In the last year, three women I knew died of breast cancer. Each of them was diagnosed in the last 15 years, overlapping with my own diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer and recurrence. It has been difficult to wrap my brain around the truth, and the enormous blessing, that I am still here. I really have no idea why I am and they are not.
I was diagnosed on August 8, 2003 and the seven months that followed were a whirlwind of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Today, 12 years later, despite a recurrence in 2009, I am cancer-free. My husband and I have four daughters; I work as a rabbi; I ran a half marathon last year to celebrate my anniversary; I have a loving family and community. But in my darker moments, I remember a picture and article I saw after the tsunami in Thailand more than a decade ago. There was a small clapboard house standing alone, devastation to the left and right. The person who lived in the house survived along with it, and when asked how she survived, she said her faith was stronger than that of her neighbors.
That explanation does not work for me. Certainly not in relation to my friends who have died, but even more so, not in relation to how I understand faith. We are not owed a perfect, suffering-free existence if we are a “person of faith,” and we are not doomed to suffer if we aren’t. So what is faith, exactly?
The notion of “faith” emerged in a world where people associated natural disasters with punishment from God. Plagues, wars, illness, and death could happen suddenly, changing life forever. Although times have changed in many ways, the feeling that life’s tragedies are largely externally imposed and beyond our control is one we know too well. There is so much about our lives that we simply cannot control.
My grandfather always loved to tell me that he was an atheist. Then, when my grandmother was dying, he said with equal conviction: “You know, there are no atheists in foxholes.” Something about that exchange has stayed with me 20 years later. He was acknowledging that he wasn’t really looking for the answer to why my grandmother was sick. My grandmother had a blood disease and a broken hip—that was the why, and it was out of our control. I believe my grandfather was really asking: “How will I cope with the reality that I will lose my beloved wife? What will I do when she is gone? When will I feel less grieved than I do now?”
It seems to me that “why” is a difficult question. There is no good answer to the question of why my friends Sarah, Erin, and Rochelle are no longer here. Their children know the faith their mothers had to live fully and love fiercely, while also knowing their lives would end sooner than they would have liked.
Faith doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to good people, but to me, faith is what I lean on to help me face the inevitable difficult moments that life deals to humankind. Some might find those experiences to cause a “loss of faith,” which I can appreciate. And yet, I understand my own faith differently. My faith helps me understand that I have a responsibility to the world around me because of the gifts I have received. If I ever feel entitled, then there is no reason to be grateful to God or anyone. To me, religion can remind us of how much we’ve been given, as opposed to how much we make ourselves.
But even for those who aren’t “religious,” the part of faith that I believe every one of us has inside can be called hope, optimism, or anticipation. I believe it is there for the taking, even while it holds no guarantees. Whatever it is that propels us out of bed each day to face the world—commitment, determination, perseverance, motivation, practice, will, or energy—I believe that all those words are synonyms for faith.
When I lost my hair to chemotherapy, my 15-month-old daughter was unfazed by it. She would rub my bald head with her hands, sometimes with her bare feet, and would laugh and hug me. She loved me, not my hair, and since I knew it would grow back, I chose to focus on her, not my hair—what I had, instead of what I lost.
I am not saying faith is simple—only that making choices, in my experience, constitutes faith as well. Even with the unknown of life, we can orient our lives around the unexpected gifts we have received: life, consciousness, and freedom.
The Psalmist asks: “Mah ashiv l’adonai, kol tagmulohi alai?” How can I possibly give thanks for all the bounty I have received? I hope I have shown my children what faith in the future means. They are still young, and I certainly hope to be able to watch them in their spirited encounter with the world for many years to come.
I will never know for sure what keeps me in this world, and so I continue to be grateful every day, for every day. As I celebrate another year of being cancer-free, I feel very grounded in this moment, yet at the same time, I am leaning into eternity with faith, with hope, and with appreciation for all of the gifts in my life, however long it may be.