Thursday, August 23, 2012
Having Cancer in a Digital Age
Not many years ago, I had a dim view of the Internet’s ability to create cultures of anything productive. Living and working with others constantly connected to—and distracted by—digital tools left me skeptical that any new relational depth was being plumbed through our wired lives. I didn’t even have a cell phone until last year and was quick to judge others who ignored their children to carry on conversations in public on their phones.
Then I got sick. Really sick. In a matter of months, I went from being a healthy forty-one-year-old religion professor, wife, and mother to a virtual invalid with a broken back, a stage IV cancer diagnosis, and a grim prognosis for the future.
To keep family and friends updated during the early days following the diagnosis, my brother created a Caring Bridge site for me, a website dedicated to connecting people with serious illnesses with those who care about them. News of my diagnosis spread quickly; just as quickly loved ones, friends, and eventually even strangers signed up to receive my Caring Bridge updates. From my narration of what stage IV cancer had done to my body to sharing the grief of having to resign from my very full and wonderful life, each of my posts was met with dozens of responses on the Caring Bridge site, as well as emails, cards, packages, visits and calls from people from all corners of my life. It was startling to realize that through our connectedness via Caring Bridge I was being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses greater than any I could have previously imagined.
Despite all the challenges and problems with ways in which people connect online, I now understand that powerful healing communities can be built on virtual foundations. While I initially viewed Caring Bridge as a tool to help me update others on the condition of my life as a cancer patient, it quickly became much more than that. My updates started conversations with others who responded with stories of their own navigation of similar health journeys, offers of prayer or support, and acts of care for me and my family. The conversations taking place online have often been illuminating, encouraging, and life giving during very dark times.
It is true that publically narrating an illness for hundreds to read and comment on is a risky endeavor. In the three years I have participated in these online conversations, there certainly have been responses I have found less-than-helpful. The much more common experience, however, is that others’ online words of support have held us up when we haven’t had the strength to do so ourselves. In addition, it is often less difficult for me to explain how I’m doing in an online post than in a face-to-face conversation. In virtual reality, my tears don’t make my point unintelligible. Online, I can go back and edit my update before I post it. In cyberspace, my vulnerabilities often can be better managed than they are in the actual space. Being clearer about how I’m doing has allowed others to be clearer about how to be supportive.
Public expressions of vulnerability on Caring Bridge also have prompted others to be vulnerable in return. One poignant example of how a virtual community has encouraged vulnerability involves a colleague of mine at our university. She and I have worked together for over a decade and before my diagnosis, we had never had a substantive discussion about anything personal. A few months after I got sick, I received an email from this colleague—she told me about growing up in Israel as an agnostic Jew and how she often felt on the outside of religious practices like prayer. After reading my postings on Caring Bridge, however, she became inspired to start praying. Not long after she began praying, she led a group of students to study in Israel. She then told me that in every church the group visited, she got down on her knees and prayed to Jesus for a favor: to heal her friend with cancer. Her message to me ended with this: “I hope I didn’t offend Jesus–after all, I’m a Jew and I don’t even pray regularly–and there I was, asking Jesus for a favor. I think he’ll be ok with that, won’t he?”
That an agnostic Jew would get on her knees in churches throughout Israel to pray for her Christian colleague living with cancer suggests to me that the Internet is capable of facilitating some deep communal ties. Due to the new level of relationships that have formed in large part through our contact in cyberspace, I have been prayed for by countless individuals and many Christian communities of faith; I have also received a sage blessing from a Native American colleague, been prayed for in the synagogues and Hindu temples of friends and colleagues, had Buddhist meditation sessions dedicated to me, and Jesus has even been asked a favor by a Jewish friend who took a gamble on my behalf.
The Internet is not going to save us from the rise of individualism or the other ills we currently face. But recent experiences with virtual communities have shown me that the connections with each other we so desperately need can be facilitated in cyberspace. And despite my long-held resistance to virtual connections, I’m now able to testify to the face that grace can and does come via the Internet.