being jealous of cancer

“Love seeks its whole good in the good of the beloved, and to divide that good would be to diminish love.”

-Thomas Merton

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Here, my friends, is one of my most shameful and saddest truths: even in my greatest moments of love, I am terribly self-serving.

I first considered this concept when I was in high school, after reading C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: “selfish love” seemed to me to be the overwhelming theme of the book. But it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I recognized the profundity of this truth in my own motives. You see, a dear, dear friend of mine was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the middle of our fall semester that year. She had gone to the hospital after noticing a lump on her collarbone, and when she returned, five of us gathered in her bedroom, holding on to each other’s arms, faces white as she relayed the news. I immediately canceled my plans for the weekend and within hours, had re-oriented my life around her well-being… my memories of those days are equally about “her” and “I”. She made the decision to continue living on campus as she underwent chemotherapy, and so her doctor’s visits and medical decisions are inextricably tied together in my mind with the shades of my own concerns, of schoolwork and preparing to study abroad and the beginnings of a new long-distance relationship. And though I wish I could say that these concerns were simply those of love- that I was solely concerned for the heart of my friend- I cannot pretend that my motives were so pure.

Instead, it was a blundering, confusing period where it seemed that everything I did was could be interpreted as both caring and self-serving, for my own benefit and for others’. I was constantly attempting to identify my own motives, and continuously finding it impossible to distinguish between wanting to do what I did for her, because it made her feel loved and taken care of, or for the glory and comfort of doing it. There was a clamoring of people when the diagnosis was made public… everybody, all of the sudden, wanted to be right there. As the news spread and her chemotherapy begin, I watched my friend as she had to gently turn well-meaning friends away. “I’m tired of talking about it”, she would tell us, “please keep them from knocking on my door.” I saw the dark circles under her eyes and without pause, took up the task. But as I stopped the flow of classmates, I tried to examine my heart: was I doing this simply because she needed sleep, she needed rest and privacy, or there was underlying pride in being the close friend, one of those in the “inner circle”? And looking back, I know that the truth was that it was both.

Throughout those months, I wanted to be the one to take care of her when she was sick. I wanted to be the one who took her to chemotherapy. To be the person who she came to when she was sad, who kept acquaintances updated, who made sure she got out of bed on the days that were tinged with depression and hopelessness. And so I did those things, and more. I missed class, went to the hospital in the middle of the night, shaved my head when her hair began to fall out in clumps. And in many ways, those were incredible things… in the midst of every one of those moments, I felt deep love, mingled compassion and grief, for my friend. I do believe that all those actions were good, in the deepest sense. And yet, my heart was tinted with the desire to be the closest, the most helpful, the deepest sacrificing, the best. It was selfish love, love that sought both the good of my friend and myself, a love dimished.

And so, I titled this post, “being jealous of cancer”. Not because I wanted to have cancer, but I wanted to name my friend’s battle as my own, as well. In those months, I was blessed enough to see our community wrap around this beautiful friend, to be a part of something filled with deep compassion and bold friendship. And so I struggled to be worthy of this group of friends, to love lavishly and selflessly, to repent of my selfishness and gain more of the generosity I saw so clearly in others, to have a fullness in love.

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Is there any way to do something truly loving, in that it doesn’t divide the good? Is it possible to love simply for the sake of the beloved? In myself, at least, I am sure that it cannot be done. Whether it is found in my response to tragedy or in my daily interactions with those around me, my affection towards others is always bestowed with the knowledge that it also benefits myself.

But what can I do except to ask for God’s grace, and continue to love to the best of my ability? For now, that will have to be enough.

*My friend recently celebrated three years of remission from cancer. She is, simply put, thriving.

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