Saturday, May 13, 2006

Life isn't fair- and whose fault is that?

Update, 2009: the Cancer Baby blog has now been taken down, and people searching for it often end up here. What follows is wrote I wrote at the time of her death, and was a reaction to what I felt was mistaken rhetoric adopted by her virtual well-wishers which implied that they hadn't understood her stance.

I have written before about Cancer, baby who faced the dark prospects of infertility, cancer and death with wit and honesty. For several months now she had been ominously silent, and has now died. And the world is poorer for it: we need sensible people who can write.

I have no great belief in the power of wishful thinking or blind optimism, but a lot of people do. If you read the Comments to her more harrowing posts you will see that there were many readers out there praying to God for her to recover (she knew her odds were bad). I guess they just didn't pray hard enough, or weren't good enough, or she had been too evil in some way (and more evil than all the other evil people who somehow wander around prospering and flagrantly unsmitten making everyone else's life worse), or (and this is the most revolting option), she died because He wanted her to, reducing her to some minion that can be sacrificed in pursuit of some greater aim. I do not believe that any ends can justify such means. "If you're suffering, it's because God wants you to" isn't really very comforting.

When people explain why prayers are not answered, they usually say something like "If people were given everything they asked for they would never learn responsibility for themselves". Oddly, they assume that people would automatically ask for things that benefit them directly. I saw on one blog someone tell the story of a discussion in the run-up to Christmas when a four-year-old was asked what they wanted as a present: the reply "that all the children in the world have clothes and enough to eat" put something of a damper on the consumer binge in the ensuing theological contortions. I know you could argue that such requests are in the end selfish because they would make the praying person feel better, but that is surely stetching it: you might as well say that God shouldn't make sunsets beautiful because people enjoy them.

None of this is news, of course. But it is so easy to respond to tragedy with formulations that seek some greater meaning or deny the reality of loss ("they're still out there somewhere", "they're smiling in Heaven": they are DEAD, they are GONE).

No. Shit happens, and happens all the time. It just does, not "Because..." or even "In spite of...". All you can do is hope that it doesn't happen to you for as long as possible, and accept, with whatever grace you can muster, that it eventually will.

And if Cancer Baby's sad and cruel end has helped hundreds of people realise this then she she did not suffer in vain. So that's all right then. No, it's not. The undertaking business really picked up after all the stockbrokers committed suicide in the Wall Street Crash, but even the undertakers would rather it hadn't.

It is hard for those who are suffering, and even harder for those who care for them, to cope with the idea that the suffering serves no purpose, that is is just stuff, that a night of pain was just a night of pain; it didn't purify or clarify or sanctify, it was just a bad experience that one would be better off not having had. But just because it's hard, that doesn't mean it's wrong. This isn't just what I believe- she did too. I'll miss her.


As you can see below, my comment on Cancer Baby's blog has been criticised as insensitive. It wasn't my intention to cause any additional anguish to her family and friends, but rather to remind the large number of blog readers without any direct involvement of Cancer Baby's doctrine that one should face reality as it is rather than more comfortable illusion, in which she explicitly (and courageously) renounced heroism and victimhood. Perhaps the only thing that we can salvage from the trials of life is the determination to learn from them; it is a good thing to re-examine our core beliefs from time to time and to think hard about what they imply.

Having said that, I also recognise that there is a time and place for such debates, and there should be a choice about how one reacts, and that this was an error. I tried shortly after posting it, and again just now, to delete or edit my comment, but it appears to be indelible. Post in haste, repent at leisure.


Jessy said...

I don't necesarrily disagree with you - I find prayers and maudlin poems of little use during sad times, and roll my eyes inside when people tell me that they're praying for my mother as she dies from cancer.

But your comment on cancerbaby's blog was needlessly cruel , almost HOPING to make people "feel bad and lost" (to which you added "then good"). The thing with mourning is that everyone has their own way of doing it, and telling someone that their way is wrong only adds to the hurt. So unless that was your goal, I don't think you've accomplished what you intended.

Linda said...

I, too, am an atheist, a position that I came to very shortly after starting my medical internship. There's no plan, there's no God orchestrating each of our tiny little lives, and suffering definitely has no higher purpose. But I find it petty and rude that you would post such an obnoxious comment to the notice of cancerbaby's death. It should be obvious to you that you aren't going to change anyone's position on the afterlife by sniping at them when they're grieving. Did it make you feel better? I'm sure that Jessica's family will find little comfort in reading your message.

Janis said...

When my daughter died I hated hearing platitudes of how she was bettr off, in a place of love and comfort, sitting with god, etc. The words sounded trite and felt empty. There was no comfort in them.

Even now, nearly 3.5 years later, I still find them of little comfort.

My child is dead. She's not with the angels. She's not on a distant shore. She's dead. No cute little saying will make that change.

God? What god? In what reality is there a god who lets such horrid things happen? Beautiful people dying agonizing deaths from cancer, teens taking their own lives? On and on it goes. There is no god.

If it gives some people warm fuzzies to believe it, fine. Just not for me.

I didn't think your comments were out of line. Honesty is never out of line.

monika said...

I don't think the sentiment was inappropriate in and of itself; from what I know of Jessica, limited though it was, I feel fairly certain that she would share your view. There was really only one line that was inappropriate; the rest of it was fine. Since Jessica had a "take no prisoners" sort of way about her, I think she would have appreciated it.

Me, I am too afraid to post what I am really thinking on her site, and so I will share it with you, since it feels somehow "safe".

The post of Jessica's that has never left me is "But Then I Saw the Donkey". It is literally seared into me. She described precisely what it feels like to have had a diagnosis of cancer... the fear that revisits at the most unexpected moments, the sense of being seperate and apart from the rest of life.

What torments me is wondering what it was like for her to face that donkey - for real this time. We will never know, and since she did not choose to write about it, it is not our place to know. But having cared about her, I cannot help but care about how this ultimate confrontation went for her. Cancer robbed her of a full life, and fear, anger and bitterness would be normal under the circumstances. But I really hope that she did not die feeling that way, did not die with regrets. I hope that the love which surrounded her was able to help her see that her life was full and rich and well-lived, but there is no way of knowing.

And platitudes are of no help.

Kathy said...

I don't necessarily disagree with you, but I don't necessarily agree either.

Our family lost a niece to brain cancer. She was diagnosed when she was three, and she died when she was four.

Now my son has a tumor.

I could fill a book on the harebrained things that people have said and done.

As for the "she's in a better place" people, I tell them, I pray hard that she is in a better place, but whether she is or whether she isn't, her parents and loved ones most certainly aren't in a better place, and they never will be, at least not for the remainder of their earthly lives.

But harebrained comments aside, it boils down to the simple fact that even if you are the victim of some tragedy, you still need to be nice.

You need to look at the motivations of the people making the comments. It's like mind-reading, you can't really listen to the words, you have to look into their hearts.

Most mean well, they really do. Their comments usually have two purposes, one to comfort you, the other to comfort themselves. These tragic situations are hard on everyone, not only those going through it.

I love my family and friends. Sometimes their comments irritate me, but I try to see the hurt behind the comment and sometimes it is me who is comforting them.

I forgive them, just as I want to be forgiven for my own nastiness during certain stressful moments.

Only one woman I haven't forgiven, but if she ever apologized, I'd forgive her too. She was the woman who ran the pre-baptismal seminar I'd taken my son to before his baptism.

On first learning of his brain cancer, she said perkily, "Well, at least you had him baptised. He's good to go now."

It's her loss really, she's the one who hasn't a clue. If she ever finds herself in a similar situation, she'll understand.

You did right by apologizing for making those comments in that setting. Just as we want to honor Jessica, we can honor her best by respecting and comforting her friends and those who loved her, even if the comments are banal.

My heart breaks for the loss of Jessica, whom I have never met. Such an intelligent and compassionate woman, such a good writer, such a generous person to share her journey with the world.

Anonymous said...

The boat analogy is one that brings some people peace.

When my mom died, it brought me some measure of peace.

That doesn't mean I was pretending anything was brighter than it actually was. I saw her empty glassy eyes and the gauntness of her face. I saw a living woman who was already dead. I saw her last breath. I have no illusions about death from cancer. I was there.

But I have also seen the beauty in a dignified death. I've seen a mother surrounded by her children, slowly disengaging from this world. I've seen pain ending and I've felt the peace associated with that.

If people believe the dead go somewhere else, why would you begrudge them that belief? Everyone is going to die - and unless you can stop that from happening then I think you ought let people find a way through the tragedy however they can manage to. It would be heartless to take that away from them.