On May 1, 2018, my book, Birthing Hope, was released. It’s a memoir recounting, among other things, a life lived with significant anxiety, and what therapists might call anticipatory dread. My story isn’t one of eliminating anxiety, but of living with it, and living through both imagined and actual adversity without being crushed by it. There’s nothing mysterious here; anyone who knows Mr. Rogers knows how to proceed: we look for the helpers, we try to be the helpers, we hold fast to narratives about human nature that acknowledge evil and greed and also generosity and grace.
But on the same day my book was released, my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. She was told she needed to start chemotherapy as soon as possible, followed by radiation. My celebratory book dinner turned into a tearful family meeting, informing the children that grandma had cancer and talking through next steps. The dreaded thing was officially here. My mind, long trained in creative feats of anxious ideation, directed her straight into a coffin, and me into the role of Endlessly Grieving Daughter.
I talk to my mother every day. We have matching bracelets – hers proclaims that she is my Lorelai and mine that I am her Rory; we have always been much like the fictional mother and daughter in Gilmore Girls. We are fast-talking, neurotic, quirky, and obsessed with food and coffee. I imagined myself bereft of her, and pitied myself. I wouldn’t be able to go on. Without her, I told myself, I would be a terrible mother to my children, irrevocably lost in grief.
The timing of my mother’s cancer diagnosis and my memoir’s release is not lost on me. I have long been fascinated by the nature of narrative, and how the forms we use to explain ourselves to ourselves, and to others, shape our reality. It is remarkable to think that we create the meaning in so much of what happens. It is frightening, or it is empowering, to think that we have this quasi-magical ability. While storytelling is something that often happens after an experience (“meaning-making” of the past, some call it), it can also shape our lives as we live them.
Sometimes it is easier to see this magic as others wield it: we all know people who manage to turn every situation into a story in which they are the hero, or else the victim, or else the smartest or coolest or best person in the room. If we are honest, we can recognize the mental gymnastics we make – sometimes only in our thoughts – to justify what we do and say, to make ourselves look all right, even to ourselves. We all know people who can make a car ride or a wait in the ER a surprising sort of pleasure, and we all know people who can turn dinner in a 4-star restaurant or a day at the beach into a depressing grumble-fest. This is the power of personal narrative to shape reality. It’s why Satan in Paradise Lost acknowledges that his mind isn’t one to be changed “by Place or Time.” Instead, he says, “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell [or] a Hell of Heav’n.”
This is why gratitude practices are not delusional or wishful, but are spiritual practices; exercises preparing us to use what psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl called our last human freedom – the one that cannot be taken away – our power to choose our reaction to the circumstances we face. The question for me has been whether I can transfer the reflective nature of memoir to reframe the moment of dread itself.
My wise neighbor Deb calls this the power to choose to be the “noble character.” In the drama of life, which, she reminds me, we ought to play for an “Audience of One” (i.e., God as we understand God). There is much we cannot control. But we can ask ourselves, in this situation, what would the noble character do? Deb gently reminded me of this as I sat on her front porch and sobbed about my mother’s cancer. Deb, who walked with several members of her own family through cancer, told me that being sad and sorry for a while was all right, but that then there would be work to be done. She didn’t need to say what I was slowly realizing on my own: that the story of my mother’s cancer was just beginning, and that my own despair was not the central thread of the narrative.
And so came the shift to a different sort of story: not one of anticipating the dreaded thing, or drowning in despair of the diagnosis, but of living with my mother with cancer today. My role in this narrative is to ask: “what is God – or life – or love – asking me to do in this circumstance? When I stopped railing against the reality of the situation, of fighting what actually is, my suffering slowed, and even stopped.
Right now, my mother is alive, as am I. I’ve sat with her through each chemo treatment, and I bring tasty drinks and treats. I’ve taken her to PET scans and to the wig shop. We take slow walks, talk multiple times a day, and visit our favorite coffee haunts. We make meals, play games, and try to enjoy right now. What can I do to brighten her life right now? I think, and then I act.
For most of my life I’ve fought against bad things, or tried to, with my mind – worrying, wishing, even praying against the things I hoped would never come, or things that, having come, I wanted to end. But when my worst fear came to be, I found that I could choose to be an alleviator, someone who makes things slightly smoother, just by being there. This is what we love about the very best stories. They give us hope, showing us how the buoyancy of grace can lifts us, even just a little.