Cancer’s Surprising Gift

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When my wife was diagnosed with cancer, something odd happened. Her anger at God went away. 

My wife always struggled with the concept of suffering. It really bothered her. She just could not reconcile the Holocaust and other tragedies with the concept of God being a loving father. She even said at times that she felt angry with God for making people go through such pain and hardship.

Then she was diagnosed with cancer and all her anger went away. Almost immediately, she began to feel that God loved her very deeply. It was quite amazing.

We were both shocked at this response. Neither of us understood how it worked. How can it be that you are upset that God makes people go through pain, then he makes you go through pain and suddenly you feel that he loves you? The response seems to be a complete non sequitur. 

We asked my teacher, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, and he gave us an explanation that made a lot of sense to both of us.

He said that we often get so caught up in the pettiness of life that we don’t allow ourselves to appreciate God’s love for us. We get frustrated that the car won’t start, that we’re not earning enough money, that our relationship with our spouse is not that of Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty, that there’s nothing decent to watch on TV tonight… We get caught up in petty, silly things and by so doing we make our world petty. It’s hard to feel excited by a petty world, so we get frustrated with God that life is not what we want it to be. We feel that life is difficult. It’s challenging both for us and for others. There is pain, there is suffering, there is tragedy… So we get upset, even angry, with God.

Then you are diagnosed with cancer and suddenly life is not so petty any more. Life is very heavy. Mortality stares you right in the eye and you realize that life really is something special. You don’t want to die. You want to live. It’s a wonderful world and it’s very much worth living for. The pettiness goes and the value of life is suddenly plain to see. And who cares if it’s challenging? Who cares if it’s difficult and painful? Who cares if it has its share of sadness and tragedy? It’s worth it. Life is so good that it’s worth it all.

That’s on a macro level, but it happened to us on a micro level also. Six months before my wife became ill, we had had our fourth child. The last two were born within 20 months of each other, so we had two babies. It was really hard for us. The challenge of 4 children, two of whom were babies really wore us down. As an Orthodox couple, only four children was not what we had in mind when we started, but suddenly the thought of having more became a very difficult one. Did we really want to go through the incredible difficulty of five, then six…? We had a conversation about it and we both felt the same way.

And then Elana was diagnosed with cancer.

It became pretty clear to us from the outset that, even if she survived, we weren’t going to be having more children. And gradually our attitude changed. We desperately wanted more. Each child was so precious. Each one so special. Each one of such infinite value. We had been so caught up in the pettiness of what a hassle it was to change a nappy that we had lost track of just what an incredible blessing children were.

Sometimes we need shocks to shake us out of our pettiness. And when we awake from our pettiness, we realise just how incredible life is.

We recently completed celebrating the holiday of Sukkot which is all about this. We move out of our homes into a little shack. We move away from the material world, that petty and silly world that so easily distracts us from what we know to be important. We move away from our pettiness for a few days in order that we can understand and experience true joy. Sukkot is called the holiday of joy. If we lift ourselves out of our own self-imposed smallness, then we can appreciate just how much God loves us and feel the joy that life has to offer any time of the year.

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