Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Cost of (My) Education

I have an online friend -- actually, I have a gratifying and inexplicable number of online friends, but I'm thinking of one in particular today. She's a lady-type friend, in her early fifties. Let's call her "A," in the interest of her privacy. She lives far from where I do. A makes her living as a therapist; actually, I think both she and her husband do that.

A couple of weeks ago, after an extended period of time experiencing the sorts of trouble that women often experience, A underwent the "instant menopause" surgery. I am supposing that a routine part of such procedures is to send samples of the tissues removed to the lab for analysis. Last week, A told me that she'd been informed of the result: cancer. Not just any cancer, either, but something quite rare and very aggressive. What she was told is that everyone who gets this sort of cancer dies from it, because it's so rare, and so few patients have been treated for it, the medical community doesn't know what works to treat it. She subsequently had some further testing done that established that her cancer's in stage one -- quite early -- and that this means that it's expected to return, probably in six months to a year. She'll be treated using chemotherapy and radiation. She's probably still going to die from the disease, but now it seems that she'll have a little more time. This seemed to gratify her pretty substantially; more time was what she felt the need for.

I've been in frequent correspondence with A since she shared this news with me. Some of what she writes is funny, in a sad way, as when she says she's not seeing much point in dieting, or spending time on anti-wrinkle skin care, or getting long-term dental work done. Some is just heartbreaking. And some makes you think about what's important. One thing she told me that particularly stands out is that she and her husband have become aware of just how deeply they love each other ... what a great thing to learn! But why does the lesson have so dear a price? Can't we learn it without paying so heavily? Maybe we can't -- not completely, at least. But it does seem to me that each of us can spend some time thinking about the people we love, and what they (and love) mean to us. I know I have been. I certainly don't know of anything else I have to think about that's even remotely as important.

A tells me that printed on the back of her business cards is "Love matters." As true as that may be, I'd take it a little further: love is the only thing that, ultimately, matters ... because people matter so very much. Love is the basis of how people are supposed to relate to each other, if we perceive each other properly for what we are. C.S. Lewis summed it up in "The Weight of Glory:"
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another; all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations -- these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit -- immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously -- no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner -- no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
I am very prone to lose my perspective and my sense of relative scale. My occasional minor health problem, my dissatisfaction with the day job, seeing my native country descend into authoritarianism: these can quickly seem very important to me. They are not. Each person reading this is important. A is important. My wife is important. My children are important. Even I am important. Let us treat each other well. As A says, "love matters."


Tim Zank said...

Good post.

Mimi said...


Jim Wetzel said...

Thank you to you both. As I get older, it seems to me that life is increasingly just a series of lessons in the practice of loss. Everyone I know is getting older, people get grievously ill and die ... we should all be pretty well-practiced losers by now. Mimi, with you, I know I'm talking to someone with experience in the loss department, too.

Anonymous said...

Jim, you write, "As I get older, it seems to me that life is increasingly just a series of lessons in the practice of loss." As I get older, it seems to me that life is increasingly just a series of lessons in the practice of loving."

I have a true story for you:

Today, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman was sitting on my big red office couch weeping over a poor choice she thought she had made in a partner who betrayed her love, thus collapsing her life like a house of cards in a violent storm. The home they bought together is now all hers, and so goes the mortgage, which she bravely tells me she can afford if she doesn't eat or drive her car anymore. She is so serious in her remarks that I try to hide my reflexive smile at her youthful thinking and the obvious affection I feel for her.

Head bowed nearly to her chest, audibly weeping, she tells me through tissue and tears she can no longer afford therapy; something she finds healing and helpful to her recovery from a difficult early childhood trauma. She says, "It is my own fault; I should never have loved him."

The session goes on. I give her back her check near the end of the session and tell her we will talk money next year when she gets a raise or promotion or something. I cannot resist a morbid joke, "Given I live an entire year." She gets me and smiles despite herself. She still cannot look me in the eye. She says she knows how I feel about love (she must have read it on the back of my card) though she is having difficulty accepting it from me in the form of this gift. "I didn't realize how hard it is for me to let love in," she says while drying her eyes and staring fiercely at her grown up Mary Janes.

I tell her our time is up for today and I would really like her to look into my eyes and accept whatever she sees.

It took a few long, quiet minutes before she raised her eyes, piercing me to the core with her gaze. I ask, "What do you think my eyes are telling you?" More silence. "Your eyes are telling me it is never a mistake to love."

Yep, as I get older, it seems to me that life is increasingly just a series of lessons in the practice of loving. And I agree with you, Jim. I might have to change the back of my card to read, "Love is the only thing that matters." I believe this to be true with all my being.

Much love to you,
A (to protect my client's identity)

lemming said...

Beautiful post, and I agree. I wish that Lewis' last sentence resonated more thoroughly on a constant basis. We rise beautifully to a crisis, but the day-to-day proves more of a challenge.

A, my best to you and yours. Wishing you grace and courage

Jonathan Versen said...

This a great post Jim, and she sounds like a great person.

Jim Wetzel said...

Thank you, Jonathan. I'd be really happy, if it wasn't for that whole cancer thing. How wonderful, and how terrible, this life is.