The Great Gift of Empathy

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The Great Gift of Empathy

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"Imaginative empathy is one of the great gifts that humans have, and it means that we can live more than one life. We can picture what it would be like from another perspective."  Dan Chaon

If there is an undercurrent of distress in this posting it arises from a simple fact: once cancer enters your life it NEVER leaves.

Those of us closest to the scene know this. One is forever marked, a sort of scarlet C, with the disease.

Perhaps this wouldn't be an issue so much if people with whom we interact understood and that's where the issue of empathy enters.

When cancer enters your life it is pretty much guaranteed that the following will occur:

  1. You will become ultra-vigilant about eliminating potential carcinogens from your diet and environment. This will lead to many people designating you as odd, paranoid, hyper-sensitive, silly, foolish, overreactive, reactionary, and annoying. After all, the cancer is gone so why worry about such things. Isn't it a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted?

  2. You will be criticized by the people closest to you for that which I've set out in item one. You will hear quite often remarks such as - well, boy, if that were true then I should have had cancer a long time ago and I'm just fine; well, if you're worried about carcinogens such as crystalline silica in playbox sand then it is a miracle any of us survived this long; well, if you're so concerned about parabens and chemical additives to cosmetics then how come the entire female population doesn't have cancer; well, if you're so bothered about GMO and other dietary issues then how is it that humankind still exists - we must all be walking bags of cancerous tumours.

  3. You will be hurt by these people.

  4. You will want to hurt these people.

  5. You won't.

  6. But you'll really, REALLY want to.

  7. You will be shocked by the apparent insensitivity of people. People who at the outset of your cancer trek seemed so solicitous and caring and concerned and involved.

  8. You will then learn that this is a natural part of your cancer trek and that people experience what I have taken to calling caring-fatigue syndrome(CFS). CFS afflicts almost everyone at some point. The flight mechanism inevitably comes into play and even those closest to us want to flee the darkness that enveloped when first confronted with thoughts of premature mortality. Caring just becomes too much. It creates a behaviour much like little kids who cover their eyes and proclaim that you can't see them.

  9. You will become more appreciative of those people who have genuinely stuck by you throughout the lows and lowers of the trek. The people who are not afraid to be fearful. The people who want you to feel felt. The people who hear not just listen. The people who see not just watch. The people who realize that once cancer comes calling its foul traces never can be entirely erased. The people who offer you solace and counsel and acknowledge the wonder of hope and encouragement and contact. The people who might think you're just about the strangest tree-hugging, diet-sensitive, carcinogen-sniffing, pathogen-tracking, oddball on the face of this green earth but who UNDERSTAND. The people who can picture what life is like from a different and forever-changed perspective.


On the plus side, you will learn that there are people who will surprise in the most pleasant ways. You will receive help and encouragement and sustenance from the most unexpected sources. You will uncover fountains of bubbling love and thoughtfulness that otherwise would have been forever hidden. You will love. You will be loved.

You will be changed forever.

You can view these changes as scars or badges of courage and honour.

We CHOOSE the latter.

And we share these badges of honour with those who have never left our sides, who have never questioned our zeal to grow, who have embraced our love of recreation and reinvention.



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