Not long ago, I read something by Roger Ebert, a skilled and insightful movie critic who has battled thyroid cancer and related conditions for a long time now, in which Ebert said roughly this: Cancer patients are widely seen as courageous. Presumably some are, but for most of us, the virtues others ascribe to us are not merited. The truth is, patients who live with advanced stage cancers have little choice in what we face; for most of us, life consists of putting one foot in front of the other, doing what you have to do and along the way, preserving and treasuring whatever small slices of normality you can. Like Ebert, I don't see much virtue in that. I've always been more cowardly than courageous, and I don't think my illness has changed that state of affairs. If anything, the opposite: I had several extended hospitalizations as a kid, and those seemed easier to me than the ones I've had recently.
Much to my surprise, what I've found instead is that my illness has revealed the virtues of my friends and my family. I know that spouses and children, parents and siblings are supposed to and usually do love one another. Still, I've gotten far more than my share of that love over the past seven months, even (maybe especially) on the many days when I've been irritable and worse. More surprising still, those months have seen a host of friends, including more than a few I didn't know I had, coming out of the woodwork--offering blessing and support, assistance and encouragement, precisely as those things have been needed, all without my lifting a finger to ask for them.
I've long believed that professional success, another experience I've had in larger measure than I ever imagined, is mostly undeserved, certainly in my profession (and in my case) and probably in most others. And I believe in the grace of a good God who blesses me in ways and measures far beyond anything I could earn. But until these last seven months--until my life in what Marjorie Williams called Cancerland--I thought of friendship in roughly the way I think of markets: you get what you pay for. Befriend others, and you'll receive friendship in return.
I suppose it often works that way. But it sure isn't working that way for me now. The months since my cancer diagnosis have been spent undergoing and recovering from two major surgeries and several months of chemo (with several more months to go). I've been hunkered down--doing as much work as I'm able, which many days isn't much. I've had little or no energy left for my friends. If friendship is earned, I shouldn't see much of it these days.
And yet, with no rainfall to raise the water table, that well hasn't run dry. Far from it: I've found that my friends are more loving and loyal, more generous and numerous than I ever thought possible. It staggers me to think of the graciousness that many, many people have shown me over those seven months, with no expectation and usually no possibility of receiving anything in return. For me, friendship has been more abundant than ever before--and also less deserved. Pure mercy, with no hint of payment or exchange. All my balance sheets are decidedly in the red.
Ebert seems to me to get cancer patients exactly right, at least in my case: I'm far from courageous--I gripe too much, fear too much, and do too little. The unpleasant things that have come my way have been experiences I've endured because I've had to, not because I've freely chosen them. I find no virtue in that. Ah, but my friends and family members: in them, I see virtue in staggering quantities. Cancer and cancer treatment are nasty businesses; I can't and won't pretend otherwise. But the hardships they bring have been accompanied by benefits unimagined. I'm sure it isn't always so, and my heart goes out to those who suffer this disease, and suffer it in worse ways than I've known, without those benefits. At the same time, I'm more grateful for them than I can express.
The logic of markets--pay these prices, get those goods and services--drives much of our lives in this world. But not all of our lives: a large space, a great deal larger than I realized, is governed not by the logic of trade but by the illogic of gift: Here, take this; I have more of it than I need. No payment necessary. Just enjoy, as a child enjoys opening presents on Christmas morning. Needless to say, my life is not all Christmas morning these days. But astonishingly, at least to me, some of it is. Who knew? I sure didn't.