“In times of crisis we summon our strength…
call on every resource…every forgotten image…
every memory that can make us know our power.”
– Muriel Rukeyser
How does one live with uncertainty when facing a life-threatening illness? Where does one find inner strength? Where does one look for supportive resources? Most patients will tell you that they frequently ask themselves these questions.
During my tenure as a medical humanist at the cancer center in Bennington I created “Writing is Good Medicine” a program that offered patients an opportunity to express their experience through the written word, which is not a neat narrative. The method builds on the literature of stream of consciousness but differs in that patients are provided an opening line as a place to begin.
The program was not designed to teach the elements of writing but, rather, to help voice their intimate thoughts and emotions, which are not found in medical textbooks or office notes. With this in mind, I often encouraged patients to share their unedited writing with the cancer care team.
It struck me that Rukeyser’s inspirational quote could be a prompt for exploring sources of strength in facing a healthcare crisis. Here is what one of the patients wrote in 2005. After reading her words, you’ll understand why I saved the piece.
My power is there…but not the whole picture…It lies deep inside…sometimes used without “over thinking” …just used or there because it is the natural thing to do… I like it best that way…
It was hard to start writing about “power.” It is a concept that invokes many confusing feelings.
I don’t think I have ever wanted the responsibility of power…when I think about power…it also brings thoughts of feeling over powered by someone or something else…using my own power in a negative way is something I don’t want to do…So power I guess has a charged meaning for me…
My illness has caused me to look deep inside myself for a way of doing my best to get well, and to enjoy my “well” time…I think I have thought first about being at peace within myself…and looked to my spiritual life for strength in this moment.
Interesting: strength is much more a part of my vision…it fits better than power…
Many times in my life I have attacked and beaten things up with my brain…sometimes I have exhausted myself in the process…That will not work this time.
My strength or power this time lies in my ability to be at peace with the fact that there are aspects of this situation that no amount of energy can control…only by accepting that, can I open a window to the light and focus on what I can do to help my body, mind, and spirit not only to heal…but to maintain, grow, change and evolve in spirit.
The unpredictable parts of this experience test my strength…sometimes I am afraid that I can make myself sicker… sometimes I know I do not have that power…in many conversations my sister tells me so…I am happy to hear it…it is almost a relief to know when I am not in control of things…because then I am not to blame…Funny that “blame” marches in here…
It is hard to talk about my spirit but I do believe in grace and soul, and spirit…I find comfort and strength in prayer. I know from childhood I find comfort and strength in prayer…I find childhood a comfort in my beliefs…and that inner vision is my place of peace and comfort…I know that God has loved who I am from the beginning…and it is with me as I take this journey…I remember in the Spring when I wasn’t troubled and worried about everything…I knew I didn’t want to keep on being afraid…I remember asking God to take away the fears so that I could live life to a better purpose…regardless of the circumstances.
Strength then is an inside job…but not a lonely one. People, places and things come into my life to enrich my spirit and help me focus on worthy objectives…Staying open and aware and receptive is important …sometimes I am too tired, and I just hang on…sometimes I am afraid and I am learning to talk about my fears with those who can listen…sometimes I waste my energy on things that are not my business.
And, sometimes I am surprised by the peace and beauty I sense in simple moments.
Many people love, care for, and pray for me…I feel circle wide about me…I know I am blessed by their caring and prayers. My mind can paint beautiful, comforting thoughts and pictures for me …connecting me with love and grace in that place.
A resource for strength and renewal!
Perhaps some of my ambivalence about power—comes from AA principles where admitting powerlessness brings a kind of power to live a normal life…trying to beat alcohol was such a waste of energy and I got beat up in the process…So I have to find the parts of this new disease that are my business and work in the ways I can to help myself get well. Identify and accept my best efforts to those things I can do to enhance my treatment and help myself get well.
In the dictionary there are many definitions of power. One is “the ability to do or act; capability of accomplishing something.” There were actually 22 definitions…some referred to energy and strength.
I know that even within this illness I can maintain my identity and still live to good purpose: that is power!
The part about responsibility with respect to power…has to do with outcomes…this is a bit daunting with respect to the disease itself… Today I am not so anxious about this aspect…maybe because I am regaining perspective… and things are again “right” sized.”
I’d suggest you take a moment and use Rukeyser’s words to write about what gives you strength. You may see for yourself why writing can be good medicine. I’m sure there are lessons here for all of us.
I so enjoyed reading this uplifting post begun with the words of Muriel Rukeyser and echoed throughout the insightful, honest patient narrative. Turning over the differences between strength and power in the face of illness and uncertainty. Discovering sources of strength in childhood memories and enduring spirituality. Wrestling with finding news expressions of purpose and a life continuing to be well lived. Thank you and may God bless.
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