Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cancer Sucks, and Life Is Not Fair

I think we can all agree to that much. I think we can also agree that dealing with the painful things in life is not always easy. For that reason, I think it's important to recognize that grief is a process, and everyone has to learn to deal with it in his/her own way. These are just some of the themes that come out in The Fault in Our Stars, a movie about a teenage girl with cancer, and her struggle to live with the fact that she's dying.

Cancer doesn't care how old you are
I'd like to begin by saying that this is definitely not the kind of movie you take your church group to see. There are several references to Christianity in the movie, and almost all of them are negative. But that's not to say that all Christians should necessarily avoid it. There are several points from the film that are certainly worth considering.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers!

Cancer - like other diseases, natural disasters, and car accidents - doesn't care how old you are, and for Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), cancer came calling when she was 13 years old. Over the years, she had the ups and downs of a roller-coaster - this treatment seems to be working, then it doesn't work, then something else works, then it doesn't work, she gets better, she gets worse - and now, at 17, even though the latest treatment seems to be working, she finds herself often depressed as she faces the reality that this can only go on for so long.

It's not fair.

It never is.

But unfairness doesn't stop bad things from happening to anybody. Why did my dad have to lose a foot in a tractor accident? Why was I born with vision problems? Neither case was really anybody's fault - we didn't do anything to deserve it - so why did it have to happen? Or just as importantly, what do we do now? How do you handle it when life is more than just unfair, but it's downright cruel?

Whole books can be written on these questions, and I'm sure the library is full of them, so I'm not gonna try to give every definitive answer right now, but I want to look at just a few things that I think were highlighted well in the movie.

1. It's OK to be hurt and get upset

One of the things this film shows well is that when things go wrong - whether it's getting cancer, somebody close to you dying, or your girlfriend breaking up with you - it hurts, and that pain can't always stay bottled up. It has to come out in some way.

"That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt." - Hazel

Sometimes it comes out in words. Sometimes it comes out in actions. Sometimes we try to mask our pain, but that doesn't make it hurt any less. Sometimes it leads to anger. Sometimes it leads to depression. Sometimes it leads to all sorts of things, but it has to be felt, and it has to be expressed in some way, if only to get it out in the open so some semblance of healing can begin to happen.

And believe it or not, the Bible is filled with the stories of hurting people who are looking for answers. The Psalms contain page after page of people crying out: "Why is this happening to me?" "How long do I have to go through this?" "Why do I feel so lonely?" "Where is God while this is happening to me?" The book of Job is another that is filled with these struggles. After Job's fortunes are lost and his children are killed, and his body is covered with sores, even his friends seem to turn against him, and everyone tells him to curse God. He has to fight to find faith, and even in the end, when God speaks to Job, God doesn't give Job the answers to his questions.

I want to say to you that if you are hurting, there's no time limit on how long you have to grieve. Some people take years to get over something, and others never do, but they learn eventually to manage it enough that they can live their lives again. That doesn't mean it'll always be easy, but just because it's not, that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling the feelings that you feel. But the important thing is to look for a path forward. Job has his questions, but somehow, he still finds faith. The Psalmist devotes himself to prayer and patience. For me, and I'm sure for my dad, there are often still times when our physical issues cause frustration and pain, but we have always eventually found a way to accept what we must, to work around what we can, and to keep our chins up as much as possible.

2. Some of the things people say and do to help are not helpful

Well-meaning people can and do say some pretty thoughtless things sometimes. Hazel's mom in the movie (Laura Dern) immediately comes to mind. In the flashback to Hazel in ICU (which is replayed several times), Hazel sees her mom saying, "You can let go, Sweetie. Don't be afraid." Then she turns to Hazel's dad and cries, "I won't be a mom anymore!" As we watched, it was the first line that struck me as wrong, because even though she meant well, it just felt to me like she was giving up on her daughter. Surely that must have hurt. But the second line hurt Hazel even more, as she explained later in the film, because Hazel felt like her mom had taken what Hazel was going through and made it all about herself!

It's a good practice to be careful with your words always (James 3:2-10), but especially when people are hurting, it's important to think carefully about what you say and try not to make the pain worse. And this applies even when it comes to talking about our faith. There are times when well-meaning Christians can talk about the Lord and only make things worse because of the way they do it. You can say you're praying for somebody and maybe even share a little about your faith sometimes, but if you can't be sensitive and respectful, it can actually drive them away! In fact, there are times when the best thing to say is nothing at all. Sometimes it's good enough just to be there and let them talk or let them cry or let them sit in silence beside you.

To simply say, "Man, this really sucks. I'm sorry you have to go through this. Let me know if you need to talk about it," is sometimes a much bigger help than spouting off some of the awful cliches that are so popular.

3. We all need a source of hope and strength we can depend on

Maybe the fact that we have so many awful cliches is one of the reasons The Fault in Our Stars seems to go to such great lengths to bash the Christian faith. From the dorky Christian leading Hazel's support group at the beginning of the movie to the scene where one of Hazel's friends cusses not once, not twice, but three times in a church to the scene near the funeral scene where the priest asks folks to pray with him, and one of the characters tells Hazel, "Now it's time to pretend like we're praying," - it's clear that the people behind the movie (and perhaps the book? I haven't read it) have a very cynical view of Christians. I confess this made it difficult for me to enjoy the movie, because the characters seem to be looking for something to cling to through the whole story, and they find along the way that everything fails them, but they mock the one good option from the very start.

Hazel and her friend, Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort), try at first to find comfort in Hazel's favorite book, but when they meet the author, Pete Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), he turns out to be a drunkard and a jerk, destroying the faith the kids had in him. It turns out that Van Houten is suffering, too, after his daughter died years ago, but this proves how futile it is to try to find your hope and strength only in other people, because people (being human) have their own problems, and they will eventually let you down. This is highlighted again when Gus dies and Hazel is crushed inside. It doesn't mean we shouldn't love each other or draw inspiration from each other, but when your world is totally dependent on another person, that's a dangerous thing.

We all need somewhere to turn
when life gets rough
Along the way, of course, Hazel and Gus fall in love, and that relationship lends them each strength for a time, which is good. Hazel needed someone like Gus to bring her out of her depression. But the movie also makes the point that romantic relationships can be just as disappointing as other human relationships. Besides the fact that Gus eventually dies, take the example of Hazel's other friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff). When his disease forces doctors to remove his eyes, at first he is comforted because he has a "hot" girlfriend named Monica (Emily Peachey), but then he is devastated when Monica breaks up with him because "she can't handle" what he's going through.

Gus tries to hide his own pain with humor, which is a common thing. And to a degree, it's helpful. Laughing and smiling is good for you, and it can even take some of the sting out of your situation. I've often heard my dad make one-legged jokes, and I often make blind jokes, just because if you couldn't laugh about it you would be miserable all the time. But laughter doesn't make the bad stuff any less real, and Hazel points that out when she talks about Gus going to the hospital. Humor can give you courage for a while, but it's not always enough to see you through the hurt.

So what am I saying, then? Are all these things without value?

Not at all! Having a sense of humor and learning to make the most of what you have in life is a wonderful thing when it works, and loving relationships (both romantic and otherwise) can be a major blessing while they last. But what I'm saying is that we need a source of hope and strength that is lasting. I need something I can depend on even when it hurts too much to laugh. I need someone I can trust even when everyone lets me down. And this is why it's so important not to turn away so quickly from faith in the Lord, because even on those darkest nights when nothing seems to make sense, we have the promise that God is there, that we will be heard when we cry out, that our pain will not go unnoticed.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.
- Psalm 139:7-12 (NIV)
We have hope because God is with us. He loves us - so much that he sent his Son for us - and we have a promise that he will help us and will bless us and will make things right for us someday. In every struggle, then, we can find strength in our faith! This is more than just wishful thinking or believing in a fairytale. For those like me who have been in those painful places in life and have experienced the peace he brings, for those who have seen the Lord guiding their steps, for those who have had answered prayers or even miraculous healings - there is no denying the truth!

But when hurting people turn away from God, and when they mock believers as the makers of this movie have done, what this says to me is that those of us who know the value of our faith have not done a good enough job helping others see what we see. We have fallen back on crazy cliches too often. We have presented ourselves poorly. We have failed too often to be who we ought to be. We have even at times misrepresented our God and our faith to the world.

Cancer sucks, and this life is not fair, but we have a loving God we can depend on. He has blessed us with the ability to laugh and to love and to trust in him. And there are a lot of hurting people out there who really need to know it!

So... if you feel like your life sucks right now, I'm sorry, and I will gladly pray for you, and if you need to talk about it, please let me know.

Other thoughts? Please share in the comments below.

Here are some similar posts you might like:
* Looking for Closure - What happens if you never get the answers you're looking for?
* Suffering Together -  Make a difference by being there for those who are hurting
* Faith and Medicine - Can faith really result in healing?

You might also like these posts on my other blog:
* Perspective - I might be blind, but I can see that God is still good
* Blindness - Believe it or not, being blind can actually be a blessing

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Please comment on this post. Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Is there something I left out or should have covered? Was something confusing? I want to know what you think!