My cancer has been promoted: I’m officially in stage 4. My doctors have found two cancerous nodules—a euphemism for “small tumors”—one on each of my lungs. I started chemo this week. Next week, I’ll see a thoracic surgeon who will, sometime this summer, cut those tumors out. Needless to say, this isn’t good news—though, thanks to medical advances (especially, thanks to those evil drug companies that politicians regularly attack), it isn’t disastrous news either. We’ll see what the future brings.
I don’t have any previous experience with this sort of thing, but judging from what I hear and read, I’m supposed to be asking why all this is happening, and why it’s happening to me. Honestly, those questions are about the farthest thing from my mind.
Partly, that’s because they aren’t hard questions. Why does our world have gravity? Why does the sun rise in the East? There are technical answers, but the metaphysical answer is simple: that’s how reality works. So too here. Only in the richest parts of the rich world of the twenty-first century could anyone entertain the thought that we should expect long, pain-free lives. Suffering and premature death (an odd phrase: what does it mean to call death “premature”?) are constant presences in the lives of most of the peoples of the Earth, and were routine parts of life for generations of our predecessors in this country—as they still are today, for those with their eyes open. Stage 4 cancers happen to middle-aged men and women, seemingly out of the blue, because that’s how reality works.
As for why this is happening to me in particular, the implicit point of the question is an argument: I deserve better than this. There are two responses. First, I don’t—I have no greater moral claim to be free from unwanted pain and loss than anyone else. Plenty of people more virtuous than I am suffer worse than I have, and some who don’t seem virtuous at all skate through life with surprising ease. Welcome to the world. Once again, it seems to me that this claim arises from the incredibly unusual experience of a small class of wealthy professionals in the wealthiest parts of the world today. We think we live in a world governed by merit and moral desert. It isn’t so. Luck, fortune, fate, providence—call it what you will, but whatever your preferred label, it has far more to do with the successes of the successful than what any of us deserves. Aristocracies of the past awarded wealth and position based on the accident of birth. Today’s meritocracies award wealth and position based on the accident of being in the right place at the right time. The difference is smaller than we tend to think. Once you understand that, it’s hard to maintain a sense of grievance in the face of even the ugliest medical news. I’ve won more than my share of life’s lotteries. It would seem churlish to rail at the unfairness of losing this one—if indeed I do lose it: which I may not.
The second response is simpler; it comes from the movie “Unforgiven.” Gene Hackman is dying, and says to Clint Eastwood: “I don’t deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.” Eastwood responds: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
That gets it right, I think. It’s a messed-up world, upside-down as often as it’s rightside up. Bad things happen; future plans (that house Hackman was building) come to naught. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
Why, then, are we so prone to think otherwise? This is one of the biggest reasons I believe my faith is true: something deep within us expects, even demands moral order—in a world that shouts from the rooftops that no such order exists. Any good metaphysical theory must explain both of those phenomena: both the expectation and the lack of supporting evidence for the thing expected. The only persuasive way to get there, I think, is to begin with a world made good that was twisted, corrupted, bent. Buried deep in our hearts are hints of the way things ought to be; the ugliest reality can’t snuff them out. Still, that reality exists; it can’t be denied. Christianity sees that reality, recognizes it for what it is—but also sees the expectation, and recognizes where it comes from.
Bottom line: I don’t need anyone to tell me why I’m in the situation I’m in, and I certainly don’t think I merit an exemption from the rottenness to which the rest of the world is subject.
But I do need to know some things. Three, to be precise: first, that I’m not alone; second, that my disease has not made me ugly to those I love and to the God who made me; and third, that somehow, something good can come from this. My faith tells me that the God of the universe suffered everything I suffer and infinitely worse. Death and suffering don’t separate human beings from our Creator—on the contrary: those things unite us with our Creator. The barrier became the bridge: that is the great miracle of the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection. So I need never suffer alone. Job’s story confirms that, far from rejecting the ugliness of disease and pain, God embraces those who suffer and takes on their suffering. Beauty and ugliness are turned inside-out. Joseph’s story and the gospels alike show a God who delights to use the worst things to produce the best things. That doesn’t make life’s hells less than hellish. But it does make them bearable.
This isn’t just whistling in the dark—at least, I hope it isn’t. It all makes sense to me: it fits the world I see and feel, with all its shades of glory and misery. And it answers the questions my soul cries out. “Why” isn’t one of those questions.