I can remember the scene like it was yesterday. The three of us sharing the office at The Research Company. Tara had seen a former co-worker who’d just started cancer treatment. She said to Beth, the other woman in our office, “I can’t believe she’s worried about her weight. She’s just lucky to be alive.” Beth nodded in agreement and I felt the sting of that comment. Don’t they see me, I thought, feeling the words puncture my heart.
Later, I wished I’d spoken up, even shouted, “It’s not just about being alive. She wants to really live.” Of course the woman was grateful to be alive. But she also wanted to live her life fully, like cancer hadn’t changed anything. Did Tara and Beth forget that I’d just been through eight months of treatment? Hadn’t they seen me live through the embarrassment of losing my hair and gaining weight on the steroids? How could they be so insensitive?
Now I see the image of the birds, the two on the right, looking out, ignoring the white-faced bird. Maybe this is like people; flying in for a moment, chirping, then flying away, never looking beside them to see the other birds on the wire. I’ve heard fellow cancer survivors, people with disabilities, recipients of racial slurs– to name a few, have the same reaction to thoughtless words, insensitive comments that made them feel invisible.
I wasn’t totally surprised at the women at The Research Company. I’d seen that same insensitivity in other situations. But I was surprised months before that with a comment by a woman I’d previously worked with in the school system. I visited her when I was going through chemo. Another woman whom I’d worked with joined us. I told them about my treatment, and they saw me for the first time in my wig.
“Well what do you do when you and your husband have sex?” the first woman asked. “Put a bag over your head?”
I was shocked at what she thought was humorous, listening to her chuckle, and trying to come up with a response. Later, when I had my wits about me, I felt like saying, “He’s never been that unkind.”
How could she make such a heartless comment? I knew from those years of working with her that she wasn’t like that. Did she, like others, say stupid things when they were trying to just say something to break the silence when they were uncomfortable?
Insensitive comments are the ones we remember. These two have stayed with me for seventeen years. But if I’m honest, sometimes I’ve been guilty of the same thing. I get caught up in trying to make my point, or be humorous, or in some way impress others and I don’t think before I speak.
I’ve chirped off words without looking beside me to see the others on the wire.
One day, when I was working in my yard with my brother-in-law, we talked about how to forgive others when they’ve said or done things that were hurtful.
“We forgive because we need to be forgiven, too. We all have feet of clay,” he said, the counsel that had been offered to him now multiplied to me. The image of clay feet, of my own humanness, stayed with me.
The challenge is to slow down and notice those in my presence, to imagine how life is for that person. When I listen to how they are experiencing life, without putting my own value judgments on what they’re saying, then I really see them. Out of that, I can respond in a manner that supports instead of hurts, saying things that will bring blessing instead of curse.