In the few years since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve had more conversations about the sad parts of life than I have in all my years before the diagnosis combined. Sharing my own story with others, especially in the form of a book, has provided avenues for others to share their own struggles and grief with me.
After reading my book, a friend shared with me some of her struggles with mental illness. She then asked whether I feel burdened by the frequent conversations about my own—and others’—pain. While I wish we all had much less sorrow in our lives, I’m keenly aware that’s not the case. Talking about the tough stuff simply is what life is about these days. And recently I’ve even come to see it as my new vocation.
In contemporary conversations about vocation, we often talk about finding or choosing a vocation. We take strength-finder inventories; we envision where we’d like to be in ten years and what we need to do to get there. Much reflection on vocation in the past, however, has characterized vocation as something given to us, even when we’d prefer to be doing something else.
Truth be told, I’d much rather know about cancer only from the outside. I’d prefer to talk less about the sad things in life. But I don’t have a choice but to be on this path. At the same time, it seems that my training as a theologian and a professor is leading me to work on talking about the tough things in life in ways that might be of help to others.
It’s also common in contemporary conversations about vocation to turn to writer and theologian Frederick Beuchner who talks about vocation as the place where our deep passion meets the world’s deep need. If I understand my new vocation in these terms, that doesn’t mean I’m passionate about talking cancer in an enthusiastic sort of way. Rather, if we dig more deeply into the word passion (think Christ’s passion), we realize passion is also intimately connected with pain and suffering.
In my new role as a writer-talker-and-listener about the tough stuff in life, I’m passionate about the deep need we have to figure out how to talk about the most painful parts of life. And as many people who’ve been through hard times know, intimate familiarity with suffering can cultivate a heightened sensitivity to the pain of others. Since having cancer I’m more attuned to the struggles in others’ lives. And on good days, I’m also more willing to ask how someone is really doing, even if I wager the answer might lead to another conversation about the tough stuff.
While I’d happily accept a different vocation, being invited to occupy that space of sadness, grief, and uncertainty with others is often a profound experience. To sit with another human being and reflect on what we’ve lost, on how life is different since badness came on the scene, on the grace that emerges even in the midst of the awful—can bring consolation and insight. More than a burden, it’s a privilege to be able to occupy that sacred space with others. Not long ago I thought I didn’t have enough time left in life to have a vocation at all. Given the alternative, I’m grateful to have a new vocation and to be doing well enough to try and live it out.