In the winter of 1992, my grandmother passed away from leukemia. Cancer has claimed an insidious place in my family; it has taken the lives of three grandparents and unknown scores of others in generations past.
One of my dear friends—a role model, and a beacon of light in an otherwise dark and superficial gay world—was diagnosed with HIV more than a decade ago. He now lives happily with his partner, ever aware of what his diagnosis means, ever reconciled in peace to the eventual end it will bring.
As so many of you know, I teeter on diagnosable hypochondria. It has become something of a joke amongst family and friends, but that merely brushes off what is often very scary for me. Yes, I try to take good care of myself, and yes, I generally make good health decisions, but the fear is pervasive and illogical. My mind is always fretting about the next illness or disease.
While decades will surely pass before I am able to conquer this foul demon, it is, for the moment, a very present reality. As I learn how to cope with it and take control of it, I find myself confused by the many ways I can approach it. Once upon a time, my method was to distract myself from the fear; inevitably it rose up despite me and brought me back again to a worried imagination. These days, however, I have at least learned to face the fear itself—if clumsily and with little satisfaction.
Most recently, I have tackled the issue with faith. I’m sure that’s no surprise to most of you, but it was most definitely one for me. The issue is, quite simply, my lack of trust in God’s care. In the words of my mother (and untold others): Let go, and let God. It’s a basic injunction, really, and one we should happily embrace. But I haven’t, and I don’t.
So I return to what comforts me the most: the ultimates I unwaveringly believe in. That is to say, I have no doubts that when I die, all things will be made right for me. And because I believe this, I have some control over the terrors of the here and now. I am able to look illness in the face and say, with confidence: I fear you now, but God will have the last word.
Seems silly for a healthy young buck like myself, right? But we all have our demons to conquer. This one is mine.
And yet, in a quasi state of peace, God seems to be goading me: You’re not quite where you should be.
You see, it’s quite plain to those around me that this uninhibited fear, however confidently I stare back into its face, is more to me than just a fear. The potential that it carries hangs there, latent, as I fuss over the best way to stare it down. It’s not enough, I’m afraid, to spend a lifetime glaring at what I fear most. That would be the most comical effort at battle I could possibly make. And, if we can stretch reality a bit and say that hypochondria is a conscious, living little devil, he would clearly have won the war. Screwtape didn’t stare down his human subjects to win them over; he manipulated them.
Because, as God has so recently gotten through to me, there is another way to conquer him: Turn his invasive, consuming worry into an advantage.
As you might have guessed, this quizzical approach seems completely out of reach for me. In fact, it seems altogether ludicrous. Turn the immense burden and weakness of disease into an advantage? What cockamamie bullshit is that?
Then things begin to dawn on me. When my grandmother passed away, she had been living with leukemia for the better part of a year. But regardless of the illness and how it degenerated her body, she was still the loving mother, loving grandmother, friendly neighbor, kind friend. And when, at last, her body gave out, she had left an inspirational mark on dozens of people. I still remember standing next to my father at the dining room table the night she died. It was my twelfth birthday, and I was getting ready to open my big present. The phone rang; my mom answered it. In tears, the attention on me was lost and everything was suddenly wrapped up in crying silence. Finally, Dad turned to me and said with watery eyes, “Today, you get a present and grandma goes to heaven.”
Almost 20 years later, I’m living out a life very different than I’ve known it before. I’m immersed in my church, feeling out a faith of inclusion and love while coping with my constant fear of illness. I meet people I never expected I’d meet—strong people, people alive with a spirit that shuts down the possibility of weakness. I meet a new face of disease; I meet the face of hope.
My church is filled with people of many backgrounds; their charactered lives make the fabric of our community so colorful it’s almost blinding. And I know some, and I love some, who have lived with terminal illness, like HIV and cancer, for decades. When the illness came to them and said it would not leave, they took up the mantle of weakness and turned it into a strength. They poured their hearts and souls into the coffers of this church and its people, they invested themselves completely in a mission that focused not on the betterment of themselves, but on the betterment of the poor, the marginalized, the dejected, the outcast, the empty, the lonely, the broken. And in that devotion, they have been made more whole than they have ever been in their entire lives. Just to think of the courage that it takes to do such service when suffering would be easier… it makes me, too, want to cry.
You see, as I have come to realize it, there are two beautiful truths of human illness which are left to languish in our world as we focus on suffering. Really, they are the same thing, but they offer two redemptions that give our lives vastly more meaning. The first is: we can make of this thing called “ill” a life beyond greatness. It can give us, if we let it, a warmth in living our lives full of charity and love. It can inspire and touch others we never imagined. But also, I think, this is as much privilege as it is responsibility. We are not asked to suffer in silence, or endure in self-pity. We are called to live out richer lives in the face of horrible disease and impending death.
And here is the crescendo: What else was the cross of Christ, and our own individual crosses, but that very same thing? Shape it for yourselves however you will, but for me, this is the proof of my faith. Christ did not come to hang on a cross so that our sins may be forgiven; they have always been forgiven. He came to live out a human life, a painful human suffering, and an excruciating human death so that we might see our own humanness in a new way. My fear of sickness, and its stigma, need not be fear at all—the desperation of a life lived in solitude, cast out from all corners of the world. Every illness is a call to life in full, to life in service, to life in love. That choice, that possibility, that commandment is ours.
I ask you: Would we have been so enamored of the sacrificial love of Christ, if he had not taken upon himself the burden of the cross? Will we be as likely to face the choice of loving service if disease does not someday find us out?