Yesterday I was reading the GQ cover story about Stephen Colbert and his new version of the late show. It covered some of his backstory that I wasn’t previously aware of, including the loss of his father and two older brothers at age 10. Towards the end of the discussion, Stephen brought up something that really resonated with me in terms of having and living past cancer.
“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” …
I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest … “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”
Stephen’s philosophy, borrowed from Tolkien, nicely sums up the way that I have felt about my cancer for a long time: I did not WANT it, but I would not CHANGE it.
Of course, I do not WANT to have had cancer when I was in college. It was awful and I would not wish that on anyone.
That being said, my life today (which I love) would not have happened if I had not gone through that ordeal. My best friends from college are my freshman roommates who stood by me during chemo. I would not have been as close to them without cancer. My decision to pursue a major that I loved, my decision to teach English in France after college, the delay in when I started drinking, the risks that I took and the decisions I made were all a direct result of the 12 months I spent in chemotherapy during freshman year.
For me, being grateful for the amazing life that has resulted is more natural – and more productive – than being bitter about going through the ordeal in the first place. Attitude is everything, both during treatment and after.
Which reminds me of another, more well-known, Tolkien quote (~1:55). During Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo turns to Gandalf and says “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time we are given to us.”
How do you feel about cancer now that you are past it? What have you decided to do with your time?