When I read one book, the suggestions within my Kindle ap follow that genre. Some time ago, I’d downloaded the book, “The Choice: Embrace the Impossible” by Dr. Edith Egar, a survivor of the Holocaust. To say that I sobbed through much of the book is an understatement. While living with terminal cancer isn’t the same as surviving such a horrific event like the Holocaust, one of the threads throughout the book is the idea that trauma is trauma.
While the author is the first person who could pull out her experience to shame those around her who were struggling with perhaps, the color of a specially ordered car; she extends grace and compassion to others, something I’ve seen many other survivors of trauma do. There is something about understanding suffering that allows a person to often literally embody compassion to others. Case in point, Dr. Egar became a psychologist, working to lift up and coach others to healthy living while dealing with her own triggers and lifelong trauma.
As with many of the book reviews I’ve posted, I’ll share a quote or two and comment on how those words impacted me or inform the experience of living with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC).
The only antidote to brokenness is the whole self.
We are all broken. Understanding that brokenness, understanding where that brokenness comes from, understanding how we as individuals are addressing (or not) that brokenness is key to understanding. A trauma that affects one person may affect another very differently because of who those people are. I see this all the time in the MBC Community. Yes, we are all living with a similar disease, but we approach it, tackle it (or not), deal with it (or not) in the context of who we were, who we are, and our unique experiences.
… I remind myself that each of us has an Adolf Hitler and a Corrie ten Boom within us. We have the capacity to hate and the capacity to love. Which one we reach for—our inner Hitler or inner ten Boom—is up to us.
Much of the book is Dr. Egar sharing stories. She shares stories of people she has worked with (all the pertinent details changed, of course, to protect her patients) and several of them were how the patient needed to acknowledge and embrace both the positive and the darkness within them. The behaviors that were often baffling to others were at times the way that person was avoiding looking at both.
We each have the capacity for great good and great evil. We can choose.
I can’t ever change the past. But there is a life I can save: It is mine. The one I am living right now, this precious moment.
This concept of being able to save ourselves by various means is a thread throughout the book as well. As I used to explain to clients and as I explain to my children daily, we can only control our response to what happens to us, to what others do. We can’t control anything else. We can’t change anything that has happened, but we can focus on living in the present moment, right now.
Our painful experiences aren’t a liability—they’re a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.
Some people look at a painful experience like breast cancer and call it a gift. After five (5) years of doing this MBC thing, I still can’t bring myself to call my diagnosis a gift; at the same time, I see a silver lining of MBC to be exactly what Dr. Egar is talking about here. Having to look my mortality in the face without flinching and assimilate that knowledge and experience into my every day life has given me perspective and meaning. And I think it has helped me find a unique purpose and strength, honing and focusing the raw material and the experiences that came before the diagnosis.
Viktor Frankl writes, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life…. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.”
Viktor Frankl and Dr. Egar experienced a connection that is clear from her writing, not just from their shared experiences of the Nazi camps, but also what they chose to do with that experience. This search for meaning shows up in so many ways throughout our lives and when there is a trauma, that search can become more significant, more focused, perhaps more urgent.
Time doesn’t heal. It’s what you do with the time. Healing is possible when we choose to take responsibility, when we choose to take risks, and finally, when we choose to release the wound, to let go of the past or the grief.
I’m not sure I can truly say more than this — it resonates with me on quite a few levels.
I used to ask, Why me? Why did I survive? I have learned to ask a different question: Why not me?
I’m not sure any of us with MBC hasn’t asked this question at one point or another: Why me? Those of us with germline mutations where the cancer took hold with other family members where it didn’t, sometimes even more so. We direct these heartfelt questions to other people, to doctors, to God, to the universe … and we are asking the wrong question. Why not me?
Freedom is in accepting what is and forgiving ourselves, in opening our hearts to discover the miracles that exist now.
Freedom is an awkward concept at times. Our illness or our circumstances or the things that others do, these things cannot be changed, but our response to these things can always change, can always be a point of growth, can be our secret superpower.
You can’t change what happened, you can’t change what you did or what was done to you. But you can choose how you live now. My precious, you can choose to be free.
Dr. Egar ended her book with these words and so I end with them. No matter what has happened, no matter the circumstances, no matter what everyone else has done, we can each individually chose to be free.