Every year, I facilitate a session for a group of long-term volunteers as part of their Fall Day of Reflection. We begin the day with a prayer service that the organizers call a “milling prayer.” A variety of quotes, pasted onto colorful construction paper, are scattered across the floor. The participants then “mill” around the room, reading each of the quotes and picking up the one that resonates with him or her.
This year, Anne Lamott’s words caught my attention: “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”
Perhaps the idea of being right resonates with me because I grew up believing I was wrong most of the time. I lacked confidence in myself and my beliefs, and even when I knew the right answer, I usually offered it with a question mark.
Uncertainty and doubt defined my young life.
But as I got older and my confidence grew, so did my delight in being right.
One problem with knowing I am right (and delighting in it) is that it can lead to a smug self-righteousness, which, I know, is quite unattractive. So I try to temper my enthusiasm for being right.In my work with people who have been touched by cancer, I have many opportunities to choose between being right and being kind.Facing a terminal illness can raise all sorts of questions, doubts and fears. Many people ask, Why me?
Sometimes there are answers as to why someone got cancer, but I have heard that 80% of cancers are just bad luck.
That, of course, leads to another question: Why am I the one to have such bad luck?
Frequently, people have difficulty facing the reality of their situation and will question a doctor’s ability to predict the path of cancer.
For example, a doctor might say, “You will need to be on chemotherapy for the rest of your life,” meaning that without chemo, the cancer will grow unchecked and the person will die.
I have heard doctors described as “rude” for saying this. Quite often people ask, “How does he (or she) know how long I am going to live?” Fair enough.
When I first started in this job, I would suggest the doctor was basing this prognosis on experience, (as in, “most people in your situation need chemo to keep the cancer in check”), but the response I got was usually some version of pshaw.
I quickly learned that why me questions are usually rhetorical—people are not really seeking answers. They are actually looking for someone who will listen to them, acknowledge the dreadfulness of their situation and accept them where they are—fears and all. They are seeking kindness in the midst of desolation.
In truth, there may be no satisfactory explanation as to why someone gets cancer, and the doctor may or may not be right in predicting the path cancer will take; so much of life is mystery.
My job is to practice being kind instead of being right.