Cancer Lessons: Empathy and Compassion
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Generosity and frustration

I don’t even know how to describe some of the feelings I have been having lately. I find myself oscillating between extreme gratefulness and extreme frustration. Our family has been touched by the generosity of family members, friends, even strangers. But I find myself having bitterness in my heart that I can’t shake and it’s become somewhat of a burden on my heart. As a cancer patient, I will forever know the profound impact that love, kindness, and generosity have on one’s spirit. Cancer has truly changed my perspective and brought me out of my own self-absorption. My compassion and love for others who are suffering have increased. I find myself wanting to help out those suffering, especially cancer patients, in the same way that help was provided to me.

But I find myself feeling a little bitter and frustrated, despite my gratefulness. We have a family that lives next door to us that experienced cancer through their 3 year old son. When I found out about their situation I tried to show up as much as I could. And I saw others showing up for them, people they didn’t even know. It appeared they were having the same experience as our family had. But I also noticed people that WEREN’T showing up for them…family members, neighbors, friends.  The story seemed the same. Don’t they know that they need help right now? Why do I get so angry when I see people who NEED help and people that I THOUGHT would answer the call are suddenly silent?

Was I compassionate before cancer?

This has been something that I have struggled with. I even find myself ruminating about it. And then I think back to before I had cancer. To times when I would hear about a friend or relative that was sick or fallen on bad times. I would say a prayer for them and think about them, for a brief moment at least, but then I would fall back into my own world, oblivious to their situation. I would say that I would pray for them on Facebook, but how many times would I really get down on my hands and knees and REALLY pray for them?  Not very often I’m afraid. 3 years ago, I was the very person I am struggling with now. I was the oblivious one who didn’t realize that my neighbor needed help with mowing their lawn or shoveling their driveway or making meals. I was the person who would “send prayers” but then forget about it soon after the words were typed. I was the scared one who didn’t know what to say to a friend that lost their parent, so I said nothing. I was the very person that mystifies me now.

How do I get past these feelings?

I look back at who I was and feel ashamed. I have always considered myself a caring, kind person, but in reality, I was just as self-absorbed as the next guy. True empathy and compassion weren’t really in the picture. And so now I think about the people I encounter who are similar to who I was 3 years ago. How do I get over my bitterness and frustration? How do I bite my tongue and move on? Ironically, by purposely practicing empathy and compassion. They simply don’t realize how quickly things in your life can change. They don’t realize how impactful even the SIMPLEST gesture can lift your spirit. They don’t realize that when you are at your lowest and feeling like the world is crumbling around you, kind words, gestures and love bring a glimmer of hope and light to a very dark time.

And so I practice forgiveness, and ironically, I give thanks that they haven’t had to experience a cancer diagnosis that completely turned their world upside down.

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