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More beautiful than before

Posted in Life & Love

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

 

 

 

 

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23 Comments

  1. Sorry I’m late in reading and commenting this (life got in the way this week) but your shared thoughts on this very much touched me. I thought of you often during your ordeal and how gracefully you managed to handled it as shared the process. As always, your touching words have cast a light on how to view life when it hands us detours and pitfalls. Blessings as you continue to explore the ways it impacted you. As someone in the bleacher section, I can only offer deep and heartfelt thanks to you for sharing your experience so eloquently and with such grace. Sending warm, albeit digital thoughts our way. You truly have a beautiful soul.

    November 16, 2017
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    • I have never met you Monika but sometimes I feel like I have. You have become a virtual friend. Hopefully we will meet one day, over cocktails and with a couple of pups running around us.

      November 17, 2017
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  2. Grazie! Sei molto lucida e coraggiosa

    November 15, 2017
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      • Lo trasmetti. Io vado in paranoia per niente, fai conto

        November 16, 2017
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  3. This is a wonderful post.
    A friend of mine went through a lengthy battle with cancer, which he eventually lost, and I learned so much from him during that experience. He used to get really mad when people would tell him how “brave” he was. He said, “brave” is a conscious choice like running into a burning building to save someone – not dealing with something that you didn’t choose to have.

    November 15, 2017
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    • I wholeheartedly agree. And what about adversities building characters? One of the people portrayed in the book, after the third (and terminal) bout with cancer says “This much character I did not need”. (Sorry to hear about your friend…)

      November 16, 2017
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  4. Penni
    Penni

    “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.”
    My dear friend, you are right because we didn’t have much of a choice at that time, but I now think we have been brave because we never let ourselves down, we fought an enemy and we won the war.
    As you say cancer did not change me because I am more or less the same person I was before. What changed is that I am stronger, stronger enough to know what is important and what is not. Important to me, not important in a general sense.

    November 14, 2017
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    • It certainly helped me cut through the weeds of bullshit!

      November 15, 2017
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  5. “Life is long; you can reinvent and redefine.” Words I’ve come to embrace in my life. I like your conclusion: “I am nicer.” I’ve had a much different journey than you have, yet that’s exactly where I find myself. I still have edges, but they’re less sharp now.

    November 14, 2017
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    • I don’t know how old you are but I can say that my edges have lost some of their sharpness with aging. Where some people get harder with age and life’s difficulties and disappointments, I am prepared to bet most of us soften.

      November 14, 2017
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      • Let’s hope so. I know that I am.

        November 14, 2017
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  6. Meri Mastronardi
    Meri Mastronardi

    This means a lot to me . . . having been through the cancer scare several times . . . but it resonates even more because I watched my dearly beloved sister lose her battle with breast cancer and it knocked the wind out of me. I am trying to get myself together after her ordeal and it is difficult but I am making progress. I am learning to let go of the grief, the anger, the loss . . . and yes, I agree, it has changed me such that I too feel that I am more understanding, more tolerant, more forgiving and, I guess, in a word, nicer. Thank you again for your wonderful, thoughtful and always meaningful posts.

    November 14, 2017
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    • Dear Meri, I am so very sorry. Things happen to us that, in a perfect world, never should and leave us shattered beyond comprehension and yet, we find ourselves still standing. So we go on. The void left by your sister will never be filled but it becomes more bearable. You take care of yourself. If you want to write to me privately (campariandsofa@gmail.com) and send me your address, I would love to send you the book.

      November 14, 2017
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  7. Lisa
    Lisa

    nicely written.

    November 14, 2017
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    • Thank you Lisa. Now, if I could get to take some photographs half as nice as yours, I would be a happy woman!

      November 14, 2017
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  8. That’s an interesting perspective – “finding a silver lining is a coping mechanism”. Don’t think I ever thought of it that way, but I do agree. Even so, I’m sure it’s a coping mechanism I use quite a lot (that and laughter).

    November 14, 2017
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    • I suppose it’s one of the best coping mechanisms because it gives us perspective. I use it often, by default. But there are things for which I find it impossible to find an upside: a death, a terminal disease for instance. Then, to me, it becomes a matter of acceptance.

      November 14, 2017
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  9. Nicer is good. I have tried to use tolerance as my personal mantra but nicer is less pompous.

    November 13, 2017
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    • Yes, nicer is more personable. Tolerance sounds like you have to make an effort (which might be the case given the abundance of stupidity around).

      November 14, 2017
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  10. valerie
    valerie

    Claudia , you do a great job of trying to make sense of the world through words.
    Wonderful post!

    November 13, 2017
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