This morning’s paper, along with various facebook statuses and tweets, reported that NDP leader Jack Layton had lost his battle with cancer and passed away at the age of 61. From the tributes I’ve read, however, I must disagree. An aggressive form of cancer was the cause of Layton’s death, I understand, but I’m not convinced he lost the battle, or that cancer was even the opponent.
A notion comes to mind, a description of proper living I picked up somewhere, and it is the idea of “suffering well“. I think this is the starting point to better understand the battles we encounter in life, and how to fight them effectively. What does it mean to suffer well and how is that different from living well? Doing anything well requires practice and it’s safe to guess that we’d prefer to practice living as opposed to suffering. Some particularly enlightened souls may do so, but few of us seek out those miserable character-building scenarios simply for the practice. Alternatively, we pursue the idea of living well enthusiastically, encouraged by media, self-help books, and motivational speakers to “live in the moment,” “live each day to its fullest,” and “Carpe Diem.” So we do all those things. We maximize our enjoyment, we live well.
In the midst of this, however, the skills required to “suffer well” begin to atrophy, like untested muscles in a regular but incomplete workout. The pursuit of living excellence may give us more enjoyment, more happiness, and maybe even a better quality of life, but then the shit hits the fan as it always does and always will, the lines are drawn, and the real battle begins. When trauma hits like a truck, with complete and inescapable force, when the only thing we can do is endure, when there is no escape, just the faintest hope that time will mitigate the damage, we need skills to survive. We need to know what we’re fighting and how to fight it.
My trauma killed me for a few minutes, broke my neck, and took some not-so-vital organs, but the battle I fight today does not concern any of these. The shit that hit the fan decimated my brain, creating psychological and emotional minefields I shakily crossed, hoping and praying I wouldn’t blow up, but the battle today is not on these grounds . My battle isn’t with brain damage, just as Layton’s battle wasn’t with cancer. The fight isn’t with the condition, the fight is how to live with the condition. Resisting the logical tendency to be identified by it, refusing to let insecurities dictate actions, and believing that the true, valuable self is more than the sum of abilities and appearances – this is the battle and the fighting here is vicious.
When this battle is bravely fought, when despair is beaten back and its allies held captive, this is suffering well. When the hope of a new morning holds fast against the torment and pain of night, this is fighting a winning battle. Suffering well is choosing to live well in the midst of suffering. I don’t believe Layton lost the battle with cancer – the battle, it appears, was won long before it was over.
Death does not decide the victor, life does.