July 10, 2006
Living a Life of Tenacious Gratitude
Reverend Linda Yates
One of the observations I made in our Praying Our Goodbyes group was that women living with metastatic cancer seem to have ambivalent feelings about medical intervention, advice and medication. In fact, sometimes women are downright non-compliant, telling their oncologist they are taking the medication when in fact they are not. Anti-cancer drugs, pain medication and other compounds that might need to be taken to address the bodily complications of living with cancer are not taken in proper doses or on time.
Although there is much critique in the media about our pill pushing society, something different seems to happen in the minds of people living with metastatic cancer. An almost anti-drug tendency grows within them. When I question them about it, I think what I hear being said is that, more than any other activity, the taking of the drugs reminds them of being sick. Sometimes some very legitimate concerns are raised around side effects of the drugs, particularly painkillers. I usually remind women that there are some significant side effects of living with pain as well. Mostly, I think women with metastatic cancer resent the reality that is inescapable when taking medications - the drugs are representative of the cancer world and the "failure" that it represents.
About a year before I was told I did not have cancer, with this in mind, I developed a visualization ritual around the taking of medication. Just before I take a pill, I look at it and envision all of the efforts of people all over the world that made it possible for me to even hold it in my hand. I imagine researchers in labs, diligently working away for years or even decades at experiment after experiment before they finally confirmed the efficacy of it (easy for me to do since I once had been a lab researcher). I give thanks to God for the wisdom and efforts of those who use their gifts and talents for the reduction of suffering in the world. I try to imagine physicians and nurses, technicians and the many people who make possible the very institutions in which they work. I try to envision the lives of custodians who clean the buildings where the drugs are made and the efforts of hardworking truck drivers who bring pharmaceutical products to my local pharmacy.
In this way I can see the network of goodwill and labour that made my drug possible and understand it to be a collection of human and divine inspiration and endeavours. In essence, this is an activity of imagining collective grace. The medications we have are only possible through the intertwining of faithful responses to the will of God for the healing of humankind. I then ask God's blessing upon the activity of the pill in my body and imagine it spreading throughout the chemistry of my system, making it better, improving my overall general health. When I embedded this practice into the routines of my life, not only did I feel better, but I also got better at taking my medications on time and in proper frequency. I now also teach my parishioners to do this.
An interesting thing has been happening in my life since I have undertaken this approach. It has spilled over into all aspects. I spend some time in gratitude each day. St. Paul tells us to rejoice in all, giving thanks always (Philippians 4:4-7). Tenacious, practised gratitude is a powerful tool in the struggle with cancer and other difficult circumstances of life. This is not to say that there aren't times when it is important to rage and ache at the vicissitudes of life with cancer. However, it is amazing how finding things to be grateful for can change your thought process from one of resentment and searching for evil things out to get you, to noticing how many assets you have in life, both surirounding you and within you. It has resulted in a boost in confidence and abilities on my part and has been noticed by my congregations. Many people tell me my preaching has greatly improved. I think it is a consequence of practising tenacious gratitude.
Tenacious gratitude as an act of resistance
Politically, practising tenacious gratitude and counting one's assets, both internal and external, is an act of rebellion in a market-based world. The global economy is predicated on growth. Economic growth is based on people buying lots of things, often. People buy more things when they feel unsatisfied or believe they are unsatisfying to others. Most of the advertising that oils the machinery of our economy is grounded on creating insecurities in people, particularly women. We are repeatedly told by the media that we are not skinny enough, smart enough, sexy enough, fragrant enough, cool enough, young enough, and not loved enough.
We receive thousands of suggestions a year that we are liable to lose the ones we love unless we buy certain things. Our whole society is set up to make us ungrateful. If we felt good about ourselves and continually blessed by God, who would buy all that stuff? Be subversive. Start by being grateful and observing God's blessings in your life.
A faithful response by a person practising gratitude is observed in the proper care of their body. Adequate food, exercise and sleep is an act of reciprocity to God for the gift of the body. That is, after I got through the grieving andl wallowing around in sadness and misery, I realized that I had very little control over the course of cancer except to improve my lot in life by treating my body well. I could increase the quality of my days, if not the quantity. I could die living instead of live dying. After I rose from my bed in the morning, an act of gratitude for just being alive in the world was to do those things that I knew would keep my quality of life up. I exercised regularly, ate healthy and slept well. I continue to do those things.
When I was living with the terminal diagnosis, suddenly I realized I had to ask the question of myself, "Did I really believe the things I told my parishioners Sunday after Sunday?" Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I did. As I began to think very strenuously about the possibility of an afterlife and whether there is a time of judgement within it, I was overwhelmed with a realization of my own sinfulness - of the times I have done things or left things undone that may have damaged others. I also thought about our corporate sinfulness, particularly about the issue of the residential school legacy of the United Church of Canada. How could good, caring people have taken First Nations people's children away in the name of education and then turned a blind eye while the worst kind of abuse was heaped on them? How do I know that I am not participating in some corporate sin now? Paul tells us that we sin even when we think we aren't sinning. Therefore, if we think our ticket to heaven is in living a flaw-free life or a sin-free life, we are doomed before we even get there (Romans 7:14-25). We can not know all things. We can not fix all things. We can not save ourselves. It is clear then that we must rely on the eternal promised love of God alone. We can not earn a spot in heaven, whatever that might look like.
When I finally comprehended this, I took a step back and looked at my life. I believe I sat on so many committees and did so much church work because at some level I was trying earn a place in heaven. We don't have to do that. We are freely and infinitely loved despite our damaging ways. This runs counterintuitive to a market-based economic system that dictates we must earn everything. In our global economy, which is powered by the concept that anything scarce is the only thing that is valuable, the overflowing abundant nature of the free love of God is not valued. It is not rare or scarce. God's love is everywhere and available to everyone who opens themselves up to it.
It is that knowledge that ultimately freed me to live a life of more tenacious gratitude for grace. I love because God loves and I work in the world to relieve suffering as best I can. I do this as an act of faithfulness to the reality of that Love, knowing that as I do so I will necessarily do it in a flawed manner. I am human. You are human. God loves us and if we are good enough to be adored by God, we should love ourselves and love others as much as we love ourselves. This is important. If we don't regard ourselves positively with any kind of truth and intensity, neither will we love others. In fact, in hating ourselves we make damaging (sinful) decisions that hurt ourselves, others and the planet.
Just Wait... There's More: Surviving Cancer