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Thanksgiving… Food For Thought

Thought BubblesBy Rebecca Brown, Streetlight Founder

We just finished the American holiday centered on giving thanks.  Some of you may have offered a prayer of gratitude at your family dinner – or made mention of the personal blessings you have.  And for others it may not have come up.  I am bringing it up because I think we are exposed to expressions of thanks here in the hospital in many different forms.  And, each time I hear these expressions I am slightly uncomfortable.  These are some of my thoughts.

After a parents’ dinner, at least one parent will inevitably say to me (discreetly) – “Wow, and I thought we had it bad…There are so many people that have it worse than we do.  I feel grateful we have a treatable cancer. ”  And I smile back weakly, for that night they probably met a CF parent, or a family dealing with a cancer relapse, or brain tumor. Yes, there is always someone who “has it worse.”

So I wonder, is this our grounds for gratitude?  Is it all about comparing yourself to someone else?  What were you grateful for this Thanksgiving?  Your health, your family, your academic opportunities, living in America, your financial stability?  That you are more blessed than those who do not have these things?  Here in the hospital, you need only look at our census to see people who have much less.  A family moved to America to have a better life.  Then… the daughter was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, the father lost his job, and the family got evicted from their home.  One of our patients would give anything to graduate from high school and another to go to college. You can have impressive family support, and a strong faith, but still lose your life to cancer.  How did his/her family give thanks this year?  If giving thanks is the result of comparison (finding someone who has it worse than you do) how do our patients give thanks, and do they, should they?  And who is that “ultimate unfortunate person” who has it worse than EVERYONE?

I cannot “give thanks” that my daughters Liz and Alex don’t have CF… because someone I love does!  Am I blessed?  Is she cursed?  If I am thankful, who am I thanking?  Fate? Luck? God?  One patient’s mom came back from a parents’ dinner six weeks ago, and told Emily how much it meant to her to talk with other cancer parents.  Prior to that dinner, Mom had always used the phrase “I feel so blessed” about her situation because her son’s cancer was curable.  But after that dinner, she just kept saying “I feel so lucky.” That may not seem like a big difference but it is.  She is beginning to realize that how things go with her son is not a matter of some deity deciding to “bless her” and choosing not to bless the patient next to them.  The cancer spreads or the chemo works, but is God up there choosing to bless some and inflict others?  Who gets the “good” Thanksgiving this year?

This work we do makes me appreciate simple things like being able to breathe, or having skin that does not itch, hair that does not fall out, and kidneys that work.   I feel fortunate that I am able to live into my 50s, but I am reminded daily that many young people that I love – will not live to see 30.  My health is something I do not take for granted, so I hold it gently with respect and humility.

Bishop Desmond Tutu says “We need other human beings in order to be human.  The solitary, isolated human being is a contradiction in terms.”  Thanksgiving should not be one person’s gratitude at being spared another’s fate. We are part of the greater whole – an enormous human table around which many are seated with cystic fibrosis, lupus, cancer, spina bifida, sickle cell, and many, many other illnesses. Health is not a competition, nor is healing a reward.

Walk humbly on this earth.  Your self worth is generated by knowing you belong to a greater whole.  We need other human beings to be human.  You do not have good health because you are a better person.  You are a better person because you share your strength and your good health to serve others.

©  2010 Rebecca Brown