I am a developmentalist and so even the challenges of life look like growth opportunities waiting to happen. The first time I had cancer, I was able to find a bigger self through the fog and fear and pain of it all—and even at this time (nearly two months post biopsy), I was seeing some of the ways I could metabolize the pain into development. This time, though, I’m struggling.
Maybe it’s that I’m still in the murky middle of the confusion of it all. I am still weighing surgical options, still trying to figure out whether the smaller surgery I am opting for is the best option for my future self or whether I am focusing on medium term at the expense of the long term. Each week seems to bring with it some new and confusing additional piece of information, and instead of the way forward getting more clear, it stays blurry and distant.
All of this gives me this funny feeling of groping around in the dark for some form of growth or insight or anything that says I am gaining as I am losing. I was, in many ways, transformed by my first cancer experience, and I could feel it in more than my ultra short curly hair or the flawless post-chemo skin. I liked the person I became better than the person I had been.
This time, it’s not so clear. Nietzsche famously said something like, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” While that was true for me last time, I think Nietzsche is wrong about his general assertion. Sometimes the things that don’t kill us leave us unchanged, or, in some cases, weaker. And I’m sort of wondering if that’s what’s going on for me this time, but with a twist.
It’s funny—just before I was diagnosed with cancer the first time, I made a commitment to myself to work on understanding power in new ways—seeing it, feeling it, owning it in more helpful ways than I ever had before. There was something really helpful about trying to understand about power at a time when my circumstances threatened to make me feel impotent. Power became the balancing counterweight to keep powerlessness from overwhelming me.
This August, at a series of retreats, I began to believe that the next horizon for me was about vulnerability. And boy is this an opportunity to lean into vulnerability. The thing I’m discovering, though, is that I didn’t much like the idea of vulnerability on a good day, and right now I don’t have that many good days. This drawn out surgical part of my treatment—with two surgeries behind me and one (or, horribly, two) in front of me—has been so filled with confusion and anxiety and sadness. I’m not learning about vulnerability—I am simply vulnerable. This learning space doesn’t have the lovely balancing pull of the power exploration of the first trip to cancer island. Instead, as Michael and I try to make decisions about the next surgery, I notice that I can’t figure out when to pay attention to my sense of weakness and overwhelm and curl up on the floor, and when to try to pull up my socks and march forward, bravely. I suppose in the best world, I could feel brave and vulnerable at the same time, but I haven’t been able to live my way into that yet.
So vulnerability seems to be a reinforcing feedback loop here. I learn about it in ways that feel sometimes violent, without knowing how to counterbalance it or even whether counter balancing is a good idea. Brene Brown says that vulnerability is the seedbed of innovation, creativity, and love. If that’s true, I suppose there will be new things emerging from this incredibly vulnerable space. But who knows when or where those fruits will ripen—or whether I’ll like them. Until then, I find myself in Milan this week, teaching about complexity and feeling my jetlag and noticing the vulnerability it takes for all of us to face an unknowable future.