Word Wrangling

The writer of 2 Timothy warns the hearers and readers of his letter against wrangling over words.

Fighting over words, he says, makes it harder to know what’s true and what’s not. 

The debate over true and false teachings has taken on an added dimension for me since my diagnosis of stage IV cancer two years ago.  In the cancer world, there’s lots of wrangling over words, particularly over what’s appropriate to say and what’s not.  One fascinating read on this topic is called Speak the Language of Healing: Living with Breast Cancer without Going to War, written by four women from four different religious traditions, each of whom is living with a different stage of breast cancer.  

These authors propose that we move away from fighting words–words like “battling” and “survivor” to describe our relationship to the cancer present in our body.  Their challenge to the cancer world’s use of military metaphors is illuminating and helpful; at the same time, some of their wrangling over appropriate words about life with cancer is unsettling to me.  To be sure, there’s high stakes in spreading false teachings about living and dying with cancer.  Indeed, author of Timothy says that wrangling over words “ruins those who are listening.”  And yet,
knowing what words are appropriate to say to someone living with cancer or other serious illness and what words are not is tough stuff.

In one cancer memoir I read, the author writes about the scene in the exam room after she learns she has cancer.  She looks at the doctor through her tears and whispers, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know how to have cancer.”  The doctor puts his hand on her shoulder and responds, “None of us knows how to have cancer.”

None of us knows how to have cancer. 

It’s a humble and humbling claim, one I seek comfort in both in terms of my own bewilderment over how to cope with cancer in my own life and in the lives of others, and of the challenge if dealing with those who mean well but offer little comfort at all. 

On good days, when someone makes a comment I disagree with, or says something insensitive or just plain wrong, I remind myself that none of us knows how to have cancer. 

On good days, I realize a person with an inappropriate comment overcame the temptation to say nothing at all, which (theoretically) I appreciate.  Rather than ignoring my cancer, this person–however awkwardly–acknowledges cancer’s invasion into my life. 

On good days, I attempt to be gracious, even when the comments sting.  I’m a professor; I adopt an educative role, explaining why their point of view differs from my own. 

The problem is not all days are good days. 

In fact, many days with cancer are bad days.  On those days, I’m not so magnanimous in my response.  Rather than greeting awkward attempts at consolation with gravitas, I get offended, angry, hurt. 

On bad days, my retorts to off-the-mark comments can offend in return.  Close friends and family tell me I have no reason to feel badly about my sharp responses.  It’s not my job to take care of others and their misguided assumptions.

But it’s not that easy.  None of us knows how to have cancer.     

How, then, do I have cancer?  And how do I talk about it?

Recently I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  After giving me a big hug, she stepped back and exclaimed, “Isn’t it amazing the lengths God will go to fix our gaze on him?” 

This was a good day for me, but a bad day for wrangling over words about God’s role in human suffering.  I ran into the friend at a grocery store, just as my daughters and I headed for the car.  “Mmmmm Hmmmm.” was all I could muster in response to her view of God as bringer-of-all-disaster.

What I wanted to say is that I seriously doubt God gave me cancer.  That my friend, herself in the midst of a painful separation from her husband, would use the word “our, ” however, gave me pause.  She wasn’t simply saying God gave me cancer; it seemed she believed that God had brought on the trials of her separation as well. 

Even though I reject this view of God, I can imagine why my friend embraces it.  We want there to be a reason for the pain, as my theology students noted in a recent class on theodicy.  It’s true, too, that sometimes suffering is pedagogically useful.  The hard times can make us strong.  A God whose judgment involves teaching us tough lessons about our sinful natures makes sense.

But when it comes to undeserved suffering that threatens to destroy us–what theologians call radical suffering–this model of God as judge collides with the image of God as loving and just.  What if the cancer or the lymphoma that God supposedly ushers into our lives overtakes us?  What if God’s attempt “to fix our eyes on him” ends in early, painful death?  Where’s the love in that?  The justice?

Closely related to “hardship as God’s attention-getter” claim is the assertion that cancer is part of God’s plan for my life.  Cancer didn’t just happen; God has reasons for bringing it into my life. 

This comment came on a bad day.  I shot back, “If that’s the case, God sure hasn’t let me in on what that purpose might be.” 

It’s quite possible that the friend who said this feels vindicated about the truth of his statement.  I’m still alive; I’m writing about my experience with cancer, which may be of help to others.  I’ll also admit to being a better person today than I was before the cancer.  I’m more grateful, more appreciative of the gift of each and every day. 

My friend could–and perhaps does–argue that all of these positive developments are proof of God’s purposes for cancer in my life.  I have cancer; I’ve been changed for the better, and now my story can be a blessing to others. 

But here’s the rub: in spite of knowing I’ve inspired others, and that I’m a more grateful person than I was before cancer, I’d take it all back if I had the option.  I’d much rather be the person I was before cancer: a wife who believed she’d grow old with her husband; a mother who planned to raise her daughters into adulthood; a daughter confident she’d outlive her parents and in-laws; a sister, aunt, niece, and cousin who was just one of the family; a friend and neighbor who talked about something other than cancer. 

Given the chance to turn back time, I’d go back to being a little less grateful for my life, looking to embrace such gratitude more gradually.  I’d sacrifice the improved attitude to get back what cancer has stolen from me and from those I love.

That said, I can’t discount the moments of grace I have been privileged to experience since cancer entered my life.   I understand new depths of compassion, care, and love.  I’ve glimpsed what living in light of unfathomable love must be like.  I’ve been changed for the better, and as I don’t have a choice but to be on this path, I’ll take it.

To admit there’s no choice in having cancer is not the same as believing they were sent by God to serve some grand purpose.  I doubt cancer has a purpose in my life, even as I attempt to make meaning in cancer’s wake.

Returning to the words of 2 Timothy 2, we are encouraged to use our words carefully, to avoid wrangling and to speak “the word of truth” (2.15).  What is the true or right way to speak about living with cancer?  In the midst of our journey of word-wrangling over that issue, a passage in Timothy 2.19 offers a sign of grace: “The Lord knows who are his.”  As we keep striving to get the words just right, God accompanies us, claiming us and loving us even when words fail us.