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How cancer has helped unmask one of our culture's great illusions

Health update

Today I head to the hospital for the latest scan and consultation with Dr. P. Based on recent scans and blood tests, I don’t necessarily expect great news. The stress of that uncertainty hovers around, inserting itself into my day at random times. It’s like grief. You never know when something’s going to trigger a wave of emotions you can’t quite control.

And that is really the topic of today’s post: control and freedom.

Control and freedom

I recently re-read Parker Palmer’s classic, Let Your Life Speak. A few paragraphs toward the end of the book sparked thoughts about cancer and how we view our lives. 

Palmer asserts that as we go through our years, we develop a metaphor that describes our view of life. Here are some popular metaphors:

Life is like a game of chance – some win, some lose.

Life is like a battlefield – you get the enemy, or the enemy gets you.

The thing about a metaphor like this is that it can name our experience of life and help make sense of the things that happen along the way. However, our central metaphor of life can come to take on an energy of its own. Palmer writes that ”these personal metaphors do much more than describe reality as we know it. Animated by the imagination, one of the most vital powers we possess, our metaphors often become reality…” (p 96) 

Palmer then unmasks the master metaphor of our era:

Life is like manufacturing – you can make whatever life you want, whenever you want it.

Palmer explains, “We do not believe that we ‘grow’ our lives – we believe that we ‘make’ them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, make love.” (p 97)

What happens when the manufacturing metaphor graduates from naming our experience of life to becoming our experience of life? We devolve into control freaks, treating everything like a series of problems to be solved and asserting our will on the people and organizations around us. Some of us for whom life has gone well become arrogant. “Why can’t others make better choices and make a better life for themselves? Losers. They should be more like me.” Others of us, for whom life has brought more hardship and broken dreams, take on a victim’s mindset. “Why has all this happened to me? Why can’t I have a life like those people I see on Facebook and Instagram? Why me?”

One thing cancer has taught me is that life is not like manufacturing. I can’t make healing happen by will power, faith, cutting edge cancer treatments, a no-sugar diet, cannabis, or quitting my job and doing everything on my bucket list. Some people have found those things to be helpful. When stories of survivors like this are told, the narrative usually carries the unspoken assumption that because they did this thing and survived, then this thing caused them to survive. “Do this, and you can makeyour life last longer.” 

No, if there’s one thing cancer teaches a person, it’s that cancer can’t be controlled no matter what we are doing to combat it. Cancer thoroughly unmasks the “life is like manufacturing” metaphor. And in so doing, cancer makes room for better metaphors.

For me, life has taken on the shape of Psalm 23. Here’s how I would put it:

Life is like following a Good Shepherd – you do best when you let go and stay close to Him.

As a cancer patient, I believe in the goodness of God. In many ways, cancer has helped me see God’s goodness more clearly than ever. 

Cancer challenges me to let go. The Good Shepherd invites me to be comforted by him and follow where he leads. The more I let go, the more I experience his peace.

Being a sheep connected to the Good Shepherd means being connected to the other sheep. We form a community of people who are slowly shedding the “life is like manufacturing” illusion. We are together reaching for a life beyond control and all the ways it induces us to mistreat God, others, and ourselves. 

Here’s an irony: I have found that I am less stressed about cancer than I am prone to be about our church’s ups and downs. How can that be? It’s centered in control. For whatever reason, I remain somehow convinced that my workplace is something I can control. Cancer? Control left the building a long time ago. Church? It’s too easy for me to treat it like a series of problems to be solved rather than a sacred community constructed so we learn how to follow the Shepherd and thrive together in his presence.

For unmasking the “manufacturing” metaphor, I have cancer to thank. Now to have that same freedom frame my approach to church and the other areas of life I find myself striving, sometimes desperately, to control. 

Questions for reflection

What is your driving metaphor for life? How does that influence the way you react when something goes right and another thing turns tragic?

What would happen if you found a way to go through life in a less controlling way? How would the inner world of your soul and your outer world of your relationships be affected?

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  • Paul Barton : Thank you for sharing this profound reflection with us. Your insight into the Christian meaning of life is important for others like myself to read and reflect upon. You and your family remain in my prayers.
  • Steven Bliss : Such a potent and fulfilling word. I needed that. Thank you. Thinking of you
  • Claudio & Shirley Buzzoni : So true Dave. Peace is resting in the arms and keeping one's eyes on the One who really does have all of life including radical cells in His control ... and His purposes are good ... He will keep in perfect peaces whose eyes are stayed on Him. Love you Dave and your theology and metaphors. Hugs...
  • Daryl, Sue Banks : Thank you for sharing. It's one of the "good" things that this cancer produced: hearing words from you and the Lord during the week. It helps us think and pray. I surely have problems with trying to control things, and want to follow my Shepherd and let Him control every situation. sincerely, Sue B.
  • Sandy Swan : Thanks for sharing this! Great thoughts to meditate on. Bless you today.
  • Patty Watkins : As always your words are food for thought. Thank you for being you and for revealing your inner most thoughts and struggles. As always my prayers are with you and your family. <3
  • Kelly Prudek : Oh, David, thank you for this good word today, reminding us of God's provision for shalom.
  • Justin Arnest : I will be thinking about this for a while and considering those questions for reflection. Thank you, Dave! You are in my prayers. Justin "Life is like following a Good Shepherd – you do best when you let go and stay close to Him." "It’s too easy for me to treat it like a series of problems to be solved rather than a sacred community..."
  • Mike Griffith : Thank you Dave for taking the high road and teaching me to trust Him. Praying
  • Chad Wible : Thanks, David. I needed to hear that today. Peace, my friend.
  • Marcia Howard : Today in Bible Study we prayed scripture over you and the family. "The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. H helps me and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving." Psalm 28:7 Thank you for sharing. We are praying for you, Marcia & John
  • Phyllis Wilson : David, your ability to verbalize your journey not only in the details but also the bigger picture, in a transcendent way, is a gift to all of us. That you can do so in the middle of this indescribably difficult road is nothing less than miraculous. We who care about you are blessed by you, and continue to pray for you. God bless you, Phyllis