Cheryl Strayed wrote about this idea that whatever happens to you, good or bad, is yours. She wrote a whole series of advice columns sharing with the world her stories in order to answer their own questions, quiet their own fears. She did not pretend to know more than she did. She did not pepper her words with false hope. She did not tarnish them with despair.
She wrote stories of truth and let the lessons fall like chips on poker tables. She let the reader find the diamonds in the rough. She trusted her questioner to find the answer in the honesty.
And there was pain. There is pain. There is more pain in this world than there is joy, sometimes. The scales tip in one direction more than the other, and that is the direction we choose to see—whether accurate or not. We are not gray people. We do not see spectrums of light and dark. We are happy; we are sad; we are troubled and tortured; when we’re willing, we’re elated.
At the beginning of the month, I had the opportunity to write a love letter to a girl who had just been diagnosed with cancer. She was in college. She was the sunshine; she was the perpetual smile; she was unsettled about sharing this new, ominous cloud that might taint her vision of the world.
My very first sentence? Cancer is the word in the dictionary I hate most.
It has ripped the people in my life clean in two and there are memories—or nightmares, maybe—where I am barely eight years old and standing in an unlit hospital bed while I watch this woman hug the pink itchy blanket cloaking her mother, begging her not to leave this earth.
I almost didn’t send it because what does a girl with cancer want to hear about how it has embossed a fifteen-year-old image in my head? What kind of love letter is that?
A sad one. A troubled and tortured one. A weighted-down-by-life one.
I didn’t want that for her. I really, ridiculously did not want that for her.
She sounded like the kind of girl who made others’ days better just by showing up.
I have had the pleasure of knowing a handful of such people and some of them? They’ve been ripped straight out of my storybook.
I wanted her to know that cancer did not own her. I should have mailed her a copy of “The Fault In Our Stars,” honestly.
But I didn’t.
I hoped my words, albeit small and scattered, would be enough.
And then, last week, she sent me a friend request.
I felt bad; I should’ve been born a Karen Smith or an Emily Johnson. Something pretty dull and drab and altogether impossible to locate. I should not have sat with fingertips hitched to my computer keyboard, longing for an adequate response to her public gratitude. I should have been anonymous.
Instead, I am left knowing that we are in a relationship with the universe. We take our biggest and smallest and scared and straightforward storytelling selves and we own them for the world because the world needs honesty. The universe needs people to lay their iPhones down and listen. Or script letters. Or send long-winded emails of appreciation and consideration.
We are in a relationship with the things we say and do and imprint on the hearts of others—strangers and friends alike. And it is beautiful. And it is terrifying. And it has nothing to do with this new thing called “social media” and everything to do with being a human being who lives and breathes and walks outside and looks at someone else and speaks to someone else and tries to find the right words for someone else.
It is what happens because we are alive.