I wrote in an email: “Do you know how funny cancer and being 9 months from death can be? If you frame it right, it’s hilarious.” I hit ‘send’ and was instantly stabbed with regret. How disrespectful to everyone who’s suffered horribly from cancer!!
I hit the internal beat me up button because I’m supposed to be good with words as a writer, and diplomatic as a conflict manager and I’d just bombed in galactic magnitude at both skills. The tape in my head accused me of being a fraud writer and crappy diplomat. No one could be as thorough and harsh about how I’d blown it as I could be.
Then the conflict manager in me clicked in to analyze what I’d done and fix it. In a follow up message sent about two minutes later, I apologized. In a less flippant tone, I wrote what I’d intended to say in the first email: having a sense of humour and a good reframe of the problem can make a terrifying and painful journey, which no one wants to go through, just a little easier to bear.
I sent it and instantly hit the internal beat me up button again, this time because neither message was accurate. Surely cancer and its side effects are terrifying, painful and funny at different times or at the same time. Some of the time my experience was humorous and other times horrible. Maybe time had to pass before I saw the lighter side. “Is it funny yet?”
For those whose lives are torn apart from cancer, is there ever a lighter side? I went back and forth punishing myself for the first or the second email until I was in a frenzy of uncertainty about which email was ‘right’. I kicked myself for the insensitivity and thoughtlessness of the first email. And then I chastised myself for silencing my voice least I offend anyone. Repeat, repeat, repeat until dizzy. Walking the dog to flee from my cycling thoughts started to look like a grown-up response.
In the end, I did what people do in moments of ethical misery – I called someone smarter than me. After presenting the problem to my biological daughter, Beth, she waded in with her wisdom. First, she normalized my pain. Who hasn’t at least once had self-doubt? Hands up anyone so sure of him or her self that she or he has never slapped forehead with palm, ‘duh, how could I have been so stupid?’ If you raised your hand (nope, never happened to me) I salute you. I don’t necessarily believe you, but I salute you. Beth is right; there should be a small voice inside everyone that’s an ethical compass guiding us from giving and receiving harm. Beth reframed the internal voice as keeping me safe rather than criticizing me. Whew, then it isn’t so harsh to hear.
If I found humour in some cancer experiences, like having my breasts amputated, is that appalling or appealing? Beth’s answer to my dilemma put the answer back where it belonged, in personal experience. I loved her response: “if it’s your authentic voice, it’s going to ring true to the reader who will appreciate the sentiment whether or not he or she relates to or agrees with it. The key is to write well, no matter what you say.”
Beth wasn’t done with me yet. Her question was an arrow: “Is trying to be funny about breastlessness how you keep the cancer experience from getting too close and real?” Wow. Don’t I love it when my only child challenges my authenticity – not? So, I had another long walk with the dog and concluded that if I’m not funny and authentic, it’s because I need to write better and funnier, not because I’m hiding or distancing myself from my true feelings about having had a killer type of cancer.
Sincere apologies can repair a lot of relationships and set our own minds at ease. Exercise is another good stress relief. If you see me walking the dog it may be another go-round of some dilemma cycling and I’m working it out until I find my authentic voice and feeling. That’s the conflict competence at work. If I’m laughing, it may be because phantom sensations where my breasts used to be are tickling me. If you find that offensive, I apologize – or not.
Here’s Beth, my wise advisor, with her son Marcus and Trail – hope it makes you smile.