April 19, 2022 – Marisa Guerin, PhD
I began to notice, some weeks back, that one of the phrases I most often use these days is “thank you.” And it is no perfunctory, pro forma social ritual, either! As I have been going through my chemotherapy, the stem cell transplant and the subsequent recuperation period, I have needed a lot of support, much more than my formerly-independent self could imagine. Every day gives me a chance to say or write “thank you.”
Sometimes, I have wondered how I might ever go about returning the favors that have come my way, and in short order I realize that I can’t do that. Its impossible for me to reciprocate in any meaningful, equivalent fashion. And that very truth, that awareness of my dependence and vulnerability and genuine need is what is teaching me the real depth of “thank you.”
When I write or say those words these days, I am trying to convey a gratitude that is coming from my very core, where I recognize the reality of my neediness, which is not something I have been inclined to accept in the past. I am touched and uplifted by the graciousness of others. It truly is an awesome experience to know the power of kindness, of love, of generosity in this suffering world of ours… and an experience of my place as the receiver, the beneficiary, the one being encouraged and supported.
Of course, as I regain strength and capacity, I hope that I will take the opportunities I am given to support others, but that’s more like “paying it forward” than any kind of reciprocation. So, while I can resolve to be a helpful person in the future, I cannot use that plan as an equalizer for my psyche, as a way to pull myself out of the place of being the receiver and back to a more accustomed place of being a giver. Spending energy working on how to repay everyone is, I think, a trap. My calling right now is to be honestly thankful and happy to be so well cared for, and to express my thanks every chance I get.
I know from the writing I did with my late friend Brother Joe about the wisdom of St. Thérèse of Lisieux that one of the heart qualities she cultivated on her path to a meaningful life was gratefulness. In her case, it was a gratefulness that extended to everything and every moment, which is a challenge for me – and for most of us, I imagine. It means keeping a spirit of gratitude alive even when the unfolding of my life brings times of difficulty, loneliness, sadness, or pain, just as when it brings times of happiness. From that perspective, gratitude is the stance of welcoming the gift of being alive, and being alive means the full range of human experience. For Thérèse, who never wavered in trusting that God’s love was ever-present, the spirit of gratefulness was one of the foundations of her peacefulness and joy all the way to the end. That spirit of gratitude, as I now know firsthand, is not an emotional “up.” It doesn’t originate in feelings. It is an act of faith and trust, a willingness to take one step, and then the next one, and the next, without fighting with reality. I don’t find it easy. But I am doing my best. Just being willing is probably enough.
I don’t know what my future holds, how much capacity I am going to regain, or what the course of my incurable cancer will be over time. I am hopeful of a period of remission, but I know that isn’t the same thing as a cure. Sooner or later, I will have future needs, too. To be a cancer patient is like being – unexpectedly – in school again. Only this time, what is being learned is how to grow emotionally and spiritually while being stripped, for a while at least, of the strengths and capabilities that I was used to relying upon.
Instead of relying on myself, I have discovered the beautiful world of the goodness of others, and I am overwhelmed with appreciation.
All I can do is say “Thank you!”