“CANCER.” An awkward pause followed. Sam repeated himself, “Cancer.” Then he added, “The tests indicate prostate cancer.”
I have known Sam since 1990. To say he is a friend is a vast understatement. I refer to him as my mentor, for no other word adequately describes one who counsels, encourages, guides and listens. He assisted me with marriage, the death of my mother, several traumatic career changes, my prayer life…all those important matters of life.
It was not surprising that his announcement stunned me. I feared losing him. After a quiet, but prolonged moment, I managed to escape my self-absorption and asked him how he felt. His response is indelibly imprinted in my memory. He raised his eyebrows slightly and shrugged with a shake of his head. He looked me straight in the eye as the corners of his mouth canted upward in a hint of a smile.
“Ron,” he said, “This is going to be quite a learning opportunity.”
His was a matter-of-fact statement, but suggesting curiosity. Later, I found myself contemplating his response. Actually, I was awestruck. Imagine, I thought, a diagnosis of cancer causing nothing more than an intense interest, not even a suggestion of fear.
At first, I convinced myself he was using the power of positive thinking, that sometimes annoying life philosophy which insists on finding virtue in death, illness and misfortune. Arlo Guthrie once summarized it well, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” Funny guy. His was just an improved version of the questionable childhood wisdom of how we would never appreciate the good were it not for the bad.
As Sam and I spoke over ensuing weeks, I observed he was not practicing positive thinking. There was something authentic about his openness to his illness. I began to see that Sam actually embraced this apparently awful diagnosis. Moreover, he was genuinely grateful, trusting the current of life and the cancer as a part of life.
I contrasted that with the resistance of my own life. I was suddenly weary of my burdens as well as envious of Sam’s grace. I made a vow that someday I would come to embrace whatever may come to me, not to become an optimist, rather to engage the events of my life with relish and pleasure.
I know you wonder if something miraculous occurred. Not to me, but Sam’s cancer diagnosis turned out to be false. Those extensive tests were wrong, or perhaps something extraordinary did occur. Regardless, it was a gift.
In the years since, much of the rigidity and fear which formerly bound me has diminished or vanished under Sam’s patient guidance. It seems I have not been quite the same since that inspired moment when I decided to begin embracing life. Sam’s experience and actions taught me, though words seem woefully inadequate to express what I have learned.
Often, I find myself experiencing a deep and abiding sense of gratitude. “In everything give thanks,” said the biblical prophet. Strangely, that notion is no longer far fetched. Even in the midst of discomfort, fear or pain, I do not resist as much as once I did. I feel comforted quite often. I am not always happy, but I have never been so contented.
I remember the tingle which ran up my spine in 1977 when I first saw the movie “Star Wars.” Do you remember Obi Wan Kenobi’s words to Luke Skywalker, just before he attacked and destroyed the Death Star? “Luke! Trust the force!” Perhaps we never learn to completely trust, to freely abandon ourselves into the torrent of life. Nevertheless, we can cease battling. We can welcome it all as a gift.
With a full and grateful heart for all things, our experience of even the greatest challenges is utterly transformed. With practice we can come to see we still live in an age of miracles, where there is nothing which cannot be made right.