People have been saying a lot of nice things to me the last two weeks. Apparently, a cancer diagnosis is the perfect spur to remind people that they like you, and then they may rush to tell you that, which is a bit disconcerting (since hey, very positive prognosis, I'm almost certainly not dying even a little bit!), but overall still lovely, because who doesn't like being showered with affection and praise? It's a wonderful counter to the more sucky moments.
The praise occasionally makes me a bit uncomfortable. People have really liked the cancer log, which is great, and I'm going to write something more soon on why I think it's working for me and others, and how blogging / memoir in general can be very helpful in times of stress, etc. But will save that for now. What I'd like to talk about now is the bit where people praise me for handling all this with grace.
Part of that's an illusion, you know. I have mostly been writing in the morning, in my calmer moments. Last night, I came home after a busy day, made dinner -- and then just sat in the living room for a while, kind of poking at the internet, unable to motivate to get up and do anything.
Sometimes, it all hits me, the fact that even if I'm probably not at much risk of dying, I do now have a chronic illness -- after the somewhat unpleasant five months of chemo, there will be surgery and I will likely lose my breasts (suddenly, I'm imagining a comedy skit about lost breasts -- breasts? breasts? where did I put the dang things??), and then there may be radiation, and after all that is done, there'll be 5-10 years of hormone therapy, and regular scans to make sure the cancer hasn't come back, and that's enough to make anyone seriously bummed out. So sometimes I get seriously bummed out, but I don't tend to write much about it because, y'know, it's boring. When I come up with interesting things to say about it, I'll let you know.
But putting that aside, yes, I've mostly had equanimity about the whole thing. There are a lot of "why me?" moments, but I think this is where my being strong-agnostic-almost-an-atheist is actually of tremendous comfort. (And now, this takes a hard left turn into religion, which I'm betting isn't where you thought it was going.)
I've been privileged in my life until now, lucky. If I'd stayed a Catholic, I might have phrased it as saying that I have been blessed. My life has been full of blessings, alighting on me without my earning them. Kind parents, some brains, enough money, many years of physical and mental health. So many blessings, and if I'm going to ask "why me?" I ought to ask it for all the blessings too.
I was twelve when I ran headlong into the Problem of Suffering. That's what the Catholics called it back then, anyway -- the question of why, if God is omniscient and omnipotent, he would allow horrible, painful things to happen to babies. I was entirely unsatisfied by the nuns telling me it was part of God's plan and that we weren't capable of understanding it; maybe I was just a smart-ass kid and too full of myself (maybe I still am), but that explanation just wasn't good enough.
If I'd had a few Jesuits around to argue with back then, maybe they could have kept me in the Catholic church a few years longer -- those particular nuns weren't up to the job, and even though my parents coerced me into being Confirmed at thirteen (I chose Kateri Tekakwitha as my patron saint, the Native American girl who refused to marry the man her father picked for her), I was already long gone from the church in my mind.
Even aside from the Problem of Suffering, exposure to other religions meant that I couldn't see any good reason to be Catholic specifically, except that I'd happened to be born into a Catholic family. And later, I learned about colonization -- if the Portuguese hadn't come to Sri Lanka, my great-great-something-grandfather wouldn't have converted from Hinduism to give his kids access to the Portuguese schools and better job prospects. I would've been born Hindu and grown up worshipping entirely different gods; my indoctrination into Catholicism was a historical accident. So it's been a long, long time since I've been able to buy into any specific organized religion.
All of which means that now, with cancer knocking on my door, I don't have to wrestle with the question of why God did this to me. This happened to me because it was going to happen to someone, and when you roll the dice, sometimes it comes up snake-eyes. It is, oddly, a great comfort to have the answer to "why me?" simply be "why not?" (And there are larger questions about whether cancer rates have been rising, and is it possible that some environmental factor has contributed to this, etc. and so on, but let's table those for now.) There's no one to be angry with, no higher power to yell at, to blame. I got to skip over a whole emotional process, because it doesn't apply to the non-religious.
People have asked if I mind if they pray for me. And here's the bit that might surprise you -- I love that people want to pray for me. Because even if I think the Catholic god is highly unlikely, and the Hindu gods ditto, I am not completely against the concept of a higher power. I think the universe is still beautiful and wondrous without gods, but I am not immune to the hope that there is something more than what we have discovered thus far. This is why I can't be a strong atheist -- I'm never going to be sure that we little humans know all there is to know.
So agnostic it is, and agnostic it will be, and if there is Someone out there listening, maybe even Someone with a vast plan beyond my comprehension, then I love that people are talking to Him/Her/It about me. I mean, personally, I couldn't worship a supposedly higher being that would be actually influenced by prayers, because how unfair would that be? That I get to have all these people intervening for me, and so many people don't -- if there's a God who is actually good, they had better not favor me over someone else in need. That's just not right, folks.
But all those prayers, all those good wishes going out into the universe? They're comforting, even if no one is listening (or if Someone is listening but unlikely to be swayed). In the last two weeks I've felt just surrounded by this immense sea of affection. And beyond the people I directly know, I know there are good people the world over who are troubled by suffering, who are sending their kind thoughts into the universe, wanting better for me, for everyone.
I may not believe in god, but I do believe in people. People are amazing. And sometimes we fall down, and sometimes we are not our best selves, and sometimes we sit in a dark room and rage and even lash out at the people who love us best. But overall, I think human beings have a tremendous desire to do good, to be good. That's my version of god -- all those little human souls, burning to make the world better, for themselves, for their loved ones, even for total strangers.
So pray for me, if the spirit moves you. Pray for us all. Think good thoughts and send them out into the universe, and maybe that will put you in the frame of mind to be kind to someone who's having a rough time and is stumbling as a result, lashing out a bit more than they ought. If there isn't a God, or even lots of little gods, maybe we can be that force of good in the universe, for each other. That's what I believe in.