Robert Pogue Harrison, The True American:
We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty.
Lucy Kalanithi, the widow of neurosurgeon and writer Paul Kalanithi (author of When Breath Becomes Air), describes herself as “Caregiver” on her TED speaker profile. Below, an excerpt from her talk, “What makes life worth living in the face of death.” Emphasis mine.
There’s a poem by W.S. Merwin — it’s just two sentences long — that captures how I feel now. “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” For me that poem evokes my love for Paul, and a new fortitude that came from loving and losing him.
When Paul said, “It’s going to be OK,” that didn’t mean that we could cure his illness. Instead, we learned to accept both joy and sadness at the same time; to uncover beauty and purpose both despite and because we are all born and we all die. And for all the sadness and sleepless nights, it turns out there is joy. I leave flowers on Paul’s grave and watch our two-year-old run around on the grass. I build bonfires on the beach and watch the sunset with our friends. Exercise and mindfulness meditation have helped a lot. And someday, I hope I do get remarried.
Most importantly, I get to watch our daughter grow. I’ve thought a lot about what I’m going to say to her when she’s older. “Cady, engaging in the full range of experience — living and dying, love and loss — is what we get to do. Being human doesn’t happen despite suffering. It happens within it. When we approach suffering together, when we choose not to hide from it, our lives don’t diminish, they expand.”
I’ve learned that cancer isn’t always a battle. Or if it is, maybe it’s a fight for something different than we thought. Our job isn’t to fight fate, but to help each other through. Not as soldiers but as shepherds. That’s how we make it OK, even when it’s not. By saying it out loud, by helping each other through… and a gorilla suit never hurts, either.