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The question you should ask someone who is suffering

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Cancer, grief and suffering aren't a war to be won.

A few weeks ago, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about cancer; specifically, about how we should stop using military terms when we talk about it. I was so glad to read the article because it’s a phenomenon that I’ve noticed for years and found troubling.

The author, Mary Wisniewski, wrote about how the public responses to John McCain’s recent glioblastoma diagnosis focus on how tough and brave he is. She explains that her older sister just died from that same cancer, despite also being tough and brave, before lamenting the way we talk about cancer.

I hate it how sometimes cancer is put into such militaristic terms, as if people who have strong personalities and determination can “win.” It’s not that kind of war. You are not more virtuous if you survive cancer, and you are not weak if you don’t.

Why do we do this — why do we imagine cancer as a battle that the best patients can win?

Wisniewski hypothesizes that when people hear about a cancer diagnosis they don’t know what to say, and want to be encouraging. I think that’s partially true, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think our response to cancer is a lot like our response to any tragedy: our empathy doesn’t transcend our gut-wrenching, primal fear of suffering the same fate.

You can see this play out particularly online when people are faced with news of some tragedy: some of them pray, offer condolences, or ask how they can help, but many people dissect the events or actions leading up to the tragedy and find the fatal mistake that would have averted the crisis, or even a reason to blame those suffering for their own fate.

This is happening in response to Houston’s plight right now — half the articles are praising unlikely heroes, and the other half are blaming Houstonians (or their government) for not evacuating. All this could have been avoided, you see, if only they had done this, or that, or the other thing.

The way people respond to cancer is much the same — in fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. Instead of finding reasons why, they encourage the suffering person to fight hard and not give up. It’s a soothing thought, isn’t it? That strength of will alone could save us from cancer. But it isn’t true.

The truth is that our primal fear is actually pretty reasonable. We know bad things happen to good people — we know they happen with no warning and no reprieve, and that nothing could have changed the outcome. But if we allowed ourselves to really believe that, we’d probably be too paralyzed by fear to leave the house. So we rationalize and reassure ourselves that it won’t happen to us, because we’d know better, or fight harder.

Rejecting the possibility of suffering ourselves is a completely understandable response to suffering. The problem is that when we reject the possibility of our own suffering, we also reject those who suffer. As Pope Benedict said in Spe Salvi, this is the mark of a cruel and inhuman society.

Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love.

Instead of trying to encourage those who are suffering, whether it’s in the form of cancer or flooding or grief, we should try and find a way to suffer with them. “How can I help?” is a good question, but a better one is, “How can I help you bear this? How can I show you that you are not suffering alone?”

It’s a harder response — much harder. It’s also much better, and more human.

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