At the hospital where my husband was being treated for cancer, chemotherapy was administered in a communal room.There were several armchairs for patients, and some regular chairs for family members. The whole process took several hours, and we had to somehow pass the time. So, with everyone around, it became an opportunity to talk, a kind of spontaneous support group.
One Friday we were only four in the room: my husband and I, another middle-aged man, like us, and a young woman. We started talking, and she told us about her life and her illness. It transpired that she recently had gotten married and had a small baby.
Suddenly the man, who sat with us, blurted, “It is so unfair that you are sick, you are so young, and have a baby.”
Without missing a beat, she retorted: “You are wrong, I am much luckier than a young child who has cancer, at least I got to have a life and even had a baby.”
This was unexpected and we didn’t know what to say. She clearly didn’t want our outrage or our pity. In spite of what she said, I couldn’t think of anything worse than what had happened to her,
Inspiration could appear in strange places, and still make a difference. In hard times people tend to cling to superstitions, some even believe that walking under a ladder brings bad luck. The young woman gave us a different kind of luck ladder where a small child, who is the most unlucky, is placed at the bottom. She placed herself several steps above the child. After we heard her speak it was simple for us to place ourselves on that ladder. We both were luckier than the young woman.
Comparison is not always helpful, scientists point out that comparing ourselves to others who are doing better than us or have more, could result in a misery known as “reference anxiety.”
But in hard times, if we are able to compare ourselves to those who are less fortunate, and to feel better about our situation, it could be a useful coping technique: It worked well for us.
The other day I heard a poignant section of This American Life (episode 523, “Death and Taxes”), in which the producer Nancy Updike explored the topic of death and dying at a hospice. Discussing patients and their imminent death, one of the nurses concluded: “Not every death is the end of a well lived life.”
It is true that not every dying person was happy once, and nurses who work at hospices get to see a lot of despair. Still this verdict made me uncomfortable. I should be the one to decide whether my life was well lived. No one else should be allowed to pass judgment about the quality of my life.
I hope that the young woman from chemo room was spared and that she is still with us. But if she is not, it is a small comfort to know that she believed that her own death, when it comes, would be the end of a well lived life.