Since then, at an uncertain hour,That agony returns:And till my ghastly tale is told,This heart within me burns.–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
These last few weeks, I’ve noticed an onslaught of judgment on social media where cancer patients, including those who are metastatic, have been slammed for being too negative. I mean down and dirty. Personally, I’m tired of the positivity puppets.
How do you stay upbeat when the sword of Damocles hangs overhead?
How do you not grimace with cancer in your face so close you smell its putrid breath?
How do you stumble through each day in a body whose parts don’t work the way they should, the way they once had, and not feel frustration?
This requires honest grieving. To keep it in allows it to build like a pressure cooker until you explode, or quietly fester and corrode, not unlike cancer. And yet it’s so easy to let it out. Really it is.
But not too loudly. Shhhhh! Because if you’re too loud, some people might say you’re:
To know cancer is to plunge deep into the dark night of the soul. While it would be nice to go through each day pumped full of happy juice, it’s not reality. We’re not two-dimensional cartoon characters. Remember the Looney Toon characters who would get run over by a truck or fall from a cliff? They’d be flattened like pancakes, then bounce back to normal in seconds. It sometimes feels as if that’s what’s being demanded when people say, “Just be positive!”
Many years ago, I met a young mother who told me she disciplined her children when they weren’t happy because the Bible commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” I don’t know how her kids turned out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re fucked up.
Speaking of which, cancer has an uncanny way of coaxing trash vocabulary out of even the most devout. Nothing like a barrage of expletives to vomit out that anger. Yes, I have a name for it: verbal vomit. We try not to unload it where it doesn’t belong, try to make a beeline to the toilet, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
If the Attitude Police happen to stop by, they unload their arsenal of platitudes. Look closely and you’ll see they’re nothing more than pacifiers for adults.
Sometimes platitudes masquerade as spirituality. Believe! Visualize! Manifest! and health and wealth are yours!
That’s all good and fine, but what if you’re diseased and your body fails you? Does that mean you failed your body? Because the implication is we’ve failed on some important level.
It’s my opinion that pop spirituality has failed the cancer community by spoon-feeding simplistic, formulaic solutions to deeply complex and painful situations. I am not without faith, but I believe these messages are to religion what pink is to cancer. They appeal to the desperation of the crowd, offering hope without substance.
You can eat fast food from the In-and-Out Burger drive-through or you can eat a healthful meal that takes time and preparation. The hard stuff has a particularly distasteful but effective way of stripping away the superfluous and getting down to what is real. Depth of insight doesn’t come without going through stuff. We don’t ask for it. I’m tired too, but I can’t stomach junk food.
The dance from sorrow to joy or anger to acceptance is not a quick-fix event fueled by formula. It’s an ongoing deeply personal process. It’s not a linear process either. It bounces artfully all over the place at any given time and isn’t easily contained within the lines.
I find that people who spout platitudes often haven’t known the depths of suffering or they’re too entrenched in dogma. The challenge to our long-held beliefs is a threat to our foundation. Some keep at it while questioning what they’re doing wrong, but it’s an ideal opportunity to rediscover your truth and leave the fluff behind.
So why do we get negative?
Because there are no good answers.
Because people keep dying.
Because others survive but don’t thrive.
This makes us feel vulnerable and helpless.
Sometimes I’ll read someone’s blog and think: Oh, so-and-so just needed to vomit… Feel better, dear?
No one likes being the target of projectile anger. Who can blame them? But they can get out of the line of fire. No need to read the post if it doesn’t give the buzz of inspiration they hoped to find. The exit is just a click away. Go and do something else. Anything except fighting back with comments about a person’s negative attitude.
You might think this is weird, but I have more issues with platitudes than with cancer. Okay, not exactly, but with cancer, you know where you stand. It doesn’t pretend to like you, to look out for your best interest or be your better half. It’s upfront. The delivery of platitudes, on the other hand, often comes dressed in outerwear of patronizing sweetness, condescending concern or plain shallowness.
The next time you see a platitude, shoot it.
Or maybe not. I’m definitely against gun violence, even if it’s a worthless platitude.
Why not go snarky? When someone says, “Just be positive,” stare back wide-eyed and ask, Why? I’ve done this. It’s a mouth stopper. They don’t actually know why. They give you a pacifier? You give one right back.
But if you’re in no mood for messing around and just want to call a spade a spade, you might shout
Fuck that shit!
I usually express myself more delicately on a public forum, but you know what? That felt good. I recommend it. Shout it in the privacy of your home. Sing it in your car or the shower. Leave it as a comment on this post. Consider my comment section to be your very own vomitorium. Bring your own words or use mine. It’s a judgment-free zone. This is your lucky day. When was the last time someone offered you that?