The following post is the transcript of a message given at Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, Portland, Maine, on August 7, 2011 as part of a Rock My Soul performance and service. © 2011 Dawn Boyer. All Rights Reserved.

A few years back, I listened to a UCC preacher give a sermon about her first ministry. She was installed, fresh out of divinity school, in a poor neighborhood in Harlem in the late 1980s. She was 20-something. From New England. And white, in every way.

One day, she officiated at her first funeral. As she began to speak, she heard a sound. It started low, and she wondered at first if it might be a furnace kicking in from the bowels of the building. But then it began to build. It dawned on her that she was hearing a human voice. A moaning voice, a low and hurting gravelly voice, getting louder in its intensity and pain, until it became a wail. One by one, other moaning voices joined in.

She stood, frozen, not knowing what to do.

I’ll come back to that in a bit. But for now, let’s switch scenes. Picture a generically pleasant, blandly pretentious hotel lobby in western NH. All shades of beige, pretty granite counters, nice polished ceramic tile on the floors. Me sitting in that lobby with my mother late at night in late December, four days after Christmas. Exhausted. Afraid. Completely depleted.

We’d spent most of the day at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, waiting to hear news about my husband’s surgery to remove a brain tumor. The neurosurgeon was quiet but upbeat when he finally met with me. The surgery itself was a success. My husband, Brett, would recover nicely. But the surgeon’s last five words: “be prepared for a malignancy,” repeated themselves over and over in my mind, and left me with a cold knot of dread in my gut. In the hotel lobby, where I tried to eat a sandwich before going to my room for the night, my mother said, “I wish I could take your pain away. But I know this is your journey.”

She was wiser than I knew at that moment. I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Jonathan Haidt called The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. There is a chapter in it called “The Uses of Adversity.” I recommend it for anyone who encounters despair. That would, I think it’s safe to say, mean pretty much all of us.

It begins with a scenario. If you had a pair of glasses that could read your child’s future and a pencil to rewrite it, would you choose to wipe out all the bad things so your child has an easy, content life with no struggle? Probably, if you’re like most. But be very careful of wishing for that, for without struggle and adversity, we tend to become complacent and weak. It is only through tough stuff that we grow, become stronger, enrich our character, and move toward wisdom. A sucky truth? Perhaps. But it’s true nonetheless, and no matter how we may wish it different, that’s the way it is.

When my mother spoke her words, I wanted to moan and wail like that woman in Harlem. I didn’t want this journey. I had, I felt, been on enough journeys. I didn’t know for sure what we would encounter, but I had a hunch. And I didn’t like it.

I stumbled my way through Brett’s hospital stay and then his recovery at home, mostly on a numb kind of adrenaline speckled with a few moments of calm and clarity and a ferocious appetite for gaining whatever knowledge about his disease that I could. I took care of him the best I knew how.

The prognosis wasn’t what we wanted to hear. Grade III Anaplastic Astrocytoma. Definitely malignant, though slow growing. Median survival rate: 3 years with treatment. Not the worst kind of brain tumor, but not the best, either.

Somehow, through blind faith and a stubborn insistence on finding grace and hope, and sometimes in spite of myself, I was able to gain the strength I needed to be there for Brett, who, I know, was even more scared than I. Only he can tell his story; I will try to tell mine. I watched him progress from being unable to talk or move his right arm and leg after surgery to gaining back his speech and mobility after a few weeks. Although his speech and fine motor skills still aren’t where he’d like them to be, and he has recently had a setback due to a seizure, it has been a wondrous thing to watch his brain literally rewire itself to bring him back to what is known in the field as “the new normal.”

It has also been hard as hell sometimes, both to watch the frustration and despair he goes through during the ups and downs of his treatment and recovery, and to go through my own. There are no words to describe your life when it is hijacked by cancer.

So I try to gain solace and some kind of footing any way I can. I have that choice. I choose to lean on my incredibly wonderful network of friends and family for support; I choose to wake up each day thinking about what adventures may await and what I can give of myself to help others; I choose to take care of my health by eating well, exercising, and meditating; I choose to get sustenance from my three passions: writing, singing, and painting; I choose to deepen my spiritual practice; I choose to read and listen to books like The Happiness Hypothesis to help further my understanding of life and the human condition.

Some days are of course better than others. Some days, as I recently put on my Facebook status, “you gotta cry. A lot. I’m just sayin.” And once the crying is done, the cleansing can begin. You have to let the cleansing happen, and the cleansing can’t happen without the crying.

Most religions have in common the wisdom of seeing the value in suffering, so there must be something to it. Christians believe Jesus suffered and died on the cross to redeem our sins. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans (5:3-4) said, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” One of the first truths of Buddhism is that all of life is suffering and suffering is caused by attachments to worldly goods. Suffering is something that can be transcended, but not avoided. The Dalai Lama said, “The person who has had more experience of hardships can stand more firmly in the face of problems than the person who has never experienced suffering. From this angle, then, some suffering can be a good lesson for life.” Hinduism espouses that individuals’ suffering should be placed in the broader context of a cosmic cycle of birth, life, destruction, and rebirth. Islam, which means “submission,” teaches Muslims that enduring pain or loss is a way of submitting to God—it is a way to strengthen one’s faith, as pain often leads to repentance and good deeds. Jews believe that deep suffering must be good even if mysterious, and that God suffers along with the sufferer. Much importance is placed on working to help those in need because repairing the world will help alleviate undeserved suffering.

When adversity strikes, we all have a question to answer. We can go in kicking and screaming, stubborn and recalcitrant, mad as hell, despondent, whatever—most of us don’t want to have to answer.

But nonetheless, the question remains.

Are you going to rise to the occasion, or sink into despair?

According to The Happiness Hypothesis, there are 3 benefits to rising. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to see them all.

1. Adversity reveals your hidden abilities, and seeing these abilities changes how you see yourself. You realize you have more strength than you gave yourself credit for. You gain confidence to face new challenges—the world isn’t as scary anymore. It’s almost as if you get a vaccine against future stress, which ain’t so bad. You recover more quickly each time adversity rises, because you know you can cope. In my own case, I was amazed at the strength I found that I didn’t know I had. You should see me go on a rampage when I have to fight to get Brett the health care he needs. This week, I asked for help—something that used to be excruciating for me to do–and found a way to rent an artist’s studio so I could have a space to paint and write. A year ago, I didn’t allow myself to think that possible. Now, it’s just something I have to do. Cancer has struck our lives and we still manage to laugh and be happy. Am I going to sweat the small stuff or let fear stop me from living fully? I don’t think so.

2. Adversity strengthens relationships and opens people’s hearts to one another. It also acts as a great filter, separating fair-weather friends from true. You become more loving and less consumed with pettiness. I have been dumbfounded by gratitude for the even deeper love I feel for Brett since all this happened. It is fierce yet yielding. It is a thing to behold. I have been touched and astounded by how some friends are steadfastly there whenever I need them, sometimes before I realize I do. I have also been hurt by a couple who have turned away. But I don’t let it consume me. I understand that they have their own issues and reasons for not being able to cope. I am able to acknowledge my hurt, release it, and be compassionate toward them. It’s much easier to forgive and let go now. And frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to deal with petty things these days, which is a relief. I’m also able to be vulnerable and honest in a way I found difficult before December. It’s almost as if I’ve reached another plane, where I’m able to watch with loving detachment and feel peace. There’s a wonderful freedom in that.

3. Adversity changes our priorities and the way we look at life. We tend to more fully, in the great singer/songwriter Warren Zevon’s words, “enjoy every sandwich.” We’ve all heard stories—both in fairy tales and in real life–of those who’ve had conversions based on a traumatic experience. A classic example is that of John Newton, British captain of a slave ship. When his ship was almost lost during a savage, raging storm, he dropped to his knees and vowed he would give up the slave trade and devote his life to God. He wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” that night, and used the melody he heard the slaves singing from below. That was his last voyage to transport slaves, and he eventually became a minister. He also left a great legacy with that song. Think of how many lives it has touched.

Brett and I both find ourselves saying to others that his cancer diagnosis was a gift in many ways. I don’t care how trite it sounds; it’s true. It has been both a wake-up call and a turning point. It forces us not to fall into complacency; it makes us appreciate what each and every day brings. I now pursue my passions, well, with passion. I no longer think, “someday this, someday that.” I think, “I’d better do it now before it’s too late.” So I do. I think even more about how I can use my gifts and the compassion I’ve gained from our trials to help others; that is what drives me now. We don’t take life for granted anymore. I’m not as afraid to take chances anymore, either. If I fail, so what? I get to grow. That I now know in a way I didn’t before.

Is it possible that despair can actually lead to happiness? Well, yes. Actually, it might be the ONLY way to reach happiness, the true kind anyway. We get knocked off our feet. The blinders come off. We’re forced to stand up, look around, and say, in Dorothy Parker’s words, “What fresh hell is this?” We have a chance to clean ourselves up and figure out how to get out of there. We realize we can make some changes we wouldn’t have if our lives weren’t turned upside down.

And then we have to take the step. There’s a window of time—a few weeks or months after a trauma–in which you need to start walking if you want the change to stick. You can’t just make a resolution that you’ll live a different life. You have to live it. Things like making more money or getting a promotion don’t mean as much anymore. But loving and helping others, building relationships, enjoying the beauty nature brings—those are the things that grab us and hold our attention. Suddenly, we realize that maybe we want our life to be a good story, one that inspires others.

But we can’t have a good life story without tension, conflict, and vicissitude, a fancy word for life’s ups and downs. It’s not interesting otherwise. And the reason we listen to or read stories is because we want to find out: How’d she make it through? How’d he survive it all? We all crave those answers. We all need to believe. And there’s nothing like trauma to make you realize you might have a story that’s not much worth telling if you don’t start making some changes. Trauma is your chance to rebuild the parts of your life story that you never could have torn down voluntarily.

Which way do you want to go?

Is your story a boring one of striving to get material things and being so consumed with your goals and yourself that you do little loving or thinking, then realize on your death bed your life didn’t amount to much?

Is it one that contains what’s known as a “contamination sequence,” where good things go bad, the world is bad, you’re bad, and you end up with a negative tape playing over and over, leading you into a depressed life that depresses others in it?

Or is it one of transformation and inspiration? Like the Buddha or Jesus or Mohammed or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., do you come through suffering to some sort of enlightenment that you can share with others, either through words or example, or both? How do you want others to think of you? How do you want to think of yourself?

If you like the idea of the last story, there’s no way around it: you’re going to have to go through the tough stuff. Else, no one will believe anything you have to say.

In my life story, the pain and the fear and the horrible ripples of cancer’s wake are still there. I would never deny them. But rather than allow them to destroy, I am the alchemist: I can transform cancer’s ugliness into a thing of beauty. I have that God-given power, and so do you. No matter how awful or ugly something is, there is the possibility of seeing its other side. The beauty of our DNA is that we are hard-wired to adapt. We ALWAYS have a choice. Always. I choose a well lived and well loved life. A rich, grace-filled, stumbling, fumbling, loving, bumpy, beautiful life.

Now, back to that young UCC minister and the moaning in her church. She was wise enough to just let the moaning be, and eventually, it subsided. Later, while walking in the funeral procession next to the woman who started it all, the minister asked what in the world was going on. The woman told her that without the moaning, the despair would swallow her whole. It was a cultural thing that reached back to slavery–the moaning and wailing allowed her and others to release and make it through.

Next time you feel the stealthy, seductive tugging of despair, try moaning. Or wailing. Or writing. Or singing a gospel song. Or whatever else works for you to make sense of it, because making sense of it is what will help you through. Ask yourself one crucial question, and do your best to answer it:

What good can I make from this?

And then get on with creating the story you want left behind.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Leventry, Ellen. “Why Bad Things Happen: How Different Religions View the Reasons for Undeserved Human Suffering.”