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Living Weak--Stuntz

“Live strong” is a common slogan among cancer patients. I think I understand the slogan’s appeal, and I admire the spirit that lies behind it. But it doesn’t fit my experience, and I suspect I’m not alone.

Reduced life expectancy aside, the chief consequence of stage 4 cancers—even more, the chief consequence of their treatment—is weakness, not strength. Cancer and chemotherapy, taken together, are exhausting. Walking up a flight of stairs feels to me like running a couple of miles would feel to a typical out-of-shape 50-year-old, which is what I would be if I were healthy. All mental exercises are several times harder than they used to be. Concentrating takes real effort, and most of the time, I can’t pull it off—I have to read things twice (at least) in order to understand them once. My mind is two steps behind whatever conversation I’m in; I have to scramble to keep up. I feel half dead, as though a large fraction of whatever I was is gone, never to return.

In short, I can’t live strong, because there isn’t much strength left in me. But I can live weak.

What does that mean? Plenty of people could answer that question better than I can. I’m a beginner at this enterprise; I’m still learning the most elementary lessons. But there is one lesson I think I’ve learned, and it’s crucial. The lesson begins with the virtue of low standards.

Low standards sound more like vice than virtue. I spent most of my working life trying to set the bar as high as possible. Aim high—even if you don’t reach the target, you’ll do more and better than you would if the target wasn’t there. The higher the bar, the better the performance. For many years, I lived by that principle, as do most of my friends in a wide range of professions. Twenty-first century Americans push ourselves, and we push hard.

Only I can’t push anymore. The bar is no longer just out of reach; it’s on a different planet than the one where I live. Not so long ago, aiming high felt like a good motivational exercise, like an effective locker room pep talk. Now, it feels like telling a paralytic he can run around the block if only he’d try a little harder: the enterprise is at once cruel and pointless, and it motivates nothing more than despair. Maybe a better way to put the point is this: All my life, I’ve tried to do my best. Now, it seems that my best is gone; it doesn’t exist anymore. So I do what I can. I try not to aim at targets, and I try not to measure myself. Some days, I can’t read or write anything serious. Some days, I can. I do what I can, when I can. The bar has disappeared.

An interesting thing happens when you put aside all the yardsticks and just do what’s possible. Motivation changes. Work is no longer about achievement and reward. It’s more about love and beauty. There is something very powerful—C.S. Lewis might have called it deep magic—about working for love of the work itself: labor becomes less labored, more gift than obligation. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to put words on a computer screen—but the ability to do it now, even if only sometimes, is more precious than I can describe. I don’t know whether that makes the work better, but I’m pretty sure it makes me better.

Likewise, there is something inexpressibly lovely—notice that word’s first syllable—about ordinary tasks done for love of the tasks, and done while in the grip of a disease that seems determined to make those tasks impossible. It’s the beauty of a runner’s last marathon, the beauty of an aging athlete’s final game, the game he pours his soul into, as the best artists do in their best work. It may not be lovely to anyone else, and that’s OK by me: cancer is an ugly disease, in every possible way. No wonder people recoil from it. But in the midst of all its life-sapping, soul-destroying ugliness, something amazing can happen: the most ordinary things, the most mundane tasks, take on value and beauty beyond anything I could have imagined. Whether or not anyone else sees it, I see it. And that’s enough.

“Live strong” sounds to me like denial: I’m not strong, and pretending I am can’t change that fact. But I can live weak: do what I can, however small and ordinary, day by day. Some of the living—I wish it were more, but at the same time, I thank God for the “some”—is surprisingly good.

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Comments ( 13 )

As a critical care nurse and a Christian , I appreciate your honesty in your illness. The sermon at my church this am was on 2 Cor 1:3-11 , Paul's struggle with suffering and the promise of God's comfort in suffering and weakness. May God give you grace and strength and peace as you do what you can each day. In Him,Susan Hoyt

Thank you for sharing with such honesty.
Praise God for keeping you in Christ.

My wife has been battling cancer for a year and this post was so refreshing and God honoring. In our weakness we are strong , in Christ by His grace . All we have heard is positive thinking, stay strong but there have been days when you cannot be. She has made great strides but there are days when one cannot be strong. Thanks for your brutal honesty and courage to be so.

Bill--

I think the key word to remember is "live" and to live life as fully as you can at any point in time. Having cared for critically ill and tiny, premature infants over the past 20+ years, they do the same. They are, by their very nature, unable to "live strong" but amazingly enough, they live and thrive, and bring love and joy to their families and others who care for them.And you are right, it is tough to those of us, who have over the years set rather high standards for ourselves to set that bar lower. But I am here to say, that sometimes, in the big scheme of things, it feels good to let go of some of those expectations. It has worked for me, recently.....

Your writing is so powerful and beautiful, especially to those who have had painful experiences of having similar experiences with love ones. Thank you very much for being so strong (in spite of what you said here). Sun-Joo

Bill,

You remain a wonderfully articulate and thoughtful writer. Thanks again for your blogging, and for being as inspirational as you are.

Orin

Bill:

I appreciate your thoughtful words and unreserved honesty. You are a blessing to us. May the God whom you love and serve bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.

Jeff

Dear Bill,

Many thanks, Bill, for your powerful and refreshing article. I have read it several times to try to catch the deep meaning. It has certainly caused me to pause in my own life (which is often very busy) and evaluate what I am doing. You have captured the essence of Christ's words that when we are weak we are made strong and he that would be great in the kingdom would be the least. May I suggest a good follow-up to this article for readers is a sermon preached by Rev. Adam Brice on Sunday, May 11, 2008 on suffering and comfort at Tenth Presbyterian Church (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=512082130283). I have and do pray, Bill, for your health. George K. McFarland

Bill,

Living weak would have been a great motto for my father, during his struggle with Parkinsons. It humbled me to see him put aside a lifetime of struggle against great odds, and just live his life. I thought he would "rage, rage" against his altered circumstances. Instead, he taught me something about submission, and simple joy.

You are constantly in my prayers. But in the interest of complete candor, to which you have always been faithful, I have to say that you were out of breath from walking up a flight of stairs when you were in your twenties.

Mike

Bill,

My wife is in stage 2 breast cancer after having gone through a horrific surgery. Many thanks for your honesty. As you are able, please share what has benefitted you most from your loved ones and caregivers. There are times when I feel helpless as my wife goes through it--I imagine your loved ones are also experiencing this.
One thing that has not helped has been "Christian" TV; Joel Osteen and his so-called "positive" messages have been most irritating. As a Reformed Christian believer, it has been a comfort to re-discover that our Gospel is based on the theology of the Cross vs a theology of glory. I want to check out the sermon Dr. McFarland has recommended. May I also recommend a series of lectures Dr. Michael Horton gave at his Christ United Reformed Church on suffering at http://www.christurc.org/catechism.html
May the God of all comfort be with you, Bill, as He walks you through even this.

Bill:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the topic of "weakness" and doing so from a profoundly personal perspective. As always, you bring to any subject at hand a level of eloquence and insight that is somehow made more poignant through meekness. Yours is truly a rare gift.

On this particular subject, I find myself in resonance with your comments and with what the rest of the world may see as a paradoxical observation, i.e., that weakness can bring strength to a circumstance or event or even a vocation. I have been there (albeit in a less acute fashion). Like you, I have chosen an academically-oriented profession where strength and tireless persistence, along with a keen intellect, are requisite for success. I have done so, however, while "swimming against the tide" due to an on-going struggle with a chronic illness, one that always made even the normal tasks of my profession a challenge. I can still remember those long days in the lab during both my graduate work and postdoctoral training where fatigue and exhaustion would nearly overwhelm me and bring me to the brink of despair. Yet, I pushed on, thinking this is what "strong" people do while never allowing my shortcomings become a justification for my failure.

20 years later, I am no stronger and professionally of little consequence to anyone in the area of my scientific work. Sadly, I am as proud and defiant as the day I first started down this road. I have never given up on my vocational dream of somehow making a difference through my work, if only through some remote discovery or contribution. To this day, I cannot say that I have succeeded, but I can certainly say that I have imagined (oh so many times) how things may have been different if only I had been healthier, smarter, and, yes, "stronger." It is at this junction of regret and resignation that God has most often spoken to me about the paradox of strength in being weak, in not having to prove myself or striving after success. In moments such as these, He leaves no other option but to rely on His strength and to being more receptive/appreciative to the gifts that He has given me--gifts he has bestowed on me in all seasons and for the mysterious working of His glory.

Bill, we will continue to pray boldy for your healing and the Lord's strength during this time.

James

Dear Bill,

I wish that I had words to describe how sorry I am that you have had to face debilitating pain and now cancer. I appreciate how elegantly you expressed my dissatisfaction with the phrase "fighting" cancer.

As I read your narration on delight in the simple activities of life--like writing on your computer-I smiled because you speak with such wisdom. I am no longer able to teach because of my disease, and I have had to get used to very limited activities, but I too have learned the joy of doing today an activity that I would not have even noticed when I was in good health. I wish that I could give you a hug. Thinking of you, Bill. Kathy Urbonya

I appreciate your thoughtful words and unreserved honesty. You are a blessing to us. May the God whom you love and serve bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.