I spent the evening of my 19th wedding anniversary either in pain or cuddled up to my dog half stoned on Percoset while my wife looked on helpless as I ached. I tell you this because every time I post something about my treatment, or my progress through lymphoma, my Facebook page is met by comments about being brave or being in inspiring. I am neither. I am obedient, desperate to live, and have little choice but to bear the aches, shivers, tiredness, insomnia, constipation, hairlessness, muscle spasms, nausea, and randomness of chemo other than to die.
There is nothing noble about cancer. There is nothing ennobling about cancer. I think people seek to create some aura of sacrifice around it because unlike some diseases, it is random, and impossible to blame on the victim’s behavior. It is also scary, and we all hope that if we come down with cancer, we will act nobly.
Cancer does not make me noble. It makes me afraid and sick. It makes me every day make promises of redemption to my family, friends, and co-workers. “Next year, we’ll do our anniversary in Hawaii,” “next birthday we’ll have a big party,” “next time I teach I’ll pay more attention.” My life has increasingly become a promissory note; one conditioned upon survival.
In the past I wrote about using cancer not as an excuse, but as a motivation to engage, and live. What I know now is that excuse must be tempered by the realities of toxic chemicals and a race to kill the cancer before the treatment kills me. I have no doubt that I will live, and that I will make that trip to Hawaii, and that I will pay more attention, but that will not be the automatic result of cancer, or some ennobling trauma. That will be a choice, and that will be hard work.
I have been blessed in my career to come to a point where people I highly respect seek my advice. I have, over these months talked, and schemed, and commiserated with people in their own fights. They don’t fight out-of-control cell growth, or the side effects of drugs, but their own circumstances. A leader overrun by bureaucracy. A new employee discovering a work environment not living up to promises. A dear friend making decisions between jobs and family. A director faced with a staff unwilling to see the future. None of these are ennobling. None of these trials get the sympathy and unconditional sightings of bravery of a cancer diagnosis. Yet I have seen in all of these situations an opportunities to be noble, and brave.
Too often we look at the roles we choose in our work life as either necessities or reduce them to matters of salary. We forget that each activity we engage in, by choice, or by fate, is an opportunity to better ourselves, and be better than we thought we could be. Every encounter with out dated thinking or ignorance is an invitation to educate, not just walk away. Every bad situation is a call to either improve it, or leave it, and both options can be legitimate.
We too often reserve concepts of nobility for the few and the extraordinary. Yet there is nobility in the everyday, and in every task we take on. There is nobility in bureaucracy, there is nobility in the minimum wage, there is nobility in the entry level, and the home, and in play. It comes not from suffering, but in our ability to serve, and the cashing in of our IOU’s…sometimes waiting for a capabilities to return to do so.
Stop calling me brave. Come back in a year and see if my actions inspire, or ennoble. Until then, I will take your prayers and your food, and your well wishes. But mostly what I want is your stories of bravery. It is from those that I draw my strength.