I have a picture on my wall at work of me and several of the members of my support group. We’re at a dinner, held last Spring, at the Cancer Support Center. Of the seven people pictured, two are now dead.
I look at them some days and cry, and on other days I smile. I remember funny things they said, the kindnesses they showed me and others. They both reached out to me and offered support, even though I was in remission and they weren’t.
When I look at them I think about hope and what it means. On some days hope is something that I believe in only because I will myself to do so. On some days I don’t feel very hopeful because I know that one of my friends is on the last chemotherapy option available. Only a clinical trial, if one exists, is left.
It’s easier to feel angry, scared, bereft, ravaged by this disease that has changed my life profoundly. It’s hard to read the articles and books and news reports that tell me we haven’t made very much progress on curing cancer. It’s hard to read the death notices and see the empty chairs. It’s hard to feel anything even close to hope.
It’s easier to go to work and forget about the suffering and about the people I know who force themselves to eat because losing weight is the beginning of the end for people with cancer, that terrible slippery slope. I can forget about the tenuous place some of these people are in. They look fine, and then, they don’t.
A relative asked me why I keep going to the support group, wondered if it’s good for me. When she asked me, I admit that I wondered if I had a good reason. I worry that taking time to talk about my week and my worries steals time from other people, sicker people.
But I keep going because of the listening. I need to listen to these people, to be a witness to their lives. Suffering is so hard and so hard to talk about. You can’t talk about it with just anyone. But other people with cancer can listen in ways that the uninitiated can’t. As they have reached out to me, I can reach back, look them in the eye and be a person they don’t have to dress it all up for.
David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times last week that has resonated with lots of us. Lipstick and Lollipops wrote about it here. Brooks brought together for me something I had been unable to connect for myself. Suffering changes us, he writes
Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability.
And so, it became clear. I have chosen to involve myself with other vulnerable people, people who reached out to me and pulled me into the lifeboat when I was drowning in fear and horror even though they were weak themselves. I will not run away from these people who are living some of the scenarios I imagined in my nightmares.
I don’t believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I haven’t been “healed” of my suffering, but I have become different. Instead of recoiling from connections to people, some of whom are not long for this world, I am rushing towards them.
I am doubling down on vulnerability. I don’t know why suffering has done this work in me. In some ways it’s against my will. I’d rather not know about how suffering feels in my own heart and in others.
I do know, however, what hope looks like. It looks like my support group. It looks like a photograph of smiling people who look well, hale and hearty, even though one person in the picture knows he’s not well. He’ll never be back to the group after that day. But he reaches out to us and we reach back.
This is what hope looks like.
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