I’ve been reflecting a bit lately on how life works. Some people believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe far too much in free will to swallow that angle, and I cannot bear the idea that experiences like rape, leukemia, and murder are part of some pre-ordained plan. No. But I do believe that we can choose to travel through life with bitter gall choking us over the inevitable times we have been let down or injured (by life, by God, by other people, by ourselves), or we can choose to be open to, and to seek, the good that can come out of what happens to us. Grief, anger, loss, sadness—they have their place and are important emotions to allow ourselves to experience. But if we lose our ability to believe that what has happened may lead us to something good, then what do we have left?
In a simple word, it’s hope that we must leave a place for at the table of our lives. Shortly after I had my first surgery for cancer, my best friend asked me what I wanted for Christmas that year. I wanted (and got) a necklace with a tiny silver charm that simply said ‘hope.’ (I wear it, now, as a reminder to myself on days when I feel overwhelmed or weary.) I painted ‘hope’ in purple, my favorite color, on some wooden alphabet blocks I bought at a craft store, and put the word up in my room. (Those blocks have been transferred to my new bedroom each time I move.) When I got sick, I didn’t know what was coming. There were many times I was lost and afraid. But I had to retain hope that something good could, and would, come out of it. Not necessarily something better than the location I had thought my life was headed, but some place good nonetheless.
When I had cancer, I was dating a chef. We dated for three years and were engaged for a time before we broke up. He was there for me through my cancer. He was very brave for me, or seemed that way, but he was also paralyzed by it, in a way, because he had lived a very unstable life, and here inside this stability I had helped provide him, he was looking at losing everything he had gained. And I’m sure he felt trapped, as well, wanting to care for me but wanting to be free to have an easier life than I had then. Our life together became skewed by the illness, by our family histories, by enormous differences in how we saw things, by the financial disaster we created together. Eventually, he cheated on me. When we broke up, despite his initial efforts to the contrary, I had no desire to have contact with him anymore, and I haven’t. I met the man who would become my husband soon thereafter and didn’t look back.
And I’m not sure he and I could be friends after everything, or if I would even want that. But I think about him sometimes lately, and have dreamed about him several times, because he brought something to my life that has proved invaluable. When I met him, I enjoyed baking, but I wasn’t terribly experimental with or good at cooking. In the time we were together, I grew to enjoy exploring various wide-flung cuisines and to appreciate culinary techniques small and large. With his encouragement, after I grew sick, I adopted a diet that grew more and more focused on organic foods and whole foods. Being around him, absorbing what he had to offer me, expanded my mind. It paved the way for me to be able to adopt a diet focused on local foods, and then to be able to embrace the various restrictions that celiac disease and food allergies have brought me. After I finish graduate school, what I learned from him might end up providing the seed for a business idea that I have percolating in my head. And even if that doesn’t pan out, it has provided so much fodder for what I offer to myself and others by writing on this blog.
I couldn’t have seen that coming, but I’m grateful.
I got in a friend’s car today to go over to swim at the pool. She was listening to NPR when I climbed in her car, and my eyes grew wide as I realized that on NPR they were talking, rather in-depth, not just about Habitat for Humanity, but about the specific Habitat for Humanity affiliate where I work. They interviewed my newest homeowner (a lovely lady), and they mentioned my financial classes that help enable homeowners to be able to survive on meager incomes. My heart trilled.
I used to be terrible with money. I didn’t grow up learning how to manage it, and it terrified me. I made horrible decisions about money that had serious consequences for me. Over time, I realized the various errors of my ways and started following the financial baby steps that Dave Ramsey outlines in The Total Money Makeover. The process changed my life and changed my priorities. I realized how many of us live with an enormous burden of anxiety over our lack of ability with finances. I had taken a position with Habitat for Humanity at that point, and in my work for Habitat families, I spent a lot of time working with a financial planner to revamp our (rather flabby, then) financial classes to teach what I wanted the homeowners to know. At the start of every class, I always tell people, “Look, I know how scary this can be, because I was there. But we can get you to a good place if you adopt some certain practices and work at it every day. And the peace of mind you can attain will change your life if you do.” The homeowners who have since told me that they now sleep easy, that they have an emergency fund for the first time, that they are now contributing to retirement, that they are no longer taking on credit card debt—all of that comes, at least partly, out of what I have worked so hard to teach them. To hear on national radio a mention of my financial program and the good it does is extremely heartening. And the truth is, if I had never had the fear and misgivings over money that I had, I would never have known how important it is to help other people manage their finances.
I couldn’t have seen it coming, but I’m grateful.
I found out at the end of this week that I will need to have another surgery, my first in four years, an exploratory one. There’s no expectation that it will be related to any cancer return (though of course, I must admit, I have a bit of fear about it nonetheless); the issues I have been having may be related to scar tissue from previous surgeries, or there may be another (or multiple) causes. The surgery will, fortunately, be laparoscopic; it’s not as minor as I had originally thought, because my doctor expects me to be out of work for two weeks from it. Because of the nature of the surgery, she’s not sure yet how many incisions she will need to make nor how much pain I’ll have from what she cuts or removes. When she first mentioned the possibility of surgery, I asked if I could retrieve my husband from the waiting room so that he could be part of the conversation about it. My doctor agreed, of course, and when I returned with him, we resumed the conversation. As the doctor talked, I realized with a start that my husband might not be understanding as much of what the doctor was saying as I was. I followed her medical jargon with ease.
You see, growing up, I thought I wanted to become a doctor (a medical missionary, actually). So when I was in high school, I got involved in activities that would put me on a medical path. On top of a normal college-prep courseload, I got my CNA degree my senior year, thinking I would utilize it in college to get my foot in the door at hospitals. From 10th-12th grade, I was also part of a medical terminology quiz bowl team; I did regular drills of anatomical, surgical, and other medical phrases. I learned how to string together various medical prefixes and suffixes so that I could understand a medical term without even having to know the whole term on its own. . . .
When I got to college, I realized quickly that I actually had no interest in spending four years concentrating on biology and chemistry, and I sought out other ways to take care of people. But when I ended up in the hospital for the first time, and when I started to read cancer journals and do research online, it hit me that I understood far more of the jargon than most people would. The knowledge came from those high school experiences that focused on my pre-med dreams.
I couldn’t have seen what was coming, but I’m grateful.
I’m so grateful that I looked up the address of my medical studies teacher from high school, several years ago, and send her thank-you letter telling her how much that knowledge now meant to me.
We all have these moments and events in our lives. Things happen in ways that drag us back and give us difficult burdens to carry; we all have burdens that will be ours throughout life. But we also carry wisdom and knowledge and ability with us as we grow through life. It is essential that we stay open (or start to open ourselves) to possibility: to walk with hope that the good will arise, with faith that life will offer us meaning and wisdom, and with love that allows us to utilize these gifts for the good of ourselves and others.