“Can I Catch Your Cancer?” and the Desire to Listen Well

I wish I had the ability to enter into the heartaches of others better.  I regularly pray about how to enter into the pain of the world without drowning in it.  I find that balancing act hard.  It’s easier to ignore others’ pain or to over-identify with it (thinking we must fix it or — worse perhaps — relating it to ourselves instead of sitting with feelings about and for the other person).

I found an article by Gwynneth VanLaven very helpful.  It’s entitled, “I know you mean well, but you can’t solve my disability” and was in The Washington Post Health section on Tuesday, May 4, 2010.  Regular readers, I will concede that I am becoming a clipping service for the Post although I espouse gathering news from multiple sources.  I’ll try to quote Glenn Beck more this week.

Anyway, Ms. VanLaven writes thoughtfully about two things — people’s desires to fix her disability (the result of a freak injury) and their concern that their own safety is less certain based on her experience.  Neither of those orientations leaves people free to see her in her entirety.  She gets reduced to a caricature of limitations.

I experienced this when I had cancer in my thirties.  Other people invariably asked me, “What were your risk factors?” to which I had to answer, “None.”  I hated watching the faces change from interest and concern for my situation to horror dawning on the listeners as they realized, “It could happen to me too.”  And then we were off on a conversation about them. And frankly at that particular time in my life, I was rather hopeful that it could be about me for a minute; I was scared.

Listen in on VanLaven: “I have come to represent something in my visible fragility. I become their fears; I am vulnerability incarnate.  If I tell them I was hit by a car, it furthers the fears.  We just don’t have a good way to respond to the news of someone’s personal tragedy, especially when it challenges our own sense of safety and order in the universe…. People are trying to relate, but they are relating out of fear.  I think this is why the community’s love can sometimes feel suffocating. While well intentioned, the intervention of friends and strangers can sometimes feel like it has more to do with them than with me.”

“Active listening requires putting aside the anxieties of feeling vulnerable,” she says.  I so long to live in a universe where I can be present to the other, without thinking about me.

And I look forward to seeing Gwynneth VanLaven’s art installation, a waiting room study,  at the Smithsonian’s International Gallery beginning June 8.  It is part of a show called “Revealing Culture.”  Learn more about her work at www.gwynneth.vanlaven.net.

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~ by Cary on May 21, 2010.

2 Responses to ““Can I Catch Your Cancer?” and the Desire to Listen Well”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Cary. I have long considered the fear you describe so well to be a factor in the blaming of rape or abuse victims. I think that those who question “Well, why was the victim a} at that party b} wearing that outfit c} in that neighborhood d) out at that hour, etc. are often subconsciously trying to comfort themselves. They are disidentifying with the victim, as if to say that the person who was assaulted made some controllable choice or avoidable mistake that they themselves would never make. In this way they try to reassure themselves that such things will never happen to them. Until their own suffering (or that of someone they love) opens their eyes, they may be completely blind to the pain such questions cause or how they imply that the afflicted somehow have asked for or deserved their pain. I think the same force is at work when people ask why victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse don’t leave or tell someone about it. Without the ability to listen with empathy, they can’t begin to comprehend how it feels to be in similar circumstances or how behaviors they believe they would never choose can make sense or even seem inescapable to people in those situations.

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