Friday, August 3, 2012
Anne Lamott, Harold Kushner, and Me
Even though I read for a living, I couldn’t pick up a book about cancer for months after my diagnosis. I was living cancer 24/7. No need to spend any additional time reading about it.
But once it started to sink in that cancer defined the parameters of my new life, I sought out books that would help me understand the contours and dimensions of life saturated with cancer.
I read earnest accounts of strong and courageous people knocked down by cancer; meditations on personal journeys of faith in the midst of cancer; expletive-laced narratives highlighting the awful attributes of cancer; and prescriptions for the correct language usage when discussing cancer.
I appreciated the writings of others struggling to live with this disease. At the same time, being a religion professor who thinks long and hard about the big questions of life, I longed to read more about wrestling with those big questions in light of cancer. What I read about faith and cancer often pushed toward a sense of resolution I couldn’t relate to. When I found narratives that were wholly unsentimental and irresolute, faith often was not a prominent theme.
What I finally realized I wanted to read was the kind of book Anne Lamott would write if she had cancer (which, thankfully, to my knowledge, she does not have). I longed for something like Lamott’s wry, honest accountings of her failures and successes; of life’s challenges and unexpected gifts of grace; of the wonder, humor, and chaos of human relationships.
In the midst of my search for a Lamott-esque approach to living with cancer, I taught theology (my only out-of-bed activity that spring semester). Soon it was time to talk theodicy—about how there can be a good and loving God and evil and suffering in the world at the same time. It became clear that this book on cancer I wanted to find would be even more valuable if it had a little Harold Kushner in it. Kushner, whose book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, was born out of his experience of being a father who loses a son, asks—and attempts to answer—some of the most basic human questions—Why? Why me? Why this bad thing? And where is God amidst the suffering?
I wrote in my last blog entry about how I came to write Hoping for More, so I won’t rehearse that story again here. But when I realized I had a book in me, I knew I wanted it to be a theological memoir (a theo-memoir, I’d like to call it) that read like a cross between Anne Lamott and Rabbi Harold Kushner. Similar to Lamott, I realized that I should write the kind of book I was looking for. Lamott writes,
I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.
May Hoping for More be good medicine for those who suffer from cancer or other lousy circumstances, who contemplate the big questions, who revel in unexpected gifts of grace, who love deeply and are honest about their own blemishes, and who hope for more here and beyond.