I have learned a lot of things in the past year, but one thing that keeps coming back is: shit happens.
It’s an inevitability of adult life that something bad will happen to you or to someone you know. Someone will get seriously sick, someone will die, someone will get in a car accident, someone will get broken up with… I could go on. Since I got diagnosed, but especially since I got Internet famous, people like to tell me about all the bad things they’ve experienced in life. Maybe I have a more sympathetic ear than most. Or maybe people want to make me feel better about my bad thing by telling me that they relate–or by comparing what could have happened to me or in my life. Cancer at 25 is probably one of the worst… but it could be worse.
I guess I didn’t learn this fact of adult life before last fall. I’ve had bad things happen to people around me. My family seems to get more than its fair share of serious illnesses. Three of my grandparents died. I got broken up with…it was a big deal at the time, but somehow it doesn’t seem on the same level as all these other bad things that happen. But still I went about life believing I was too young for any bad thing to happen to me. Bad things wait until you become a “real adult,” right? Not a 20-something with no house and no husband and no family and no car.
I think i’m still a little bit guilty of this. My bad thing happened–and keeps happening. Doesn’t that mean I’ve reached my quota, that no other bad things will happen to me? That i’m safe on my scooter from all the shitty drivers on the road? And, what about my immediate family? Statistically it’s unlikely for any of the rest of them to get cancer now that two of five of us have had it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t be statistically different. A friend reminded me that this kind of thinking is “magical thinking.” Just because I got cancer doesn’t mean that no one else I know will get it, or that no other bad things will happen in my life. Shit just happens. Some of the people I meet with cancer have already exceeded their “quota” of bad things–even at 30 or younger.
I think it’s just easier to keep thinking magically and when/if something else bad happens, dealing with it then. There is only so much preparing you can do beforehand for some unknown calamity to strike. All you can do is try to give yourself the tools to get through it.
A lot of my friends tell me, “You were the person least deserving of something like this to happen.” I don’t know if there’s any “deserving” about it. My friend was telling me recently about a friend of hers who got engaged–she was recounting the story of how her friend and her fiance met, and her friend was so happy, and she was so happy about this engagement that she said, “My friend is just a really good person. I am really glad something good is happening to her; she deserves it.” I am really happy for my friends who are good people when good things happen to them, too. But I don’t know about anyone deserving or not deserving what they get. That gets in the realm of “why?” and I don’t really like to go there.
I prefer to believe that shit happens randomly. Maybe, in a way, it’s good it’s happened to me when it did because, for whatever reason, I can deal with it. I had some tools going in; I’ve picked up more along the way. One of my favorite bloggers put an interesting spin on this idea in a recent post. She said, it doesn’t matter why or how she got cancer even though she’s healthy–but physically (and, it seems, emotionally, too) because she exercises a lot and eats well and keeps her weight at a healthy level, she has the tools to deal with her treatment. And because of that, it still sucks, but it’s not as bad as it could be. Not everyone is wired to think this way, though. It’s important, too, to get past the bad things and the good things happening, and the giving yourself tools, and just enjoy your life. Whatever that means to you.
I think Christopher Hitchens understood this. He was a prominent atheist thinker/thinker-writer in general, and he died yesterday from pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer. In the obituary in the New York Times, he is reported to have had no regrets about his life of heavy drinking and smoking. He told Charlie Rose in 2010, “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that—or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation—is worth it to me. [It is] impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.”
I don’t need heavy drinking or smoking to help me write but, in a way, maybe I need cancer.