“My cancer marker is still going down, now with natural healing.”- Jackie (mom)
“I expect nothing less.” – Sophie (daughter)
If you told me a year ago that I’d be thrilled to watch my eyelashes grow back in, I would have been horrified. But it’s true. Such is the resilience of the human spirit, to celebrate this little victory rising from the ashes of chemotherapy to treat ovarian cancer. Signs of growth propel us forward, and I’m not particularly unusual. I’ve watched others navigate the cancer journey with a combination of strength and grace that feels beyond human, looking from the outside. This is happening for too many people and way too many kids, many with stories that are tougher than mine.
I’ve come to understand that resilience is really a sign of humanity in action, whether we are struggling with a difficult health issue or a global pandemic that just won’t go away. We carry the seeds of resilience inside. In parched earth, they are watered by good company. Empathy helps our resilience grow. Ever been told, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Okay. So long as you are not alone. Even as he inspired that quote, Nietzsche showed how miserable it was to live isolated.
Not everyone can sit with others in painful places. It hurts. That’s what drives the desire to fix, deny, or put a positive spin on things. “You’ve always been so healthy! You’ll be fine!! I just know it.” Others’ pain triggers our own which is too often unresolved. Parents get a sharp lesson in this truth, over and over. It’s a lifetime sentence. When our kids are hurt, we hurt too. Sometimes we feel it’s most helpful to deny or try to metabolize difficult feelings for them. That’s not empathy, and it doesn’t build resilience. But when someone can lovingly hold space for difficult feelings to pass, remarkably, little by little they do. Empathy helps us move through fear, even when we can’t fix everything. What’s most memorable afterward is that we were not alone.
I’m not saying that challenges aren’t sometimes downright awful. The treatments for cancer are brutal. Cut. Poison. Burn. Surgery is an assault on the body, and it takes time for our subconscious to let that go. I hope chemotherapy is obsolete in my lifetime; it took every tool in the box to walk my body into the infusion center 7 times. From what I’ve seen, radiation doesn’t belong in the human repertoire either. What I’m saying is that when I reflect on that time now, what shows up in my body is the love and support (warmth and tingling around my heart) more than the physical pain and emotional fear (heaviness in my gut). I am not resilient alone. I am resilient because I was not alone. Empathy helps us move through pain, suffering, and fear and not be overwhelmed by it.
What makes this pandemic difficult for many of us (who are lucky enough to have shelter, food, and emotionally peaceful homes) is that it separates us from humanity in so many ways. It’s hard to connect with our people in the old ways now, and for a long time to come. We Zoom. We meet outside. We watch sports wearing masks. We don’t often get to hug, shake hands, or read facial cues. The kids are especially creative in these times. They drag TVs outside and bundle-up to watch movies together. They build forts, creek-walk, have picnics, do socially-distanced sleepovers in tents, and go on hikes (stuff they might have scoffed at otherwise as teenagers). Even though we love to celebrate individual resilience in kids especially, they are getting through this pandemic together.
All this celebration of resilience belies a problem though, especially vis a vis the kids.
Resilience is all the rage. We love to talk about how well today’s kids are weathering the pandemic…the toxic national dialogue, lock-down drills, increasing food sensitivities/allergies/health issues, bullying, intense competition getting into college followed by the disappointment of online school, the challenge of finding a job in these very strange days, the impact of racism…or [insert your challenge here]. “The kids will build a better future!” we say, but aren’t we responsible for building the future they face now?! We can’t abdicate that responsibility now.
Cancer is similar. We love to root for people to “beat the $*&^ out of this horrid disease!” Not everyone does, and it’s not their fault or their bodies’ fault. The rise in cancer isn’t an opportunity for more people to practice resilience so much as a flashing red danger sign about the toxic soup we’ve created around ourselves. So many of our challenges are human-made problems. Rather than constantly celebrating the various gymnastics more and more of us do to overcome these challenges – to be resilient in the face of trauma – how about we focus even more on getting rid of the upstream causes?
When it comes to resilience, few people can encourage my personal healing more authentically than our daughter. Sophie started getting hemiplegic migraines at age 11. She healed herself naturally over the course of the next several years. I helped. It wasn’t easy. So, from that deep place of experiencing the power of natural healing, persevering in the midst of the fear and pain, and knowing me/her mom, she is one of the only people who could get away with saying, “I expect nothing less” about my progress. She’s earned it. I relish it. I actually laughed!
We can never escape pain and suffering completely. Human beings don’t live forever, so there is no life without loss or love without grief. Still, how much pain and suffering are we not just abiding but MANUFACTURING, directly or indirectly, at close range and from a distance?
- How do our words and actions contribute to or minimize emotional and physical toxicity and trauma in our families, with our colleagues, and out into the world? Including social media. Including using your voice to vote.
- How does our economic system incentivize mental and physical wellbeing vs disease? We can’t change everything, but we all have some power to choose how we take care of our bodies and our families…what we take in, how we spend time, whether we empathize with the natural design or not.
- What else do you see upstream of the traumas you have endured? Start there.
Let’s continue to celebrate resilience.
We will always need it. And the emotional wherewithal to move through pain without folding will always be a function of empathy – tapping into the stores we built as children, then replenish as adults in loving company. BUT, let’s take some of our energy and ask, what should we change so no one ever has to go through this &^% again?! Then, change it. Too much suffering is manmade and entirely unnecessary.
Every generation wants the next to have a better life. Continuing to beat the drum of resilience makes a hollow sound, if we don’t combine it with work aimed at smashing sources of manmade suffering we can see and could change. I wonder what that could be for you. Not everything at once. Just. One. Thing.
I find meaning in this surprise cancer journey by reflecting on this often dark space, bearing witness, and doing inside-out research on alternative forms of healing that are scientifically sound. From the inside, there is more clarity about what has to change. Right? We don’t have to fix everything, but we can choose something we know intimately and do something, no matter how small. Change is hard, but we can be resilient together. We can heal.
We should expect nothing less.
Thanks to John LeMay for taking the photo (see his reflection?), edits to this post, and helping me be resilient.
For more on how empathy can help us build a better world, check out Jackie’s book: Currency of Empathy – The Secret to Thriving in Business and Life