People often ask me how life has changed since being diagnosed with stage IV cancer. On bad days, the question brings tears to my eyes. On good days, though, I acknowledge that cancer changes the outlook on many aspects of life.
Take birthdays, for instance.
This week, I’ll officially enter my upper-40s. Since the cancer diagnosis, I’ve become more attuned to the many protests we lodge against the aging process. The popularity of botox injections and coloring hair to hide the gray, to name just two visible protests, suggest we’re not too keen on showing the world we’re actually getting older. We want to look young, feel young, stay young. And then birthdays come around once a year and insist that we acknowledge we’re getting older.
It’s rather remarkable that for everything else it is, Thanksgiving is fundamentally a day set aside for gratitude. Even though attention is often turned toward the delectable dishes we get to enjoy, it’s nevertheless a day to consider the gifts of grace we enjoy individually and as members of the larger community.
But sometimes gratitude can be hard to come by. Those of us who live face-to-face with an aggressive diagnosis or with other occasions for grief can find it difficult to be full of gratitude, even on an officially sanctioned day to do just that. Since my own diagnosis almost four years ago, I know how often fear, uncertainty, and grief make insistent pleas for my allegiance, even when I’m “supposed” to be cultivating gratitude.
In the face of fear and uncertainty’s nagging presence, I attempt—with varying degrees of success—to keep them at bay. While they tempt me with lists of anxious questions (Will still be around next Christmas? For the girls’ high school graduations? Will I make it to 50?), I try and turn my attention elsewhere. One of the best “elsewhere’s” I’ve found is through the practice of daily morning prayer. It is the case that I often wake to thoughts of fear; in response, I move through a litany of prayers of gratitude for this day.
Before we move into the season of holiday celebrations, I’d like to say a few words in praise of lament. Lament—the expression of sadness, grief, mourning—is an underrated practice in contemporary life. In their book about lament called Rachel’s Cry, religion scholars Daniel Migliore and Kathleen Billman suggest that we’re reluctant as a society to publically grieve our failures, limitations, and losses. The title of their book comes from the biblical book of Jeremiah (31.15) where the prophet talks about Rachel’s inconsolable weeping for her lost children. In Jewish tradition, Rachel’s grief is revered and respected, while in Christianity her cry receives scant attention. Perhaps it’s because the Christian story ends with resolution—there’s a resurrection!—that Christians and many in the dominant culture do not give the practice of lament its due.
In the past several years, I’ve gained a healthy respect for lament. Dealing with cancer or other tough issues in life leads to lament, to a posture of sadness and sorrow. But that’s a hard sell in America much of the time, land of political slogans like, “Happy days are here again!” and “It’s morning in America.” Writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, begins with a chapter about her own entrance into “Cancerland” due to a breast cancer diagnosis. When she found her way to online forums on breast cancer and expressed her lament over her condition—including frustration over the lack of funding for researching breast cancer—other users in these online communities responded with words of caution about Ehrenreich’s negative attitude, telling her they were praying for her so that she might become more positive.
I’ve been thinking a lot about saints. All Saints Day (November 1) coincided with one of my classes studying the lives of medieval female saints. These women were officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church for their heroic displays of compassion and reports of miracles they performed.
It’s also the case that this past Sunday churches around the world honored the saints who have gone before us. Remembered especially were those who died in the past year. At these worship services, bells tolled as each name was read aloud. It was a time to honor the lives of those who passed away, to remember them in death, and to hope for more for all of us who mourn their passing.
I come from a wing of Christianity that does not share in the ongoing Roman Catholic tradition of granting official saintly status to persons performing miracles or living particularly virtuous lives. Nevertheless, in remembering those who’ve gone before us, we still use the word saint.
If it is the case that all of us are children of God, then it seems that all of us are born with huge potential for sainthood. Most of us spend our days far from that ideal; yet it’s true that especially in times of great need, many of us are recipients of grace given by saints in our midst. I know that since my own cancer diagnosis, life has been full of encounters with saints.