We are saddled with metaphors in the cancer community. We are survivors, apparently, from the moment we are diagnosed until we draw our last breath. We are fighters and warriors. We win the war and lose the battle. We are heroes and inspirations. We are angels. We fail our treatments. We succumb. We’re strong.
Truth is, it’s hard to live inside any experience without a metaphor, and we have to choose what works for us. But the metaphors touch us deeply, so we recoil in the face of some of them. We all have our soft spots.
What I think we want people to know is that these metaphors set up shop inside our hearts and sometimes make our burdens harder to bear. When we’re praised for being positive, for being strong, for being an inspiration, we carry the expectation of those outside our community to always be strong, positive inspirations.
That’s hard to do when you’re in pain and exhausted or when you have to quit your job or when you miss your kid’s dance recital. Cancer and cancer treatments are bigger than we are.
Quite a few things in this life are bigger than we are. Although we like to think of ourselves as strong and safe, we are all capable of being blown down.
No matter how positive we are or how strong, the universe offers its opposites. The devastating. The harm and abuse. The people who are bigger than we are. There is a sort of arrogance and callousness in the belief that we can survive anything.
One of the worst things ever said is Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For those who have lived past chemotherapy or live in the aftermath of rape or violence, who face internal demons like depression and other mental illness, for us it’s clear that these things that don’t kill us, sometimes break us down, make us weaker and more vulnerable.
Living well in this world does not consist of conquering these things that wound us. It doesn’t mean being strong and fighting back. It doesn’t mean winning.
It means accepting that the wind will sometimes blow you down, and if you can, you’ll get back up. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the love of friends and family to help you. If you’re blessed, you’ll be able to realize that we’re all in this together, that your suffering is not unique, and that you are not alone.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about the fight. Sometimes we fight with all our might, and we are empowered because of it. Sometimes when we fight, we win. But we can’t always fight. We can’t always stand up against the gale.
For me, compassion for myself and others means accepting that sometimes I need to rest instead of fight, that sometimes I will be wounded and that when I can, with help from others, I will get back up.
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