Can You Make Meaning of Madness?: The Why Cancer, Why Me Issue

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we would never have found out that it has no meaning; just as, if there was no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.” –C.S.Lewis

The Madness of Cancer

Does anyone else feel the sudden intensified pressure to make meaning of their life? Or perhaps more accurately, to make their life meaningful? I have always wanted to make something of myself, but lately I feel a bit panicky about it. I don’t want to label it a “bucket list” mentality, because that would mean that on some level I suspect I might die (even with the odds against it), but that is what it feels like. Like my life “to do” list is not getting done and may never get done.

I’ve written before about needing to make sense of having a disease. Of needing it to fit within my “everything happens for a reason” comfort zone. Something like, what good is having cancer if you can’t make something of it? Does that sound as insane as it feels?

This need is part of the reason I have been returning to community service, which, regrettably, I have foregone since high school. My church hosts an Agape Meal every week and for about six weeks now I have been serving or table hosting. All the local poor and homeless are invited to come enjoy a sit-down family-style meal for an evening. It’s not exactly grueling labor, but it’s both difficult and rewarding for me because it takes me out of my comfort zone.

My mother and I lived in a homeless shelter when I was very young. I don’t remember the experience at all, but this knowledge has molded me as a constant “count your blessings” reminder. I cannot look at a homeless person without imagining myself in their place. A lot of people I know and love, my husband included, are “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” meritocracy types, but I have always known that I am just a few short steps or misfortunes from being back there.

Last week at the meal, I met a young man who had an eerily similar bad year to mine. In one year he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lost his health insurance, lost his job and had his bank accounts wiped out. He said that these misfortunes were “his story,” and that no good story is devoid of conflict. As every writer knows, conflicts are often the make or break of a good story. This man's conflicts led him to change his life, become a preacher, and share his story with everyone he meets.

In truth, his story is scarier than mine. But I’m still a tad bit jealous. After all, he got his meaning. His disease really did turn his life around. I am pretty much the exact same person I was before, doing a lot of the same things.

Before I went into the hospital for my surgery, I was half convinced I was going to die. (After you are diagnosed with cancer, pessimism starts to look more and more like pragmatism). So I vowed never to waste another moment of my life doing stupid trivial things like watching TV or reading Yahoo articles. But I still watch an unhealthy amount of TV and I read two completely useless Yahoo articles today, one on spouses who cheat (which ironically belied it’s thesis of “you shouldn’t” with five examples of women who are happier because they did), and one about how having a dog prepares you for having a baby (most if not all also apply to cats). Thank god I don’t have an iPhone.

Am I still wasting my life? Certainly large portions of it could be better spent. But I think if I tried to make every single moment count, I would go insane (or more insane). It’s just too much pressure to operate under. And many of my recent experiences have been meaningful, even if I haven’t quite yet figured out what the meaning is.

My experiences with the homeless have changed. I am used to seeing someone on a corner and feeling that instant combination of heartbreak, shame, and fear. I’ll give them money and feel guilty for not doing more or look straight ahead, ashamed because I cannot or should not be giving away money.

But now, it isn’t just seeing some guy on the corner. It’s Malcolm, whom I broke bread with not an hour before. Or Suzie, whose oldest boy (of five) just turned fourteen. I’m not at all sure that my volunteering for an hour has any lasting impact on their lives. But I’m hoping these little changes make an impact on mine. Then maybe one day I can say, “Yes, it was hard, but it made me a better person.”

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