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Dealing With a National Sickness
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9/08/01 8:00 AM
We will never forget where we were Tuesday morning, and we will never, ever forget the dreadful complex of emotions that swept over us. The terror, confusion, deep sadness, revulsion and then anger… it was overwhelming.
For me, however, the emotions of that morning were not just overwhelming, they were familiar—eerily so. I don’t want to minimize the enormity of the terrorist acts, or attempt to aggrandize my own suffering. I just know that the only thing close to what I felt on September 11 was the horrific, conflicted numbness that swept over me early one morning this past March when, just before 9, my doctor called to tell me that a routine CAT scan the day before on my sore hip was suggesting something other than the pinched nerve or herniated disc we had feared. I almost certainly had, said the doctor, something called Multiple Myeloma—a cancer of the blood that corrupts my bone marrow and destroys my bones and is as yet incurable.
This week, watching the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center—and with them, the collapse of the security America has taken for granted for so long—that sense of personal collapse, that life would never again be the same, returned.
Like many others in America, since the attacks I’ve spent endless hours watching the coverage of the attacks, as if by the mere repetition of the horror we might make it less horrific. Numbed and overwhelmed—and not a little frightened by it all—I’ve had opportunity to reflect on the similarities between my cancer and the “war” that has been launched. There is, indeed, a cancer in the land—or perhaps more precisely, attacking the land—and the lessons that I’ve learned in the last five months have direct correlation to the crisis the United States faces as it fights this very frightening disease of terrorism.
First, and most obviously, we need each other.
The morning I was diagnosed my wife was away at a conference, not due home until late that afternoon, and the seven hours between “the call” and her arrival were the longest and most alone of my life. I simply I could not begin to deal with the new landscape of my life until I had heard her voice and seen her face. This past Tuesday, likewise, we were apart; Sheri in her offices across from Independence Mall in Old City Philadelphia, me in Ontario visiting friends and family, taking a quick moment to celebrate the completion of a five-month regimen of chemotherapy and preparing for the stem cell transplant that begins next week. Watching the images that morning, however, I knew instantly and once again there was nothing more important than to be with Sheri. Like millions of others around the country, I was not at ease—could not be at ease—until I was again beside the one I loved the most. If something was terribly, terribly wrong, she still provided constancy and security. I packed my bags, cancelled my appointments, crossed the border and drove home.
In the past few days millions of Americans have sensed the same urgency. The clogged phone lines on Tuesday morning testify to it (it took me over three hours to reach Sheri), so too the vigils in Washington Square in New York, outside the Pentagon and around the country. And tragically, so do the phone calls from those the captured planes, and now, the seemingly endless queue of people filing missing person reports, and scouring the patient lists at New York hospitals. Instinctively we know, individually and collectively, that the only way to deal with this crisis iss together.
In March, once my wife and I were reunited and had spent a few days digesting the diagnosis and contemplating our new future, we intentionally widened our circle of support—inviting everyone that we thought might help to fight this battle with us. Very early on, within a day or two, in fact, we invited—begged, really—our friends to pray for us.
I must confess that initially I did so reluctantly. I was tempted to keep my struggle private, to not burden others with so much unknown territory and fear. As I thought about it however, I realized what kind of sentence that was: I was being “tempted” to not ask people to pray. We know where temptation comes from, and I understood immediately that my need—and our accompanying anxieties—from those who love me and struggle with me to live like a believer was to rob them of their privilege as members of Christ’s family.
That realization compelled me to share my need broadly, and since then I’ve come to understand that the burden was and remains unbearable without my friends. It is true that there is very, very little that my friends can do directly for me (unless they are oncologists or massage therapists). Still, the fallout from their solidarity in prayer, kindness, tears, laughter and small mercies has been inestimable. As my good friend songwriter Rick Elias once wrote: “The prayers of the saints have kept me alive.”
As a country, Americans have experienced a bit of this over the past few days as our neighbors have come to our aid, offering both moral and direct support, and we’ve been better for it. The coming together has been—I believe providentially—just as riveting to watch as the images of terror that provoked it. We have seen people weeping at the loss of strangers and holding strangers as they have wept. We have seen thousands line up to give blood and donate food, clothing and supplies. Even as we have witnessed heartbreak, we have experienced the coming together—from the rescues to the vigils—that give voice to a quiet steadfastness, a solidarity, and a hope that we can neither understand nor measure. We have learned that no one—not even the “Masters of the Universe” that usually inhabit lower Manhattan—can, or needs to, suffer alone.
The reality is that our suffering is inescapable right now. Our need is glaring. And our suffering has caused Americans—some of us for the very first time—to reflect on the frailty—the weakness—that we clearly share with the world. This is a difficult exercise for most Americans, so used to thinking of themselves—especially since the Reagan rehabilitation of the post-Vietnam American psyche and since the West “won” the Cold War a decade ago—as uniquely and increasingly powerful. Now, in the aftermath of just a few brief moments of carnage, the nation’s sense of power and safety are shaken. We are suddenly vulnerable.
This need not be a bad thing. However strong, healthy or secure we think ourselves, ripping off the mask of our invincibility forces us to see what everyone else already knows to be true. The reality is—and here I speak as a Canadian—that the self-confidence Americans take for granted is frequently understood by our neighbors, both friendly and hostile, as overstated and arrogant. While the United States is powerful, it is not omnipotent. We are vulnerable—always have been—and acknowledging it is the first step toward addressing what is wrong in and around us, and preventing it from happening again. Moving forward in strength is critical—but to do so we must move forward in humility. This means accepting our limitations, and more importantly, learning to lean on those around us, and learning to learn from those who have suffered like us.
In a moment of rare insight early in my illness, reflecting on the immense and overwhelming support I had received from literally the four corners of the globe, I began to imagine the sheer horror of facing my illness alone. I thought of those who live their lives in suffering, yet without the support, kindness, resources and opportunity Sheri and I have enjoyed—and perhaps taken for granted. I was staggered at the thought of those for whom sickness means not an increase of community, but a withdrawal from it—especially those with HIV-AIDS or those in the developing world. It broke my heart, and forced me from my own fearful self-absorption and gave me a mission beyond getting well. I decided that my illness must become a vehicle for good—a chance for grace, for, as the rock band U2 sings, to “make beauty out of ugly things.”
And so I asked the many, many who were genuinely and fervently praying for me to make their prayers reach beyond my own need, and become a voice for those without a voice—to remember the unremembered whenever they remembered me. Their response to this simple request has been, without question, the most gratifying and encouraging aspect of my cancer recovery—and a small hint at what my post-cancer/remission ministry might become. At a time when I was being encouraged to “be selfish,” my little request has grown—thanks to the glories of email—into a movement of thousands of people who have committed to pray—and act—on behalf of the voiceless and the powerless. I have received scores of notes telling how that simple act of praying for those without voice has changed their lives. There are even “SPEAK” groups popping up on campuses and in churches, committing to become “a voice for the voiceless in an age of meaningless noise.” These actions, as much as any medications, have bolstered my own recovery.
Likewise, the events of the past week have shown us that while America is unique from its neighbors in many ways, it is more the same. It has tasted the bitterness of suffering that the rest of the world knows too well. The challenge before us is this: to keep that shared suffering at the fore of our mind, and to let it shape and mold every aspect of post-September 11 American life.
This crisis could push us towards insularity, towards a fearful retreat from others—many around the world would understand it if it did. But it must not. We must not become a gated community in the international neighborhood—in fact, the events of Tuesday demonstrate that even if we want to, we cannot. The coming together and patriotism we are experiencing should not be a jingoistic, football fan-like, “U-S-A!” chanting fever. Neither rescue, rebuilding or war are sport.
This is not the time to put limits on our compassion. Indeed, the opposite must be true. This is a time for reaching out, for leaning, for kindness and outreach. It is a time to seek out our neighbors who suffer, near and far, and to nurture our newfound awareness that we are neither alone in our suffering or our heroism. It is time to commit to becoming an agent of mercy, even as we cry out for it. And it is time to link arms with our neighbors in the pursuit of justice.
Now, I must tell the truth. I’m not a fan of our President. But I do take some comfort from two things. First, it is clear that Mr. Bush has been genuinely moved by both the disaster and subsequent rescue effort. He has risen to the nearly pastoral role of “comforter in chief” demanded of him in the past week. Second, I take some sense of comfort that within hours of the attacks it was clear that Mr. Bush had been wisely reaching out to other nations to gain support for whatever future actions are necessary to combat this terrifying illness. Indeed, it looks like whatever action the United States will take will be taken multilaterally. And thankfully, there is every indication that that action will be, at the very least, not a hasty one.
Two final lessons from my cancer are perhaps the most important for this national tragedy.
First, I learned quickly to not spend much time playing the blame game. As you might suspect, immediately after I was diagnosed with cancer, I was tempted to spend a great deal of energy on questions about why I’d come down with this disease, and more than a few acquaintances were quick to ask me as well. Was it the environment? The offices where I worked at ESA? Trudging through industrial sludge at the auto factory where I spent my college summers? Karmic retribution for the indiscretions of my youth?
Reasonable questions and plausible answers, all. But I quickly came to the conclusion that this kind of reflection—at least while we were directly and initially fighting the cancer—served very little point. Perhaps in a year—when I’m in remission—I’ll want to ask them. Perhaps I’ll learn that I do indeed share in some culpability for my disease or that our offices had asbestos in the pipes. Perhaps it’s just that, well, “stuff” happens. It doesn’t matter. I neither “deserve” this disease, nor do I have time or energy to shake my fist at the heavens asking “why me?” For now, at least, recovery and the destruction of the disease are, and must remain, my sole priorities.
The same is true right now as we sort through the rubble of our national psyche. The past few days the airwaves have been full of pundits and would-be prophets casting blame for the terrorist attacks. Almost immediately on Tuesday we heard so-called experts decrying “a vast intelligence failure” that allowed the cancer in the door (retired FBI and CIA agents have all the answers now that they don’t work for us), while others suggested the cancer was of our own making, “the judgment of God on immoral, decadent America.” (This from, ironically, both the radical anti-U.S. protesters in Iran and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson here Stateside.)
At this time and juncture, this kind of punditry is neither insightful nor is it prophetic. (Nor can it be seen, in any way, as terribly biblical—Jerry and Pat need to stop, take a deep breath, and spend a few moments contemplating Jesus’ words at the beginning of Luke 13.) It does nothing to either relieve the suffering of the victims, find those who perpetrated the violence or bring them to justice. It smacks only of self-indulgence, self-importance and self-righteousness.
Perhaps America provoked its attackers—but it did not deserve it. Perhaps America needs to repent—but the planes that flew into the WTC and the Pentagon were not Sodomic firestorms from heaven. It was terrorism. It was murder. However broken, decadent and corrupt America may or may not be, this attack outstripped that brokenness and evil by leaps and bounds.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the complexity of the solution to our crisis must be recognized. We must come to understand that in this fallen and at times brutal world, there are rarely easy answers, especially to a quandary as terrible as the one in which we are currently embroiled.
I learned this painfully and immediately last spring as we examined the possible treatments for my disease. In some cases, cancers can be addressed directly and surgically. A tumor, small or large, is identified and removed, followed by treatments to prevent its recurrence and spread. In the case of Multiple Myeloma, however, there is no tumor to attack—the problem is that my blood and bone marrow cells are not functioning properly, producing some proteins in extreme and some not at all, resulting in the weakening of my immune system and damaging some of my bones. The enemy I face is invisible, diffuse and can be treated with only what can be characterized as far from precise protocols. The chemotherapy that I have just finished and the therapies that I will begin this coming week attack my entire body—including healthy cells—in order to kill the sick cells that are attacking me. I have been prepared for dozens of side effects, including heart, lung, kidney and bladder failures, unbearable mouth sores, immune deficiencies as well as the more superficial and obvious effects, like my soon-to-be-bald head. In short, chemotherapy is poison. But it can also be very, very effective. And more importantly, it’s pretty much all we’ve got.
Americans, I am sure, would prefer that our enemies be clear and specific ones. They are not. While there are no doubt specific individuals behind the cowardly attacks, they lurk and hide among the innocent, they distort the proper meaning of sacred texts and tarnish the good name of those who claim them as their own. They are agents of an ideological cancer, and one not easily identified, let alone eradicated.
This poses a peculiar and particular challenge—and a dangerous one—for those who would combat our unseen enemy. While we would like our response to terror to be measured, careful and precise, we cannot labor under the delusion that this battle will be unambiguous. We must face the reality that the best defense against the cancer threatening the West will be less like surgery and much more like chemotherapy. Plain and simple, it will be impossible to strike at our enemy without causing ancillary pain—perhaps even inflicting great suffering on innocents. No wise man or woman will say to the President: “here is a good answer.” In a broken world there may be reasonable and appropriate responses to the evil of September 11, but there will be no painless or “right” ones.
The life and writings of two of the better theologians of the 20th Century, Deitrick Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul, come to mind in this instance. Faced with the evil of Nazi Germany, both Bonhoeffer and Ellul made the difficult (and some would argue heroic) decisions to, respectively, participate in the “July Plot” to assassinate Adolf Hitler and join the French underground. Both Bonhoeffer and Ellul understood that partaking in violence—even in a righteous cause—was not and never could be a “good”. It was necessary, responsible but morally ambiguous. Bonhoeffer called actions like his participation in the “July Plot” a “venture of responsibility,” and argued that in a broken world there may be times when we need to take upon ourselves the terrible burden of doing harm in order to defeat evil.
My point is this: neither of these great theologians tried to pretend that violence was righteous. It was simply and horribly necessary, but it was not good. They understood that their violence—and Ellul is especially clear on this—was a function of the demonic, but also argued that Christians called to live in, nurture and create culture could not afford the luxury of moral purity, let alone certainty. And so they committed their actions to God, even as they refused to pretend that those actions were godly.
This may be such an hour. And if it is, then we must be prepared to take painful and horrible steps to capture and punish those who have unleashed this horrific cancer on the West.
But if and when we do so, we must do so in grief. We must not take pride in our violence, or think for a moment that we are the instruments of God. And we must not pretend that we are, in any way, doing good. At best we will be stopping evil, and will no doubt unleash some of our own. But, in the short term at least, that may be what we must do.
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