Would Captain Kirk Race for the Cure?
I just returned from the Susan Koman Race for the Cure, an annual 5K race in Washington that benefits women with breast cancer. I wish I could say I was there as a participant. But these things turn me off.
I myself was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2008, and I went to the Koman event to see if I could finally do what I haven't been able to in three years: become active in the world of charity races and walks. Despite my admiration for the people who partake in these events, I have never been able to shake a cynical voice in my head about these things. To me, too many of these races, walks, softball games, and dances offer an unhealthy triumphalism.
It's fine to defeat cancer, and also fine to foster solidarity with other people with the same illness. But something in me cringes a little a bit at the bombast of some of these events. It shows a lack of humility in the face of the inevitable sorrows of the world. Moreover, there has been an escalation in recent years of rides-for-cures. Lupus, arthritis, and my favorite, the Best Buddies 5K Ride. Best Buddies find friends for "people with emotional and intellectual disabilities," a demographic that includes, potentially, the entire human race.
When I was sick, one thing that brought be a genuine sense of peace was the Robert Bresson film Diary of a Country Priest. Strangely, I began watching the film months before I was diagnosed. I could sense that there was something wrong with me, specifically in my stomach and abdomen, and the film depicts a priest who is suffering from stomach cancer.
But it is also about much more. It is about the spiritual grace that comes with total acceptance of God's will. To be clear: the priest is not like one of those dreary fundamentalist Christians who happily, idiotically see the glorious hand of God in everything from a dog barking to deadly diseases. He is depressed by his illness. In one scene, he walks into a church, only to turn around and leave, realizing that he cannot pray.
But through it all, he strives for acceptance. The key scene in the film, the so-called "Countess scene," occurs when he confronts a woman who has rejected God after the death of her young son. Rather than making the priest weak, his acceptance that God has his own law and knowledge which may not also ways be the way of man has given him startling courage and power. As the woman curses God for the loss of her son, the priest, played by Claude Laydu, warns her. Do not separate yourself from God, he tells her.
She retorts with pain, arrogance and resentment: God took my child away, she says. My husband is having an affair. My daughter is insolent. The priest then tells her: despite all of that, your only option, if you don't want to cut yourself off from God, is acceptance. Because God has his own reasons, and His love has its own law. Then comes the apex of the scene: You can hate God, he tells the countess. You can spit on Him, you can lash Him, you can nail Him to a cross. and after all of that only one thing is left: to say, Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.
Again, I don't want to sound too cynical. At the Koman race I was moved by seeing all the women wearing pink t-shirts with the word SURVIVOR written vertically on the front. There is something to be said for the kind of strength and guts it takes to endure cancer treatment. I had to have six chemo treatments over the course of a year, and it was not fun. How some people can endure 20 or 30 such treatments is amazing to me.
There is something beautiful and noble in our defiance of death. It's why one of my heroes is Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek. Like everyone else, I love to see the Enterprise escape at the last second. I knew what they felt like when I was diagnosed with cancer, then told that I have the most treatable form. The WARP drive had kicked in.
Yet we must be careful that the defiance of illness does not become defiance of God. We should remember that such episodes in our lives can paradoxically draw us into greater intimacy with the Lord, and that this intimacy can be a grace and a gift. Further, such intimacy can give us genuine courage.
To me, two of the greatest Catholics of all time are Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan and popular host on EWTN, and the late Richard John Neuhaus. Fr. Neuhaus died of cancer in 2009, a few years after having a near-death experience when battling back a tumor caused by the disease. Fr. Groeschel himself had almost died when he was hit by a car in 2004. When Fr. Neuhaus was on his deathbed, Fr. Groeschel paid him a visit. "How are you doing, Richard?" he asked. "Benedict," Neuhaus replied, "you and I have been dead once. We're not afraid of it the second time around."
Just a block from where the Susa Koman Race for the Cure was the National Gallery of Art. To escape the soulless anthems being blasted out of the speakers -- can Beyonce write a song that is not about a woman asserting her independence? -- I went in.
I was lucky to catch the last weekend of a marvelous exhibit on Paul Gauguin. Gauguin, born in Paris in 1848, traveled the world looking for paradise. He was driven to find a place that was not corrupted by commerce, industry, and Western religion. He retreated to Tahiti and, later the Marquesas islands. His paintings are stunning, but Gauguin found that it was not possible to find paradise -- that even in the remote reaches of the earth, people are basically the same.
It struck me that there is a connection between Gauguin and the race-for-whatever people. They are both looking for a world without suffering. But, as Captain Kirk put it so memorably in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, "I want my pain. I need my pain. My pain makes me who I am."