Fight, Ted, fight!"
This mantra, chanted over and over to give moral support to Senator Edward M. Kennedy as he faces brain cancer, drives me nuts. The caring behind it is wonderful; the metaphor is not.
Cancer is not a football game. It's more of an involuntary dance with a partner you didn't choose, more judo than battlefield warfare.
It's not that I think that Ted Kennedy should sail quietly off into the sunset with the word "ACCEPTANCE" emblazoned on his shirt. Certainly not yet. I think he should, and no doubt will, muster his considerable intellectual, emotional, spiritual, political, financial, familial, and social power to deal with his cancer on all fronts.
And when the time to die comes, as it clearly will someday for him, just like the rest of us, that too can be faced with grace, not guns. I've seen a dear friend do it. I've seen my mother do it. I've seen my husband do it.
The fighting metaphor is insidious because it subtly and not so subtly implies that if you fight, you can "win." And if you don't fight hard enough, you "lose" and are therefore a "loser." In truth, cancer doesn't care whether you fight or not, whether you win or not. It's simply there, just like all the other horrible, debilitating, scary, painful, life-wrecking chronic diseases that millions of Americans deal with every day.
This fighting thing is so American, isn't it? We think of the world as populated by good guys and bad guys. We believe so naively in our power to triumph over adversity, not just as a moral value but as a life-saver. We think a "good attitude" improves survival, while pessimism begets failure and death. But studies show that, while optimism may feel better than pessimism, it rarely, if ever, affects outcome.
And that's a good thing, not a bad one, because it takes away the guilt of feeling so responsible for everything -- the mistaken belief that we have more control over our fate than we actually do.
So then the challenge for Kennedy, as for all of us, every day, is to figure out where the locus of our limited control lies. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it best in his famous prayer, adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Kennedy can't change the fact of his diagnosis. But he can, and already has, chosen his doctors wisely. He is putting his resources now, appropriately, into learning about his cancer, what drives it, what might slow it down. He may have to choose additional doctors, anywhere in the world. That's great. That's the stuff that really is under his control. As is choosing how to spend his time and energy.
So, I would change the mantra to "Breathe, Ted, breathe." Sail your boat. Kiss your wife and your kids. Trust your doctors. Keep doing the work you love.
Judy Foreman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.