Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mortality II: Strong, Brave, Weak, Scared

Serious illness is often met with words like "courageous," or "strong." These are qualities that are worth cultivating. They are, I'll agree, virtues.

I find myself wondering what that looks like. There are ways that my education lets me distract myself with questions of "performance." Performance theory, which has to do with all our roles in life, not just what happens on a stage, has me asking questions of myself, "how does one perform 'courage'?" Or "how shall I convey 'strength'?"

Which isn't to say courage and strength are simply poses we strike. They may be, or they may be learned, practiced, embodied qualities, just as learning, for example, good customer service skills. There are authentic performances we give every day.

And I ask myself these questions because I think how we face personal issues like a mass on a pancreas (which isn't cancerous, I remind myself constantly) is or can be some kind of witness or even model to those around us. I mean that religiously and without religion. I do find my faith to give me a certain perspective on this event and I want to "perform" that well. I think courage and strength are part of that witness. I also think it's helpful to other people, regardless of religion, to see a way to react to life-threatening news that isn't simply falling apart. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Because honestly, during that period between hearing "you have a mass on your pancreas" and hearing, "ti's not cancer," I can't say I was completely on board with the strong and brave thing. I don't know that I ever really fell apart, but I definitely had a few days there where I was trying to decide how to live out whatever months/weeks I might yet have. That's scary. And a little infuriating. But then we probably know that fear and anger are often sibling emotions, if not two sides of the same coin.

Mixing metaphors aside, I began to think that there is also a witness in admitting to being vulnerable and scared. To say anything else is, indeed, play-acting, performing in a less authentic sense of the word. As I like to say, denial is a defense mechanism and we sometimes need defenses, but I also know that's not a place to stay. If I'm to be strong and brave, there's a journey to make through admitting that I'm weak, vulnerable, scared.

And really, if the situation isn't scary, what do I need courage for?

In general, I'm doing pretty well. I think. I feel I'm doing pretty well.

But the surgeon has to tell you all the ways things can go wrong and so I know there are ways the coming operation can go terribly wrong. I remind myself all day long that the terribly wrong ways things can go are also not all that likely. I have an experienced surgeon who does this surgery regularly. There's every reason to believe I'll be just another uneventful day in the office for him.

All of which to say: I wish to be strong and brave, even while admitting I'm weak and scared. I want to be truthful about both ends of that emotional spectrum. I swing between both ends a couple times a day.

I also wish, and I'll end on this note, to both warn and confess to the friends closest around that this swinging is going on. They probably already know. They should also know  . . . no, I won't do this in a passive voice.

Friends, you are the reasons I can find the courageous end of the spectrum. Thank you for being there through the weak and scared moments. Forgive me if I happen to swing too quickly between the two ends.

That's all.

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