“The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas. Of course! What less? But I am not in a hurry tonight.” – Pippin
I’m in a hurry and I don’t know why. Ok, I’ve been in a hurry all my life, so maybe I have a few clues to why.
I was raised in a cancer family. I was five when my father was treated for cancer. Treatments back then were brutal; he barely survived the cure. Cancer has a way of changing the people that it touches. It pushes a person, one way or the other. Cancer pushed my dad towards achievement. He was apparently always busy a guy, but after the cancer, he found a wellspring of busy-ness. He would cram as much as he could into every day, as if each day might be his last.
Before the cancer, my father was a schoolteacher, but after he was driven to be more. He finished his masters degree, got his paramedics license, went to police academy and finally, when I was twelve years old, capped it all by going to medical school. He rarely sat still, rarely took a day off, and when he did get a vacation day there was no room in it for rest. Vacations were marathon adventures that usually started the minute he got off work by an all-night-long, non-stop drive to some place as far away from home as he could get. I can’t count the number of times we ended up sleeping the last few early morning hours in the parking lot of a ski resort waiting for the check-in time so that we could be the first ones up the slopes knowing that my dad would make sure we were also the last ones down. Up at six for dawn hikes or the gate opening at an amusement park. Busy all day until the last firework was done. Frantic. Vacations were exhausting, but his work was exhausting as well. Cancer just wouldn’t let him rest.
Of course, all this busy-ness had a trickle down affect. My dad’s hectic seemingly never-ending education caused all the work of our family to fall on my mother. She worked full time as the sole breadwinner, managed all the household chores, and shouldered all the parenting responsibilities. If my mother had any personal aspirations of her own, I never heard her speak of them. All I heard was her worries about how she could manage it all. She was an intelligent, capable woman, a trained teacher, but low salaries and difficult tenure rules kept her scrambling from year to year to find a position, some years only managing to find substitute teaching and tutoring. She was a closet perfectionist who worked herself ragged trying to keep up with the house, yard, bills and family schedule. After cancer came into our lives, she couldn’t rest either.
I have both of them in my head all the time, a constant undercurrent of hectic, frantic, hurry-ups and a feeling that life is too short and I can never do enough.
For decades, I followed unquestioningly in their wake. This frantic lifestyle was so deeply ingrained in me that I never conceived of fighting it. Hectic felt comfortable. Given a free minute, I filled it, even with activities that I hated. Given talents and abilities, I achieved as much as I could with them, even in fields that were far removed from my own interests. I ended high school quite ill, but I still hurried my way through college in only three years filling all my school breaks with surgeries, refusing to take even one day off no matter my level of pain or illness. I rushed my way into medical school at age 20. As if the grueling class schedule was not enough, I spent every break going on foreign mission trips or volunteering in summer camps. I slogged my way through my 20’s working 70-80 hrs a week, sometimes even more. I hated it, yet I never thought of changing. It just felt normal.
Then one day, I was the one with cancer. Suddenly I found myself raising my own son in a cancer family, and I found myself questioning everything. The hectic, frantic pace of my life no longer felt comfortable or normal. It felt dangerous. I began to regret the pressure the all-nighters, skipped meals, and working a stressful job to point of exhaustion had put on my fragile body. My career, my family dynamic, my daily routine, suddenly all felt threatening, and yet this hurry-up mentality was so captivatingly ingrained in my life. My choices seemed to have deeply mired me in a rut that was inescapably rushing me to the grave.
Yet, as I have said, cancer has a way of changing the people that it touches. It pushes a person, one way or the other. All my life, my parent’s cancer had pushed me along their hectic path. Now my own cancer had come. Pushing me. Pushing at my heart.
Slowly (at times agonizingly slowly to a person used to hurrying along), my cancer has been pushing me to change. Slowly, it has molded my choices. It has changed my career, my daily habits, even my family itself. This change has come with great pain and loss as the cancer ate away at relationships and routines that had seemed precious to me. Parts of my life once cherished, now decayed as I found myself pushed away from the frantic lifestyle which previously sustained them. Slowly, slowly, cancer changed me.
This change did not come without a push-back. Over and over I have heard, in various phrases, but always with the same tone of disappointment, “You’ve changed.” It hurts the most when this sentiment comes from the people closest to me, trying to push me back into the hectic path of my past. Those who see my efforts to reduce the speed of my life as a rejection or rebellion, or who confuse my intentional choices with the whims of chance or as a mark of weakness.
This molding of my heart is no whim, and I personally think it no weakness. I want to be pushed. I want to be changed. Cancer is a powerful force for change. This power could be a gift, an opportunity. Make no doubt, I wholeheartedly want to stop this cancer from in any way physically invading my body, but as time passes, I seem to hold other desires for this cancer almost as strongly. I desire to grant this cancer the freedom to invade my life. I desire to use it’s power for change to help me do the things that do not come naturally for me. This seems like an opportunity to achieve something great, perhaps something surprising and unexpected. The over-achieving part of me even seems to find some fulfillment in the idea of not letting this chance slip by.
I want to learn to slow down. I want to learn to measure my pace, to walk quietly with deliberation. I want to move through my days and through my life with gentle grace. I want to stop the constant drain of my time and energy on things that sap my strength. Instead, I want fill my days with cooking, art, music, planting, stretching, meditating, praying, reading great words of others and writing words of my own. I want to craft days full of things that bring warmth and joy to my heart, and somehow avoid the pitfall of overfilling to a point that strips acts of love into mere tasks on an errand list.
I need to learn to slow down. I have not mastered the lesson yet. I’ve been working on this very blog post for the last three-and-a-half weeks because the only “free time” I have to pursue my own pursuits is a few scattered minutes here and there, long enough to write a couple of sentences before I am drug away by some responsibility. I still have to practice quieting the voices inside me that urge me to squeeze one more date on the calender, to rush through my list so that I can add just one more task to the end. I have to learn to say no. “No,” to all the demanding areas in my life. I have internalized tons of messages that tie my self-worth to the amount of good work I can do. I need to learn new messages. Most of all I need to learn to say “no” more often to my own self, who constantly pushes me harder than any other to do the most and to be the best. I need to learn to seek out the tasks that I can do with joy and find ways to be ok with leaving many things I used to consider important undone.
When I was young, I was quite in awe of the woman who now is my mother-in-law because her priorities seemed to lead her family in a more peaceful path than I was walking. I remember so clearly the day that one of her teenage sons stood up to praise her and said, “My mother doesn’t care what our house looks like as long as only good things come out of it.” At the time, I was deeply impressed, and as the years have passed I have only become more deeply touched as I see that this is the highest praise I have ever heard a son give his mother. I need to seek out more souls like this to influence me. I need to strive to be this kind of mother to my son. I think the cancer can help me if I let it.
Yet, the hurry-ups remain. I want serenity and I want it now! I want to push myself to achieve all this self-improvement, but I have the feeling that my own pushing will only get me further down my current rut. I have the feeling I need to let the cancer push me at its own time.
Learning not to hurry just can’t be hurried. I guess I’ll have to wait.