Reading now the posts I wrote about dealing with breast cancer two (short) years ago, a few things jump out: the willingness to keep my fears at bay through rationalization; the unashamed request for support and a desire to process what was happening through writing. Most of all, though, what transpires is a request not to be seen as a victim, as sick or damaged. I was holding on tightly to the sense of who I believed myself to be.
I wrote, quite tartly, of all the annoyances one has to wade through in such circumstances and of the pitfalls of being very public with one’s diagnosis: my intention in coming clean was to educate but, in the process, I was confronted with the difficulties of others in responding to a threatening illness. Everyone means well – not everyone knows what to do.
I very vividly remember one of my friends asking me if cancer had changed me. “Absolutely not” I answered “I am still me, with all my quirks, my faults, my good and bad qualities.” Maybe it was too soon to answer that question – mostly, I didn’t want people to see me differently. Also, I didn’t – and still don’t – abide by the creed that suffering ennobles us, that it is a path to some sort of redemption. Bad things happen. They suck and we could do without them. Finding a silver lining is a coping mechanism, not a blessing.
But a life wouldn’t be a life without catastrophes befalling us. Sooner or later, we are all confronted with illness, death, divorce, loss and everything in between. How we deal with them makes us who we are. Were I asked the same question now, I would have a very different answer.
It’s this opportunity to emerge stronger, not unscathed, but, perhaps, with a more meaningful beauty shining through despite the patched up cracks of disaster that is explored in the book “More Beautiful Than Before – How Suffering Transforms Us” by Steve Leder.
Full disclaimer: Rabbi Leder is my teacher, a man I respect deeply. Still, I approached the book with apprehension, afraid I might find a glorification of suffering or a blind faith approach to it. I should have known better.
Steve Leder is uniquely positioned to explore the subject of pain and suffering. As the Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (the oldest Reform congregation west of Brooklyn), Rabbi Leder has been helping people cope through life’s worst blows for the better part of thirty years. Still, it’s when it was his turn to be brought to his knees (quite literally) that Steve’s understanding of pain gained a deeper insight.
The book is, essentially, a collection of essays, each filled with stories of hurt inflicted, betrayals, forgiveness and loss which, all together, come to represent an incredibly practical tool on how to navigate our worst moments and the ones of the people we love. It’s a text I know I will go back to every time I need to show up for someone in need, every time I cannot find the words, to remind myself that physical presence and silence are, at times, just as comforting.
More than change, the book drives the point home that from pain come growth and transformation. If we have to walk through fire we might as well emerge from it with lessons that will inform, for the better, the rest of our lives: lessons about who are, what we are capable of and about what really matters.
Steve also reminds us that, contrary to the narrative of our harried lives, life is, for most of us, indeed long.
“The heart monitor, the CT scan, the pink slip, the downtick. There is time; life is long; this too shall pass. Your career is not what you had hoped. You have made a terrible mistake. You have lost your reputation. Your marriage is shattered. Life is long; you can reinvent and redefine. “It is never too late,” George Eliot is said to have written, “to be what you might have been.”
Until it isn’t or until we come to the realization that not everything can be salvaged. But that, too, as sad as it might be, offers us an opportunity to learn to let go. Even when some relationships are too broken or abusive, when situations reach dead ends or insurmountable walls we can still learn to walk away with our heads high and our spirit mended. Just keep going.
I remember people telling me “You are so brave”. I never felt brave at all. I didn’t have much of a choice but to keep on going and not let myself be broken.
So, how did cancer change me? I could write at length on my introspective process but I will take a page from Steve’s book. When asked how the pain he had to walk through changed him, he answered “I am nicer.” I feel the same. Would I give the whole cancer experience back, not to have to live the rest of my life wondering if it will come back? In a second. But life is random and generally not fair. This is what was delivered to me so, out of it, I learnt to be nicer: my please and thank you are more sincere; my interest in fellow humans deeper; my capacity for caring more central to my life.
“What was beautiful when whole is beautiful when broken too.”
Graffiti by Anastasia Brennab