Can I have a hug?

In the spirit of my previous post, I want to try to get across a kind of plea on behalf of cancer survivors (and those surviving other challenges) everywhere: Cut us some slack!

The world is not designed to be supportive of those going through complex challenges. There is so little elasticity in the world, so little flexibility to accommodate a non-linear recovery from illness or tragedy. The models we have for support, and the perceptions pervasive amongst those who haven’t experienced major illness, characterize the journey as one from illness to health, perhaps varying in duration, but progressing in a linear way from one to the other.

In contrast the reality for most is far more complex than can be captured so simply. Even in situations where physical healing may progress linearly, there is no guarantee that the end of that progression will ever match the level of physical health before illness. The model of physical well-being also fails to account for the other, often more complex and significant, layers represented by mental and emotional well-being as well as personal or life satisfaction. No only do these factors seldom recover to the same place as before illness, they virtually never recover in any kind of linear way. Significant improvement or progress is invariably followed by setbacks and confusion. Seeking mental clarity, one is often forced to voluntarily step back and re-evaluate. And when one finally does reach a kind of physical and basic mental well-being, one often is forced to confront the reality that what was once satisfying now feels empty, what was once “enough" now feels inadequate.

In some ways, this is an appeal for a society that places more value on empathy and caring. I understand that most people perceive such appeals a naive and flaky, but one thing that has become clear to me through my experiences and the people I have met along the way is that there are many more people struggling, and in many and more varied ways, than most people appreciate. From the poverty-stricken who are blamed for being “lazy" to those who struggle with mental illness, to cancer survivors condemned to face the disempowering process of “return to work." In finding solutions to our problems, we forget the emotional and mental impact these struggles have on people. We try to operationalize a solution, calculating a “safety net" to meet the minimum needs of a person for survival, without accounting for the significant barrier that emotional and mental stress, including the stress of poverty and illness, has on the ability to change ones circumstances.

I don’t expect this appeal to change the world, nor do I expect this will impact anyone but me. But if you are reading this, here is one thing you can take away: Next time you see someone struggling with recovering from an illness, don’t be frustrated if your attempts to “help" them seem to be unappreciated. Of course, all you wanted to do was help them feel “normal" again. The reality is someone recovering from illness may not even know what “normal" is anymore and, for that matter, may have no interest in getting back to their previous “normal." They may be like me, and the last thing they want is to be “reintegrated" into the life they use to lead, to be asked to rejoin the world of competition and consumption. They may need help finding a new way.

What they probably want, more than anything else, is to know that someone cares.