Balance 2017: living between the victim and the captain

Balance 2017: living between the victim and the captain
"Tsunami" by Petra Bensted. Used with permission of a Creative Commons License, which you can find here

Have you ever felt like Job? You know, the guy in the Bible who was just and true and then the devil laid waste to all he had. Most of us have been there once or twice in our lives.

One of the hardest parts of being in a support group with other folks with cancer, is listening to the stories. Not just the stories of cancer—the suffering from treatments, the fear of the future, the exhaustion, and the pain. But the stories of life being lived in the midst of cancer. Dealing with insurance companies, losing jobs, declaring bankruptcy, feeling alienated and isolated from friends and family. Even the day-to-day struggles that everyone faces seem so much harder in the midst of being ill. Like when your child is sick, or the plumbing backs up, the appliances start failing, or the car breaks down on the highway.

When I think of what some of my friends have coped with, I’m really staggered. The woman with mouth sores from chemo, who could barely swallow, couldn’t eat, was in terrible pain, whose cancer was progressing. And then, she had to foreclose on her house because of black mold and had to give up her pets in order to live with family.

It’s pretty easy to feel like a victim when all of these things go wrong. And, this is what I want you to know. We are victims sometimes. A victim is someone to whom wrong is done, someone who is harmed, and who suffers. If you’re thinking of Job, remember that the devil was given permission from God to test the poor guy.

I get so tired of people talking about “victims” as if it’s a four letter word, something someone chooses. As if it’s your own fault. Bad things happen to bad people and to good people, and sometimes the bad guy is bigger and stronger than you. If you live a full life, you will be a victim.

Until these things happen to you, it’s easier to feel like you’re the captain, as in William Henley’s poem “Invictus,”

Henley declares, “Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody, but unbowed” and then concludes, “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”

And to Henley I say, “Bullshit.” Because you’re going to bow your head when cancer metastasizes to your liver. Even if you’re stalwart and true, a really good person, you will die, and you may die on your knees in the corner of a room begging for your life. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Now I know that declaring you’re the captain of your soul is supposed to be encouraging. We’re supposed to be able to face anything and keep our integrity intact, to keep hope alive, to be courageous (whatever that means). We keep our heads up. They can take our lives, but they can’t take our hearts and souls.

Well, maybe.

I think of Saundra, the woman I described above. In the midst of her suffering, in the midst of losing her house and much-beloved cats, in the midst of enduring a painful death, she just kept on playing in her local band. She went to rehearsals and played concerts, come hell or high water. The only thing that kept her away was being leashed to an IV in a hospital bed. She loved her flute and she loved that band.

Some people with cancer keep playing in the band and some run marathons. Some lock themselves inside their houses and suffer alone. But mostly there are the ones in the middle who try to find a balance, who try to do what they can while they can. One of my friends made lunches for her kids, right up until the last week of her life, because she could. It was her way, maybe the only way, to keep her head unbowed.

Many of us come out the other side. Cancer and bankruptcy, backed-up plumbing and losing some friends are things we endure and survive. We come back to life and, strangely, end up celebrating the little things, like a leak in the upstairs bathroom that ends up seeping downstairs by way of the ceiling.

Cancer, sometimes, gives you perspective. You realize that not everything is a catastrophe, that maybe you’re stronger than you think, that there is joy in the sunshine while walking your dog, despite the crud of the everyday. It turns out the leak was small and repairing the ceiling wasn’t that expensive.

For me, the space between the victim and the captain is one I’ve tried to inhabit. I’m trying to balance my fear of disaster without the arrogance that I can survive anything. I’m trying to let go of both extremes, releasing myself from worrying about the struggles life will inevitably bring without judging myself for being unable to be “master of my fate.”

Sometimes it helps to tell your story as if you’re the captain of your soul and the master of your fate, whether it’s true or not. But, it’s ok to accept that we can be victims of fate, of disease, weather, or the actions of others.

For me, right now, neither story feels right or good. I just want to find that sweet spot in the middle, moving from moment to moment and letting go of the past and the future. And, I want to find compassion for those folks around me who’ve been laid low and realize they really aren’t the masters of their fate.

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