them is if you are going to let it beat you down or if you’re going to let it make you better. I don’t know about you, but I want to be better. So I will. Sometimes pressurized coal turns into boring coal dust. And sometimes, it becomes something so beautiful, people lose their lives trying to find it.