You have a friend with cancer, let’s say breast cancer because it seems both more common and less scary than others (just lop it off, right?). It was caught early and it seems like she’s going to be fine, if breastless. She’s not, like, your best friend, so this isn’t a direct hit on your life. But she’s close enough that you can’t dismiss it as another inevitable, anonymous cancer story. You truly care about her. You bring food and offer support and “like” or “cry” or “anger” all her facebook posts. You are not a Bad Person.
But she’s not what you think about at 2am, staring at the ceiling. You think about You. Specifically, You in contrast with her. You start to construct a questionnaire, like those at the doctor’s office that tell you whether you’re an alcoholic. Yours is something like this:
- Are you older or younger than her?
- Did she smoke? Do you?
- Is she nicer than you?
- Does she drink? A lot? How much less than you?
- Would you describe her as a “positive person”? Are you?
- What’s her medical history? How healthy are you?
- Does she meditate? for how long? Does she seem enlightened? More than You?
- Does she exercise? What kind?
- Where did she grow up? Was it on a nuclear test site? Wasn’t there a paint manufacturer around the corner when you were a kid? Was this before they banned lead? Why don’t you ever see those neighbors on facebook!?
And you think you can take all your answers and hers, give them each a number, calculate a cancer score for each of you, and objectively determine whether you are more or less likely to get cancer than she is. Then think of ways to dramatically derail your life so you can beat those odds.
But it’s all bullshit. This is the story we tell ourselves. It’s a lot like our success story, our ideas of the right and wrong things to do to lead us to the desired conclusion. It’s magical thinking, and it’s utterly unhelpful. It saps energy and presence and eats away at you. Of course there are proven behaviors that should reduce risk, but that’s not what this is about. This is about constructing a story against which you can praise or blame yourself and chart your future – a way to give yourself control over something that is essentially out of your control.
Crafted after your scary health diagnosis, this magical storytelling is worse than unhelpful, it’s destructive. Blaming yourself for your affliction is, first, untrue (because there is no free will, folks – your cancer is the product of your genetics, the block you grew up on, the people you’ve known, and the behavior of every atom in the universe which crafted your inevitable journey toward every single thing you’ve ever done); and second, it’s adding insult to injury. Even if you do believe you were responsible, what does that matter now? It helps nothing. The post-diagnosis should be all healing and living and decision making and all that fun shit. When it comes down to it, Your Cancer is not about you and your concept of self. But even more than that, Her Cancer is not About You.
Get off it. Be a friend. Get over yourself. I mean, it’s normal to think this way, but stop now. It’s totally normal to turn your friend’s cancer into your rumination fantasy, right?
There’s no way I’m the first one to do this, right?
Hello? Is this thing on?