People looked at me differently after I survived ovarian cancer. What was different about me? And then, years later, after a major stroke, I seemed to achieve expert status, as if I were a specialist in life-threatening illness, suffering and survival. As if I knew something other people didn’t. These presumptions, it turns out, were not unreasonable.
Suffering, whether through serious illness or overwhelming loss, opens a window onto the truth of of who we are. We learn we are not just our worldly status—our education, our job titles, our houses and, especially, not our children’s successes. Any of these achievements can be erased in one inglorious moment. Who we really are is more sacred and it often takes dissent into the depths of despair to understand this is where joy becomes available to us—a sustaining joy not vulnerable to outer circumstances. As David Brooks writes in his latest book, The Road to Character, “The pleasure in suffering is that you are getting beneath the superficial and approaching the fundamental.” In other words, getting closer to the truth. We accept, rather than fight, the unpredictability of life. It teaches us that control is an illusion and that letting go of pain allows grace to flood in. It’s how we get to acceptance and open the door to hope. It’s where we can heal, even if we are not cured.
Grief forces us to confront the fact that we can’t determine its course. According to Brooks, “Even when tranquility begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where that relief comes from. The healing process feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.” He does not mean that in a purely religious sense. He goes on to say, “People in this circumstance also have a sense that they are swept up in some larger providence.” They have suffered for a greater purpose and begin to hear a calling to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Something that connects you to and helps the wider community.
Sharing my story about the loss of my young mother when I was four, about surviving ovarian cancer in my 30s, and, years later, surviving and recovering from a major stroke connects me to the wider community. This feels like my sacred place. My hope is that my narrative eases the pain of others going through their own challenges. Not by comparison, but in solidarity. Not in despair, but with hope.