Ginny Earnest, a member of Circle Community Church in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, and a former member of Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., died of cancer on September 9, 1993, at the age of 41. In the midst of her struggle with the disease, she preached this sermon at a Circle Community Church worship service on May 18, 1993. Two memories dedicated to her have appeared in Sojourners (a column, "A Sacrament of Healing," December 1993, by Jim Wallis; and a poem, "At The Landing," September-October 1994, by Rose Marie Berger). -The Editors
I DON'T KNOW A WHOLE LOT about healing-maybe five or 10 years from now when I've had more time to reflect and get wiser, I'll have a better understanding of it. I would like to share my experience from the last six months, and hope that will be beneficial for me and, in the process, for other people.
I've realized that in the moment when a doctor that I had only met the day before stood at the foot of my bed and said I had cancer, everything changed for me. But, in a real way, nothing changed. What I mean by that is I responded to cancer in a way that is consistent with all of the limitations and all of the gifts that have been part of my adult life.
I think the main thing that's changed for me is what I would call the loss of innocence. In a moment the things that I had thought about philosophically all my adult life, such as the fact that we ultimately don't have control, that we're vulnerable, that the world's not a safe place, that we're mortal; those kinds of ideas stopped being just philosophical musings and became the gut reality of my life. I needed to deal with the fact that I had a deadly disease, and I could die.
Even if I go into remission and live for another 40 years, I don't think I'll ever live with the same sense of innocence or security that I had before. In a way, I think that's been a good thing. It's helped me to live on a more real level than I had before. But whether it's good or bad, it's happened, and I don't think there's any going back.
MY INITIAL RESPONSE when the doctor told me that I had cancer was to remain very pleasant, which feels very true to form for me. It was a very brief conversation. For the first month after I found out I really was numb. I withdrew in the face of the hardness of it. I really couldn't let the reality of it in. Part of it was that I was very weak physically and on medication. I think it's also consistent with my response to crisis in the past-my initial response is to pull back emotionally and shut down.
What got me out of that stance of numbness-that in hindsight was probably a good defense mechanism-and began to get me in touch with my feelings were two people primarily. One was a counselor who would come to the house and sit with me every week, and ask, "What are you feeling? What's going on?" For at least four to six weeks, I had very little to say. I would say, "I'm fine. I'm doing OK. Things are all right."
It was hard even to fill up the hour of our counseling time together. I remember my voice was very faint, the writing in my journal was really small. It was like I had gone away and taken refuge somewhere deep inside myself. My counselor, through her persistence, finally was able to draw me out and help me to start feeling my feelings.
The other person who really helped me with it was my friend Jackie. Jackie came every day at 11:15 for that whole six weeks. She would sit with me in my bedroom, hold my hand, and say, "What's happening today? What are you feeling?" And for the longest time, I would say the same thing, "I'm fine. I'm doing OK." A lot of days she would cry and I would hold her, but I didn't cry for the longest time.
Part of the reason for the withdrawal was that when I started to feel things I was angry. And that's not a very comfortable emotion for me. It took me a long time to be able to feel and say out loud, "I feel angry with God. God didn't cause the cancer, but God didn't protect me from the cancer either. I feel abandoned, and I feel betrayed, and I don't understand." It took a long time for me because I don't like conflict and I don't like negative emotions, and it's especially scary to feel that toward God.
I got to the place with both Jackie and with my counselor where I could pound my fist and say, "I'm really mad
about this! I really feel let down. And I'm angry with my friends for being healthy. They're being wonderful to me, and they're being supportive, but, damn it, they're all healthy and I'm in this really weak position."
That was a necessary step for me. I can remember the first time I cried with my counselor. In the morning we had a counseling session, and I cried real hard. Later that afternoon, I remember having this incredible sense of being loved by God.
Through this whole process, God has never answered the question of why I got cancer. God has never addressed the feelings of being betrayed. But once expressing the anger, I've been able to feel the overwhelming love of God. That's a lesson I've learned at other times: When we shut off our negative feelings, we shut off positive feelings, too. I had to open up to the negative feelings before I could get the blessings and the positive feelings, and before I could begin to feel the relationship with God again and feel loved in that relationship.
Though I don't feel it all the time, I've come to this point in the process really believing that God is good and that God is loving. I don't understand how things work any more clearly than I did early on, but my overriding sense has been that God has been really good and loving to me.
THE NEXT STAGE for me in response to cancer was a period of self-blame. Once I got in touch with being mad at God, the next thing to deal with was that I was mad at myself. I went for quite a while feeling very guilty and blaming myself for getting sick. How could I let myself get this cancer? How could I let this happen to me?
Unfortunately, I found that reinforced in a lot of the literature that I read about cancer. It's still a fairly stigmatized disease, or maybe disease itself is a stigmatized thing. There are some popular writers who have come up with the idea of the "cancer-prone personality," which says some people by their very nature invite cancer as part of their way of coping with the world. And it's interesting, the cancer-prone personality is very similar to the stereotypical female personality. There's a lot there that really sounds like blaming the victim.
The thing I struggled with was, if I was weak enough to get cancer in the first place, then I'm probably too weak to fight it and get better. It led to a lot of panic about whether I had the resources to get healthy again. It was my counselor who helped me work with the "over-psychologizing" of disease that I had gotten into.
I believe there are two reasons behind the tendency to say that people get cancer because they're predisposed to it or somehow invite it. One of the reasons is because cancer is on the increase in our society. There are a lot of environmental factors and, with younger people getting cancer, it's scary. But there are also a lot of sociopolitical and economic ramifications that are hard for us to deal with. Rather than looking at the systemic reasons why people are getting cancer, it's easier to say an individual person somehow is susceptible to the disease.
Another reason this tendency is in the literature is that it's a way of distancing. You can say, "She's vulnerable to the disease, but I'm not." It's a way of trying to stay safe and in control.
I finally got to the place of saying, I don't know why this happened to me, it just happened. I will never understand the whys of it, and that's not the issue. This just happened, and what I need to deal with now is how I'm responding to it.
Blaming myself when bad things happen is also consistent with what I've done in the rest of my life, so it isn't surprising that I did that with cancer, too. But other people were really helpful in getting me out of that.
IT'S BEEN MY relationships with other people that have held me together and kept me balanced mentally, emotionally, and physically. The outpouring of love to me and to my family throughout has been wonderful. But again, it's something that I've struggled with. It's been hard for me to be that dependent.
Prior to getting sick, I thought of myself as a person who gives. A lot of my identity was in the role of the giver. To feel all of a sudden like I had no resources and had to sit back and receive was a really difficult thing for me. My counselor would say that the challenge for me was to learn to receive with my head held high, to learn to receive with dignity.
I've really worked at this. I've tried to see my relationships not just the way they've been during this crisis, but the way they've been for the long term. While I'm receiving at this point, I have given and I will be able to give again. There's a reciprocity and a mutuality in these relationships.
At times I've struggled with the feeling that my need for other people in this whole process has been a sign of shallowness or spiritual weakness. It's meant more to me for another person to have faith for me and take my hand and say, "You're going to get better. You're going to be fine." I haven't been able to go off very often by myself and shore myself up. I needed other people to give that to me.
At this point the way I see it is that connecting with other people is what my adult life has been about; reaching out to other people and making connections and building community. That's not a deficiency, that's just my nature. And in a lot of ways, that's a gift, not a sign of weakness. It's what my life has been about. It's been the priority of my life. It would be silly in a crisis not to continue to live in that way and reap the blessings from that.
I've struggled with what is the best posture to have in facing all this. One person I talked with almost died a couple of years ago. He said to me that on his deathbed he got to the place where he could say, "It's in God's hands whether I live or die, and I can accept it either way. I can accept death, or I can accept healing and life."
After he told me that story, I really struggled with it because through this whole process I've never felt willing to accept death. Maybe I can understand it at a theological level, like it's the ideal of being submissive to God's will. But all the way along, I have wanted to live. My prayer has been, "God, heal me completely of this cancer, because I really want to live!"
I had this notion of a "good cancer patient," and a "faithful Christian" who would be open to whatever comes her way. But I haven't been that, I've been me. I've been struggling and I haven't been able to pull together that attitude that would make it OK if I were to die.
The way I feel about it now is that if I get really sick again and I'm on my deathbed, I hope there's enough grace to be loved into that experience and be able to accept it. But I'm not there now. I want to be healed, and I want to live.
Through this whole experience, I've stayed me. I'm trying to learn to trust that there is going to be a path toward healing for me. Whatever it is, I will have to live the way I know how and to trust myself and my instincts.
IF IT COMES to the point where I'm supposed to die, in order to do that gracefully a lot will have to come from God. I don't think it's just chemotherapy that has contributed to my healing. I really feel that prayer and people have kept me alive. I don't understand prayer, but I believe in it. At this point in my life I've experienced the evidence in my life.
I have more moments now where I feel really alive than I did before, where I feel present and engaged. Just waking up with my husband in the morning and saying, "This is a precious thing, just to be here, just to have this day." I hope I don't lose that. I hope I don't start taking things for granted again.
It's not always there, but I have times when I'm putting my son to bed, or doing the dishes, and I just say, "This is life, and this is really good, and I feel the gift of it and the preciousness of it in a deeper way." I'm clearer now than I've ever been that family and people are priorities. I feel strongly that I want to live, and I want to make a contribution. I want to give something.