In the midst of the suffering and grief cancer has brought into my life, ties binding me to others have been cast in stark relief. Cancer has succeeded in ending some relationships, but the far greater reality has been the embrace of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, even acquaintances who sojourn alongside me in this journey with cancer.
It’s humbling to be on the receiving end of so much extravagant love and care. I often find myself asking: What did I do to deserve these gifts of grace?
Clearly I didn’t do anything; that’s why it’s called grace—it’s underserved, unmerited. I got cancer, which was also undeserved (but not in a grace-like way); all of a sudden my family and I needed lots of extra help, support, and prayers—and people came to our aid.
To be so in need, however, is an uncomfortable place to be. We live in a culture that valorizes self-sufficiency. Our lives overflow with schedules and commitments; we frequently rehearse with others our ability to manage it all. When cancer suddenly invaded my family’s life, my husband, my daughters, and I were forced to relinquish control of most of those schedules and commitments. Mixed in with the gratitude for gifts of grace that came our way was also a gut-level resistance to being so dependent on others. It’s true that according to the logic of grace we are not obligated to return these many favors. They are gifts freely given. Yet even as I give thanks for the innumerable gifts of grace we’ve received in the past several years, I still feel in debt to so many for carrying us when we couldn’t carry ourselves.
I work to accept these gifts of grace.
But feelings of guilt also stand in the way. As flowers and food arrive, as notes and packages show up at our door, as I learn of more people and communities holding me in prayer, the humility and the gratitude merge with guilt. Would I have done the same for them? that small voice inside my head asks. If I’m honest, the answer is often something other than “yes.” Knowing this makes it harder to fully absorb the grace.
Why do we struggle so much with accepting grace? I’d say it’s part of being human. We want to be self-sufficient. We want to believe we’re in control. But when we are confronted with things like cancer or other serious challenges, it becomes painfully obvious that we’re neither self-sufficient nor in-charge. And that’s a tough place to be.
But I’ve come to realize that this place is precisely where grace is most apparent. When we acknowledge our helplessness and work to allow ourselves to be recipients of grace, we become more aware of our own vulnerabilities, which in turn can make us more aware of the needs and vulnerabilities of others.
I’m still working on becoming a better recipient of grace. Amidst the discomfort, the indebtedness, and the guilt, I’m striving to be grateful for the gifts and the fact that I’m around to receive them. And on my really good days, I try to participate in grace making itself known in lives beyond my own, especially those where suffering and grief seem to have the upper hand, even as I know they’re struggling as well with being a recipient of that lovely—and uncomfortable—gift called grace.