Monday, September 15, 2008

The Courage Of A Strong Heart

I have a friend whose gentle strength has taught me much, in a short time, of what it means to be a true gentleman. He recently, and reluctantly, admitted to us that he had been diagnosed with cancer. This was quite a shock, as it was yet another case of bad things, the worst things, happening to the best people.

I wasn’t able to talk to him when I first heard the awful news, and it was going to be a few days before I could see him again. I resolved to talk with him about it after church that weekend, but out of cowardice I let myself get distracted and his family left before I got to him. Shamefully, the truth is that I had no idea what on earth to say to him, and I didn’t want to look stupid or make things worse through saying the "wrong thing". So I hung back and acted as if cancer was as contagious as the common cold. Pathetic...

This past Sunday I was no more brave than the week before but nonetheless I was determined to make amends for last week’s failure. During the week in-between, after I had included him and his family in my prayers, I also asked for the Right Words to say... since much of my hesitation came from my admission that, for all my vain aspirations to eloquence, I just had no idea what to say to him. Looking back, it seems I still have a lot to learn about effective prayer; each time I listened for the answer to be dropped in my lap, some magic phrase or inspiring quote or something. None came. On the last day I managed to be silent long enough to finally hear a little voice suggesting to simply see the truth and to say that to my friend.

So that’s what I did; at the end of services, I marched over to where my friend was waiting for his lift and hopefully I made up for the cowardice of the week before. I heard myself admitting that I didn’t know what exactly to say, but that I had been thinking about him, and praying for him and his family. He accepted my hand, and quickly offered the same gentle smile that seems to come so easily to him every time we see each other.

"I’m not complaining. This is what happens when you get old", he said, calmly, in his typically quiet and shy style of speaking. He glanced over at his wife, who was still chatting with some of her friends over by the church steps. He smiled again. "I can’t complain, I’ve had a good life. Besides, who knows, there is a lot that can be done today about these things…."

We were joined by a few other of his friends, colleagues from friendships of many decades duration. I learned immediately from their example that specific words aren’t always necessary: they simply said his name, looked him in the eye and reached for his hand or for a pat on his shoulder. That said anything that needed saying; each had pledged support for him, through acts more eloquent than any mere words could match.

Another sight I won’t soon forget: he assumed the responsibility to be the one to cheer us up! He gave us a quick preview of the treatment he was in store for, described in hopeful terms, all the while allowing himself a few grim jokes of gallows humor. I began mentally comparing the medical procedures he was outlining with the ones my uncle had to undergo as he succumbed to cancer years before, and from the turns the conversation started to take it seemed like all of the others gathered in our small circle had done the same.

[An observational aside: It was frightening to recognize how each one of us, my friend included, had personally known someone who had cancer, either in our families or from our pool of friends. This random assembly of half-a-dozen people each knew of someone who either had died from cancer, or had it and saw it treated succesfully. Was that an insignificant coincidence, I wonder, or a sign as to how common the disease has become? Anyway, back to the point of this post…]

It’s times like these that I wish I was a more informed etymologist, because it was only afterwards, when I began looking up the origin of words like "encourage", that I realized how much I could have been helped, so much earlier, if I had been better educated about the building blocks of our english language.

I had forgotten that the source is "coeur", the French word for "heart". Our physical heart expands and contracts, gives and takes, during its systole and diastole; a "beating heart" is one that does both, one might say, at the same time, even if sequentially. So from this real-life experience it’s made easier to understand the idea of sacrificial love, of giving and getting, both at the same time. When it’s said of a person that they have a "good heart", as anyone would surely say of my friend, it’s that such a person feels the need to give back as much as they recognize they’ve been given.
An act of "courage" is in fact usually not one single instant, one single heartbeat, but a steady pattern of them, a rhythm of one act after another. "Encouragement" is not one single thing one time, but again a long pattern of things; the more it's exercized, the easier it is to continue doing.

Our coming together in marriage, in family, in friendship, in teams, make us embrace something much larger than ourselves, and help us learn that life is not a one-way street. These associations force us out of the present moment, beyond ourselves, teach us to have faith that letting go, making room, emptying ourselves leaves us more able to receive, and thereby grow to become yet more of ourself. These partnerships, often of opposites, are so vital to building our spiritual courage, and by extention the strength of our physical hearts, as we get to live out the experience of simultaneous gain and loss, and learn how to better cope with the loss side of the balance.

I will dearly miss my friend, should this be the beginning of the end (as, from listening between his words, he seems to accept it to be), but in that loss I have been blessed with a great gift, and I humbly Thank God for my friend's example and acts of encouragement.

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