Coming out of the aftermath of my last (knock on wood) chemo session, a mail from Open Culture dropped into my mailbox with a link to this post and the short audio clip below.
Tig Notaro is, according to the post, a popular American comedian. Being a bit out of the loop (not living in one's home country for nearly 20 years will do that to you) I had never heard of her and probably would never have come across her work if it hadn't been feeling well enough this morning to start reading my email. Talk about serendipity because it was exactly what I needed at precisely the right moment.
Ms. Notaro was diagnosed some months ago with breast cancer. The day she got the news she went to work at an Los Angeles nightclub "and delivered a poignant, deadpan monologue: 'Hello, I have cancer. How are you?'" Now that, I said to myself, was a very American thing to do. And I don't mean that in a negative way - on the contrary, it is something I genuinely miss about the U.S. In some places this is over sharing of what ought to remain private according to the local cultural code. The question of course is "why?" and if I dig deep enough into my brain for an answer the one that pops up immediately is, "Because it scares people." It doesn't have anything to do with the afflicted person - it's more about the comfort level of the people around that person and the sense that the bad luck is catching. I distinctly remember months ago one of my healthcare providers here urging me not to tell anyone I was ill because all sorts of bad things would happen to me if I did (like not being able to work again in my profession).
Humor, however, has a way of cutting through that fear. It serves two purposes: It's cathartic for the afflicted person (it takes you out of your own head - a very bad neighborhood to be in alone at night) - and makes it possible for the audience to hear the story without flinching or tuning out. Laughter brings the two together. I've found as well that it's a good strategy to use with the doctors (or the doctors to use it with you). When you walk into the clinic or hospital and sit down with a healthcare provider and you can make him/her laugh then that terrible chasm that separates the patient from the doctor gets smaller and makes working together much easier. It has other benefits as well. Never ever underestimate the power of dark humor. As Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival (one of my all-time favorite reads), said in this interview:
People who survive well tend to, also, to have a sense of humor about themselves. They tend to see good in everything that happens. They see opportunity in misfortune, so even when something really bad happens, they find a way to make it useful. They also have a very tenacious way of behaving in their lives in general that goes like this, “Well, as long as I can take another breath, there must be something else I can do here so I’m just going to do it even when the situation looks [hopeless]”Ms. Notaro appears to have this quality in spades. In this very short audio clip (the full version can be had here for a very modest sum), Ms. Notaro tells her story which is, oddly enough, mine as well. This is pretty much how it happened for me though my biopsies (all four of them) seems to have gone much better than hers (let's hear it once again for French healthcare).
And we seem to have had a similar reaction to the phrase, "It's going to be OK/Ca va très bien se passer" which kind of has you looking around and asking, "Who are you talking about? Me or you?" I don't wish to poke fun at those who do say it who surely mean well but it is one of those strange stock phrases that is probably meant to be comforting but is vague enough to be both globally true and completely meaningless all at the same time. In some way, being dead could be "OK" if you just look at it the right way - no more taxes to pay or FBARs to fill out, for example. Dying is after all the ultimate act of expatriation and not only does it not require a lawyer or an accountant, but no government on this planet has the power to stop you from doing it (or to make you fill out a bunch of stupid forms beforehand).
Or for another way to look at it, in death "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" takes on a new meaning. The first two are a given - you are never freer or more equal to your fellow man then at the moment when you pass over. No one is rich or poor, upper class or lower class, criminal or law-abiding, compliant or non-compliant at that moment. We are mortal and this is the destiny of us all.
The Fraternité part, however, is NOT a given and it requires a community (an audience if you like). Brotherhood or solidarity are simply incompatible with solitude and silence. And I think that is why I was a bit shocked to have been advised to keep my condition to myself. If there is no solidarity when one is facing straight on one's own mortality (something a bit more serious than one's status as a chômeur/unemployed person) then all the manifestations on the streets of Paris mean very little. So I do talk about it and when I hear the "OK" phrase I prefer to take it in the spirit in which I firmly believe it is meant - a wish that things really will be alright, i.e. that you will survive this only to go on and die of something else at a later date, and we should all pause and think about that for a moment because that is the best case scenario here, right? But it still generates the oddest reaction in me which I think I heard echoed in Notaro's talk - It makes you want to protect and comfort the person who is saying it because it feels wishful and fearful and oh so sad.
Christopher Hitchens once said: "The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provision for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival." And one of the ways I (and others too) go about that "business" is by finding humor in just about all aspects of the journey. As Ms. Notaro demonstrates so beautifully you can find something funny about almost every aspect of life - even cancer. Or a double mastectomy and, oh yes, I have all kinds of jokes about this one and all of them are really really dark and, I think, pretty damn funny. At least they have proven to greatly amuse my oncologists.
So just for the hell of it, I'll give you something that is a very good follow-up to the "It's going to be OK" phrase and that is, "What can I do to help you get through this?" Do not be afraid, mes amis, of saying this - it's not an open-ended engagement on your part. Believe me, no one will ask to bathe in blood of your firstborn. I can't speak for anyone else but if asked, I would simply say that not only is this very concrete expression of solidarity deeply appreciated, but my answer to that question is oh so simple: make me laugh or laugh with me.