I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook. I try to sign in a few times a week so that I don’t miss birthdays and major life events and the occasional message that someone sends me, but I’m not a very good Facebook friend. (I’m sorry if I missed your birthday – it was probably one of those times when I didn’t sign into Facebook for two weeks.) However, as I was scrolling through Facebook as 2021 ended, I saw a post from a college classmate that referred to an essay by Brian Doyle entitled, “On Not ‘Beating’ Cancer.” It was one of those times that invites you to believe that Facebook has its positive side. Doyle wrote,
Finally, this morning, enough — I read one too many journalistic references to someone’s “beating” cancer, as if cancer was an opponent to be defeated, an enemy to be conquered, a battle in which courage often wins the day.
It is a lie. Cancer is to be endured, that’s all. The best you can hope for is to fend it off, like a savage dog, but cancer isn’t defeated, it only retreats, is held at bay, retires, bides its time, changes form, regroups.. . .
I know a young man with brain cancer. He’s 16 years old. He isn’t battling his cancer. He is enduring it with the most energy and creativity and patience he can muster. He says the first year he had cancer was awful because of the fear and vomiting and surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and utter exhaustion. But he says that first year was also wonderful because he learned to savor every moment of his days. He met amazing people he would never have met, and his family and friends rallied behind him with ferocious, relentless humor. He learned he was a deeper and stronger and more inventive and more patient soul than he had ever imagined. . . .
Maybe if we celebrate grace under duress rather than the illusion of total victory we will be less surprised and more prepared when illness and evil lurch into our lives, as they always will; and maybe we will be a braver and better people if we know we cannot obliterate such things, but only wield oceans of humor and patience and creativity against them.
We have an untold supply of those extraordinary weapons, don’t you think? (To read the entire essay go to www.oregonlive.com/opinion/2009/01/on_not_beating_cancer.html)
Almost all of us know someone who endured cancer, and many people reading this have endured cancer themselves. Does this thinking resonate with you? It makes sense to me, and, I think this wisdom applies to more than cancer, hence, the title of this newsletter article. We are all tired after almost two years of the pandemic. Many of us are grieving the loss of loved ones, recovering from illness, or worried about our economic future. Almost all of us are just plain worn out. Does anyone think we are going to “beat” COVID? Even if a magic drug were invented tomorrow that made COVID disappear, could we
say we “beat” it? Maybe. But I think it would be more accurate to say that we endured it. We are continuing to endure it, and we will endure it until it is no longer such a threat.
The idea that we can “beat” cancer or COVID or any other life threatening condition may seem attractive. Americans are tough, independent people. We get things done! But sometimes, one is over-matched. Even if we can survive cancer and live through a time of being intubated and having respirators breathe for us due to a serious bout of COVID, one day there will be something that beats us. None of us is going to live forever in our present form. Eventually death beats all of us.
That may sound very grim and depressing, and it would be if we were engaged in a battle with death which we had a chance to win with overwhelming force. But we’re not. None of us is going to “beat” death. There is one person who beat death, not by avoiding it, but by enduring it, by moving though the pain and the suffering and the darkness to new life. Jesus didn’t beat death by calling down ten thousand angels to set him free from the Romans who were crucifying him. Jesus overcame death by embracing it and overcoming darkness with light and hatred with love. Jesus died. And Jesus rose again. We will die. And we will rise again. That’s the way God works.
In our lives, we face a lot of challenges. I suppose sometimes it is appropriate to use the metaphor of a fight or battle. It is more than a little ironic that Doyle ends his essay with the words, “We have an untold supply of those extraordinary weapons, don’t you think?” And, thanks to Christ who lives in us, we do have an inexhaustible supply of miraculous weapons so that death and despair do not crush us: faith, humor, patience, creativity, love, gratitude, and courage. When we face the overwhelming threat of impending death, it is worth bringing out everything in our medical arsenal: treatments, surgery, chemo, respirators. They have their place, an important place. But we also need to remember that the image of the fight has its limitations, and we have gifts more powerful than mere determination or will power to overcome enemies that are relentless.
In 2017, eight years after he wrote “On Not ‘Beating’ Cancer,” Brian Doyle was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. He was told that surgery and radiation and chemo might give him another year or two, but the cancer could not be cured. He described it as “a big honkin’ brain tumor.” When asked what people could do for him, he said, “I’ll hear all laughter. Be tender to each other. Be more tender than you were yesterday, that’s what I would like. You want to help me? Be tender and laugh.” In another interview shortly before he died, he said, “If I could say anything to anyone, I would say thank you.”
We know that death is unavoidable. As Christians, we can and should make the most of the resources we have to preserve life, for it is precious. But we are not in a war against death. That war has already been won. And because Jesus has already won the victory, when it seems like death is going to have the last word, we can bring to bear the gifts we have been given: love, tenderness, laughter, faith. I have been present when people have known that death was near, and I’ve been present with many families soon after a loved one died. More often than not, when family and friends are gathered, there is tenderness and love and even laughter. There is gratitude for a life well-lived and memories that were made. We are sad but not despairing. Because we know the truth. We can’t “beat” death, but we can trust in the One who conquered death, and that is the path to Life