(This post is a copy of a correspondence between a friend and I about living with long-term illness/pain)
“Do you think things happen for a reason?
Or are we just creatures, vulnerable to the world?”
I have been thinking deeply about this question you sent me.
I know you didn’t mean for me to get philosophical – it was an agonized question in an agonizing time for you. But, you see, it reached me on the morning of my 4th anniversary of mastectomy surgery – my only shot at surviving the cancer that was eating at me. It is a question I have often had, coming up with different answers over time. I might even change my mind about my answer as I write! But I wanted to give it the attention it deserves because it is important – important to our health as survivors.
I do not think that everything happens for a reason.
I think shit happens, frequently and unfortunately.
Some things do happen for a reason, and if we are honest with ourselves we can often follow the nasty path backwards to its origin. It is not a pleasant thing and sometimes it is completely unnecessary.
What I think is this: What matters is what you do afterwards.
Maybe, in a convoluted way, that is saying that things happen for a reason: to force us into action or growth. However, I cannot live my life believing that there is a Divine Puppeteer that just is out their screwing with me to see what I will do or if I am smart enough to get the hint.
Yes, we are creatures vulnerable to the world. I believe that all creatures are. Our arrogance is in thinking we are anything but that. And our growth lies in learning to accept it.
The illness you are suffering from sucks. I know that some days you face it with courage and other days you are buried in pain. I am familiar with these things too. I know what it is like to rack your brain for what you did wrong and to try to figure out what to do right to fix it. I just don’t think it is that simple not matter how much I would like it to be.
But, I don’t think we were “meant” to suffer in order to achieve some level of evolution – physical or spiritual. I think shit happens.
I would love to have someone tell me that the naturally occurring steroid I was the year taking prior to cancer was what caused it. It would feel good to have someone – even myself – to be angry with for being vain enough to want that extra boost in my athletic performance and body image. It would be simple to be regretful – tragic too – but at least I would understand. To be able to blame myself for an act that triggered a lifetime of debilitating pain would be something. But I don’t have that answer any more than you have yours. Cancer just was, the resulting side effects of treatment still are. Your pain just is.
So now what?
When each moment becomes precious, each relationship, job or errand weighed against the energy it gives you or robs you of, you begin to put yourself first. This is something we are not taught to do – and as a mom, it is sometimes impossible to do. But the things that have happened to us have so debilitated our functioning that our bodies are demanding our complete attention. Painful as it may be, maybe this is not such a bad thing. I believe that as we learn to hear the message, to be compassionate and gentle with ourselves, acting out of an understanding of our sacredness, our bodies will be less angry, less reactionary, less likely to seek pain as their response.
Unfortunately, we live in the real world and this is not always – and sometimes not even remotely- possible. So we hurt. We seek solutions and reasons. We are angry and sad and full of resignation. Sometimes we manage gratitude. We must make more time for ourselves somehow. I struggle here too.
What do I know now that I did not know before cancer? Before pain? That is what I really focus on – not the why of it, but what am I learning:
I am valuable and my life has worth.
I have a voice that deserves to be heard
I am stronger than I ever imagined
I am vulnerable in some areas and crusted over in others and working to even that out
My dreams require action and I am worth every effort towards them
And on that note, I am going to go back to working on my school work. Getting my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is something I would not have ever done before cancer. Ironically, since I made the commitment to follow my dream and write, nearly everything I have ever submitted has gotten published.
Does this mean that cancer happened so that I would write?
I don’t think so. But, without a doubt, it was having cancer that made me realize that I was worth going to grad school and giving writing a try. I know you have those things too. And when you forget gratitude and being nice to yourself and are rolling in pain and sorrow, know that I hear you and I am on your side.