Saturday, November 26, 2005

Duane, God, and prayer

The day before Thanksgiving day I telephoned a distant relative, who I hadn't spoken to for several months. She and her husband were unaware of my diagnosis and the fact that I hadn't returned to Chicago this year. In fact, I had meant to talk to them back in late September when I first realized that I would need to take the year off, but with so many things going on so quickly I easily forgot to call them. A few days ago prior to Thanksgiving day, I remembered that I hadn't spoken to them for months and so, I used the holiday as the perfect time to contact them.

After telling her about my diagnosis and explaining to her that this was the reason for my absence in Chicago, she then told me that one must be thankful for the days they have had. All one can do, she continued to say, was to wait on God and pray. That was it! Is that ALL one can do? At first I had the inclination to remain silent and just let her comment pass, but I couldn't. In response, I said to her quickly that prayer alone isn't enough. One must do more than simply pray. I suppose she was able to pick up my discontent with where the conversation stood and thus, she said a quick and abrupt bye-bye before handing the telephone over to her husband.

In addition to her statement that prayer alone sufficed, I was bothered equally by her first comment: one must be thankful for the days they have had. Was she talking specifically about me? Or was this a general statement? I don't know. If it was about me as I pondered it might have been, I took her comment personally. In other words, I interpreted it as a direct hit on me because not knowing any specifics about my illness nor the prognosis of my treatment, she was saying basically that I was going to die. Yes, that's all folk! That all she wrote!

Of course, I could have taken this all too personally. I understand that she may have said what she did with no malcontent in mind and she simply said what she first thought upon learning about such scary and unexpected news. Indeed, soon after discovering my diagnosis in 2003 I realized that there was no magic manual showing the cancer patient how to react and come to terms with his or her diagnosis. At the same time, a similar manual doesn't exist for the family and friends of the patient. After learning about my diagnosis in 2003, I learned quickly who were the folks I could and could not share my diagnosis with and in my experience, I found out that many times the individuals who I knew but didn't consider particularly great friends were the ones who were the most understanding and helpful. I found some of the best support from other cancer patients and survivors. In at least in one case, the very person whom I thought would without a doubt be right there by my side turned out to be in fact the farthest away. So I understand that it's not easy news to digest and while some individuals want to be near you and know a great deal about the illness, others pull away (for various reasons) and want to know as least as possible. Maybe that was the very best my relative could say at that very moment on the telephone.

Because my relative is a devoutly religious person, I am also aware of the fact that she sees the world through the prism of God. Ever since my original diagnosis I became not hostile towards God but just unwilling to interpret my illness, my life, nor this world in a religious way. My parents or close friends can tell you that I'm no stranger to "trying out" different faiths. My curiousity has led me to learn about and even become a member of different religious faiths at different periods throughout my life. And I don't regret having done this, because these experiences opened me up unto different and fascinating cultures and traditions. I have no doubt that my intepretation of the world is richer for having done so. So, I am not afraid of religion nor of the belief in a higher power. I just can longer look honestly at the world as the realm of God alone and as a result, see the events (good and evil) that occur every day on this tiny blue and green sphere as being under the watchful eye of an omnipresent and all-knowing diety. My experience with cancer alone didn't make me come to the place in which I find myself. I think having Hodgkin's Disease simply made me arrive at a conclusion with which I had been wrestling for years.

I have absolutely no problem with someone intrepreting their own life and world in a religious way. Again, I'm not against religion per se or the religious. My problem is when people encourage me to interpret my own experiences in a similar light. It is with this that I have a difficult time. Consequently, when my relative told me that all I could do was wait on God and pray I didn't take it too well. To me that meant being passive. I must act. I must do. Normally, I would have just let her comment pass, but a few people had told me similar statements recently and I said nothing in response. This time I had to say something and honestly, I think I had the right to do so. I don't think I should be honest about my illness and the treatment and then, put my personal beliefs under the mat for the sake of group conhesion or politeness. I'd feel phony. Why in this moment difficulty would I all of a sudden begin to pray to God feverishly with rosery beads in hand acting devout, when beforehand I had no interest at all in prayer? It's just is too phony for me to do with an honest heart. If I can tell people about my struggle with Hodgkin's Disease, then I can also tell them about my feelings about it, God and anything else related. Sometimes the physical experience is given more attention than the mental or spiritual one, but the latter two need to be addressed honestly as well. Indeed, they're all connected: the physical, mental, and spiritual. All 3 are part of a unique and unified experience and to deny one would be a dishonesty to myself.

With regards to my relative's comment, does she really believe that prayer alone is the answer? I'm sure that with more time to reflect she would have realized that concerted action is necessary too. Would prayers alone haved saved the American colonialists from the oppression of their British masters? Of course not. Arms were the answer. Would prayers alone haved saved Gandhi and his countrymen from the oppression of the British? No. Only popular resistance in the form of the non-violent movement changed the landscape. Would prayers alone haved resulted in equal civil rights for African-Americans and others groups in the 1950s and 1960s? Indeed not. It took marches, boycotts, and protests to change America not passive calls to God. The fact is that although some individuals may be able to wait on God and pray for relief from disease, I cannot do the same. I cannot believe. I can't wait for a miracle. For me I must place my trust in the medical expertise of my doctors and in the overall prognosis of my condition and the treatment.


Comment Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Duane. I echo your comments and beliefs and I am glad that you stood up for them and reacted to something that upset you. I often find myself in situations with persons who feel the need to say something to make me feel better about cancer when they are really trying to make themselves feel better. More often than I not, I just let these comments pass on by. I think its great that you didnt!! You really are insiring in more ways than one! (and I am glad to see that are feeling better too!)

Take Care

7:43 PM  
Comment Blogger Duane said...

Thanks Tianna. Reading your comments does a lot for me. I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile and of some benefit to others. Indeed, comments like yours remind me that this blog is reaching individuals out there and that people are finding it beneficial in some particular way. Thank you, Tianna, for reminding me of this. . . .It seems that you too have experience with cancer. If this is true, I wish you the absolute best in your own personal struggle and I hope you continue to find my blog a source of strength in your fight with cancer.

With my most sincere thoughts,

11:58 PM  
Comment Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know me and that I am a strong believer in prayer but you are right. Prayer alone is not the answer.

A few years back, I visited my uncle and he was telling me about a man who recently joined his church. This man told many at the church that his prayer is for God to find a job for him. For weeks this man went to church and prayed and yet he still didn't get a job.

One day, my uncle asked him, "Well what are you doing to find work?". His answer was that he was praying. The man hadn't sent out a resume or even put in applications. God will provide but what had he done to help himself?

Your thoughts are certainly in the right direction. Pray but add works to faith. I speak of the work that you are doing. Learning all you can, educating, and keeping your mind renewed.

Standing in your corner,

1:29 PM  
Comment Blogger Duane said...

Thanks LaShawn.

9:43 PM  
Comment Blogger Rachel's Mom said...

Duane, my daughter also had a stem cell transplant for HD. I also have family members who said the same sorts of things to my daughter and me. We were told by several family members that if she would take care of her soul that God would do the rest. I think that this kind of people are so uncomfortable that they don't know what else to say or they are just plain ignorant. You would think these so-called religious people would have words of encouragement and empathy. I'm sorry you have to deal with people like this.

5:02 PM  

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