A couple of years ago I visited the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida, in Naples, Florida. For those of you who have not visited the Holocaust Museum I encourage you to do so. The museum has many artifacts from the Holocaust that tell the stories of the brave men, women, and children who were not only victims of persecution, but who have also lived meaningful and heroic lives in response to their persecution.
The tour is a sobering experience. The museum gives a historical accounting of the unbelievable human cruelty of the Holocaust that claimed the lives of millions people, but it also gives an emotional understanding of that awful experience that seeps into the bones of your soul, the DNA of your spirit.
As I was coming to the end of the tour I saw a collection of children’s poetry on the walls that was especially moving, so I approached the woman greeting people at the counter hoping to get some more information. The woman, Annaleese, who spoke with a heavy Eastern European accent and a tremor in her voice, was gracious and helpful in answering my questions about Holocaust poetry. During our conversation Annaleese informed me, in halting and carefully chosen English, that she was Jewish and that at the age of five she and her family were imprisoned in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Despite the daily experiences of death, persecution, and fear Annaleese was able to survive the concentration camp, although she was the only member of her family to do so.
After the war ended, Annaleese and her husband settled in Czechoslovakia, only to have that country fall under the totalitarian reign of Soviet Communism. Annaleese recounted a conversation with her husband sitting at the kitchen table. He said: “Annaleese, we have lived under two totalitarian regimes, that’s enough; we owe it to ourselves and our children to try something different, something better. We need to go to the United States.”
So Annaleese and her husband made plans to leave Czechoslovakia. They tried to escape to the West twice, but were caught and turned back by border guards. However, on the third attempt they were successful and made it to Switzerland where they got visas to enter the U.S.
But their journey was not over. When they arrived in the United States they had no money, no work, no family, and no friends. However, upon arriving in the U.S. they met two people who befriended them who told them, “We have relatives in Milwaukee. Come with us and we will make a life together.”
Annaleese and her husband left for Milwaukee with their new-found friends, found work, and raised a family. But Annaleese’s struggles were not over. Not only was she a survivor of the death camp, but she was also to survive the death of her husband and her own breast cancer.
I could not help but ask her that with all her struggles and challenges in her life how did she find the hope to continue. She paused, thinking carefully about what she was about to say. She then went on to say, “I don’t think I would call it hope. It’s different than hope, it’s about survival. Each day you are faced with hurdles and given a choice: “Are you willing to go over the hurdles in front of you? In facing those hurdles you must develop and draw upon an inner knowing that can come only from going over the hurdles one at a time, day by day.”
Let me say that again: Each day you are faced with hurdles and given a choice: “Are you willing to go over the hurdles in front of you? In facing those hurdles you must develop and draw upon an inner knowing that can come only from going over the hurdles one at a time, day by day.”
Some people may call Annaleese’s “inner knowing” hope, determination, courage, stubbornness, integrity, or resiliency. I call it Freedom. Everyone, sometime in their lifetime, is challenged to survive difficult, traumatic, even life threatening events. We become survivors of these events by using our inner freedom to make choices about how we will react to these challenges and how we will lead our lives despite the challenges.
In our country many have what I call an immature, even banal understanding of freedom. We have the “freedom” to own unlimited numbers of guns regardless of how that “freedom” may impact others. The “freedom” to make as much money as you can without governmental regulation, taxation, and regardless of the impact on the environment. Perhaps you remember the statements from the presidents of Papa John’s Pizza and Whole Foods Grocery criticizing universal health care because it would interfere with their freedom to run their companies the way they wanted to.
Our Unitarian Universalist religion gives us great “freedom”: The freedom to find our own truth, the freedom to worship, the freedom to express ourselves. Annaleese Salomon and many other heroic people of the Holocaust, are living examples of how to use our freedom to choose courage over fear, action over paralysis, and hope over despair. And no matter how difficult the situation, we have freedom to choose.
The Monday after Thanksgiving 2012, I was sitting in my dermatologist’s office waiting for the results of some tests. When she came through the door she said: “Well you definitely have cancer, and it’s definitely melanoma.” I don’t remember much after that. Whatever my doctor said was lost in a blur of shock and disbelief. This was not supposed to happen to me. At 53 I was relatively young, I took care of myself by exercising and eating healthy, and yet the tests didn’t lie — I had cancer. This couldn’t be happening, but it was.
I remember getting angry. Angry at the doctors for not diagnosing me sooner. Angry with myself for not seeking treatment sooner. Angry at God and the world because I had this terrible disease just when my life seemed to be coming together. At the time I was completing my seminary education, had changed careers from law to ministry, and after a difficult divorce had found a woman I loved deeply and had been looking for all my life.
All my hard work was about to pay off. This wasn’t fair. It was supposed to happen to someone else, but it hadn’t. It happened to me.
I remember feeling such despair. Melanoma cancer, especially a deep melanoma such as mine, is not a good diagnosis and my family has a history of people dying of cancer. One of my relatives had even died from melanoma. The doctors were able to surgically remove my tumor, and thankfully the cancer had not spread to other parts of my body. However, because the tumor was so deep there is a good chance the cancer will return and the 10-year mortality rate for people with similar cancers is 50%.
My cancer left me with so many questions. Why did this happen to us? How will I carry on and get through this? What if the cancer came back? How many years did I have left? What was I supposed to do with the “rest of my life?” I had so many questions to answer and so many decisions to make. What to do?
The philosopher Nietzsche said: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” With all due respect to Nietzsche, he is wrong. Some things happen that don’t kill us but can leave us forever broken. Violence, poverty, illness, death and loss change us, and many times not for the better. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger only if we recognize what is happening to us, and then incorporate, integrate, and intentionally live out that wisdom in the world.
I’ve been a hospital and hospice chaplain, but never a cancer patient. I’ve always been at the side of the hospital bed, but not in the hospital bed. However, what I’ve learned from my experience with cancer has changed my life, and my ministry, forever. Once I got through some of the shock and anger of my cancer diagnosis and started reflecting upon my experience and integrating it into my personhood, I remember thinking, “I need to survive this disease so I can bring to the world what I have learned.”
So what have I learned? Suffering has an inner journey. We never “get over” a death or significant loss. “Getting over” implies we can cure our loss by the passage of time and without understanding our pain and the magnitude of our loss. Instead of getting “over our loss,” we must “go through” our loss and fully embrace all the feelings that come from our loss.
Life is paradoxical. Many times when it comes to making choices and using our freedom the right choice is not the most obvious or easiest choice. I recently heard a research psychologist say we cannot selectively feel our emotions. What she meant was that humans tend to want to feel only the “pleasant” emotions like joy, peace, and love and minimize “unpleasant” feelings like sadness, anxiety, anger. Through her research, however, she discovered that we can’t dull our ability to experience one kind of emotion without dulling our ability to experience all our emotions. In other words, if we want to feel joy, we must also feel sadness. If we want to experience peace, we need to experience anxiety. And if we want to know the source of our love, we also need to know the source of our fear. If we try to desensitize ourselves to one feeling all we do is anesthetize ourselves from life, never experiencing the full spectrum of our emotions and the fullness and depth of our lives.
In my work as a hospice chaplain I visit people who have less than 6 months to live. But despite this diagnosis, patients and families are often in denial about their diagnosis. Some families ask me not to tell their loved ones I’m a chaplain or that I work for hospice because that will confirm for their loved one that they are, in fact, dying. A fairly common response I hear when I ask people how they are coping emotionally with their diagnosis is: “There isn’t anything I can do about it, so why get upset by thinking about it”
I respect their decision. Sometimes we need time to adjust to change. Denial is a coping mechanism. However, it isn’t a very good coping mechanism. Suffering, tragedy, loss, illness, death and other life challenges are woven into the fabric of life; no one gets through this world without experiencing them. The question is not why do these things happen to us, but what do we do in response to them? Having experienced challenges, how do we use our freedom to create new meaning and purpose for our lives and the world?
Cancer took away my illusions of invincibility and I needed to mourn and grieve that loss. Grieving loss is hard, difficult work that takes time, effort, and the support of loving people. This is part of the inward journey towards healing. If we do our work, if we engage our feelings, face our mortality, and understand we are not in control of our lives we can eventually get to the other side. And when we get to the other side we realize we are not “over our loss,” but instead are forever changed and transformed by our loss. And that is where we find hope.
Choosing to face our fears has an outward component as well. Each year I participate in the Relay for Life to raise money to find treatments for cancer, to honor those who have experienced the journey of cancer, and to remind me of my own journey. My participation has connected me to a cause greater than myself. And knowing that I have contributed to a cause that will continue after I am gone has helped me to heal.
Healing ourselves brings new life not only to ourselves, but also the world; perhaps not physical healing, but emotional and spiritual healing. We can’t “fix” people and no one, even those who have the same illness, can ever totally understand what it is like for another person to suffer from an illness. And yet, we can choose to walk with a person and their family and friends as they make their journey. We can help people, should they choose, to find reconciliation, resolution, meaning, and most of all hope in their lives. Hope that closes the gulf of estrangement, fear, and separation that develops between us and the world when we are challenged, and replaces it with the relationships of understanding, compassion, and love.
We can love people just as they are, with all their anxiety and anger. Because by showing love we help people realize they are, in fact, loveable and part of the greater community of humanity. And once people realize they are loveable and supported by other people, then a healing can occur that transcends any illness and reconciles any estrangement. And it is this healing that brings new life and hope into the world.
I don’t tell you my cancer story because I’m some sort of hero; I’m not. And my experience pales in experience when compared to Annaleese’s, or to the challenges faced by many of you in this church.
I will never be one of those people who say that because of the positive changes in life, “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them.” If given the freedom to choose I would never choose to have cancer. But although we don’t have a choice about getting ill and dying, we can choose how we live in response to illness and death.
Each of us have varying degrees of freedom, and none of us has complete freedom. Our freedom is limited by our childhood, upbringing, and life experiences as well as by societal factors like race, education, gender, class, sexual preference, disability, and many others. But we all have some degree of freedom. And just because we don’t have complete freedom, doesn’t mean we can’t use the freedom we do have to choose hope, peace, and love.
Some of you may say how can my little freedom, my little choice, change the world? Well I can tell you it does. We are all part of the interconnected web of existence. Therefore, if as Shelia Cassidy says, “No cry is unheard, no pain lost;” so too no act of kindness goes unnoticed nor is any act of compassion wasted. If payer and pain are saved, processed, stored and used in the Divine Economy, so too are sympathy, understanding, and acceptance. If the bloodshed in El Salvador irrigates the heart of the financier a million miles away, surely the tears shed on behalf of a dying person wash away some of the barriers that separate us. If terror, pain, and despair resulting from an earthquake will be caught up and fall like mist on the arid hearts of the despairing, so too must standing beside the oppressed bring the spring rain of hope, love, and new life into the world.
So when you experience challenges in life, choose to feel your pain, your loss, and your grief. For by feeling your pain and loss you may also feel peace, healing, and hope. Reflect upon your loss, and then take what you have learned and help others to heal, and in the process heal yourself and heal the world.
We are all survivors. Sitting next to you today are survivors of illness, physical and emotional abuse, discrimination, divorce, unemployment, poverty, homophobia, death of loved ones, addiction, disability and other forms of loss. The world is still not “free” from these forms of suffering; however, we have the freedom to choose how we will live our lives in response to this suffering. Like Annaleese who survived so many challenges in her life, we have the freedom to choose. Hope never goes away. As circumstances change our definition of hope changes, but hope never completely goes away. There is always the freedom to choose hope.
I leave you with these words by Macrina Wiederkehr:
I was just thinking
how much alike
and baking powder are:
getting what is
best in me
the hint of eternity
I always think of that
when I eat biscuits now
that I could be
to the hint of eternity,
the baking powder
Amen, Shalom and May It Be So