A tale of two books

I’m reading two books: My Grandfather’s Blessings, by Rachel Naomi Remen, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

The first is on loan from a friend who (correctly) thought I would like its “stories of strength, refuge, and belonging,” as the subtitle says. The book defines a blessing as a “moment of meeting” and of wholeness—a mUntitledoment when someone or something helps you remember who you are, and when you do that for someone else. The author is a cancer doctor, and she talks a lot about healing.

The Fault in Our Stars is a novel about teenagers with cancer. I borrowed it from my daughter because she recommended it as a well-written and effective tearjerker, and I need to cry. A lot. I’m not yet far enough into it to start crying, but the two books do have me thinking.

The other night I read a scene from The Fault in Our Stars where one teenager says to another: “Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who becomes their disease.”

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I don’t know whether I have a disease (not cancer, thank God), or even a more vaguely defined “illness.” But I do know how I feel: not just tired and achy but diminished, less-than, infirm. I feel as though I have become my infirmity, and it has become my life.

That thought evokes a lot of self-judgment and harshness. (“Don’t tell me you’re one of those people…”) No surprise; harsh self-judgment is my way. What did surprise me yesterday was realizing that judgment and harshness are not the only way to see this situation. I can also see it as an opportunity to heal, as in the stories in My Grandfather’s Blessings.

Thinking about how I have come to define myself by my struggles, I immediately ask: what can I do to change that? In Rachel Remen’s words, how can I remember who I am? And I think: by doing what I love. Music, reading, writing, family history, nature, yoga.

That, of course, is the Mary Oliver Challenge: to let myself love what I love, and to do what I love without getting stuck on the doing. It’s a challenge because I define myself by what I do, with a strong undertone of accomplishment and judgment, even for leisure activities. (How many books have I failed to read? How many weeks are we behind on the New York Times Magazine crossword puzzle?) It’s hard to simply love what I love when everything I do—and everything I don’t do—is tallied on some imaginary scoreboard that seems to display the measure of my worth.

So how do I heal? How do I become whole? How do I remember who I am and let myself love what I love?

Part of the answer, I think, lies in Rachel Remen’s definition of a blessing as a “moment of meeting.” Above, I wrote that a blessing is when someone or something helps you remember who you are. The word “something” was my own addition. Remen is talking about people, personal interactions that strengthen the wholeness and the life within us.

Without denying that I can find those moments inside myself, or in nature or a book or music, I need to seek out more moments of meeting with other human beings. Self-reliance is not my best friend right now, not when I doubt myself and my strength so much. Other people can help me remember who I am, can help me love what I love. Being with other people can help me remember that what I love includes not just doing—the great activities I listed above—but also being with other human beings.

Another tricky question is how to bring this focus on wholeness and strength into therapy, where the focus is usually on the ways that I feel broken and weak. Of course we need to explore those areas; that’s the point of therapy. But focusing on it makes me feel more broken and more scared.

My fear of brokenness and weakness is itself a source of brokenness: when I try to hide those things, it separates me from parts of myself, and from other people.

Paradoxically, the brokenness is part of the whole.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

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