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Kristen Noel

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How Can I Be Grateful When I'm So Angry?

Posted: 11/27/2013 10:51 pm

I'm stuck. And I'm angry, because people around me, people I love, are dying, cancer taking them down like dominoes: a friend with two children who is fighting to win the battle against the tumor taking over her brain; a client who had her insides sucked out like a spring-cleaning vacuum spree, in an effort to save her life; and my cousin, newly married, only 47 years old, who is fighting to maintain the most basic of functions. Sitting in stillness in my office in the early morning, before the light appears to illuminate the sky (and me), I sit in darkness and fester. Why? How do I muster gratitude in the face of chemo?

I recently wrote of the wedding of my cousin Lisa Dumaw, who is battling terminal ovarian cancer, and her partner of 15 years, Therese Pieper. They traveled across the country to a state that would recognize their union as legal. (Thank you, New York.) The heart of this story is not only same-sex marriage but the inherent health risk that Lisa took to get here. On a wing and a prayer, in what could be the final days of Lisa's battle with her disease, she boarded a plane to realize this wish. I stand surrounded by leaps of faith.

Still, I remain entrenched in my vortex. I'm stuck not knowing what to do with my anger. I'm angry that she's dying. I'm angry that I'm powerless to do anything about it. I'm angry at cancer. I'm angry that she is being judged. I'm angry that by virtue of my own anger, my rhetorical salvo, I'm contributing to the pollution of anger, joining in the same vicious cycle. Stop the merry-go-round; I want to get off.

I know that anger is merely a mask for fear. It's easier to don than vulnerability. It seems braver to bark than to bleed. Besides, truth be told, I'm not sure I want to let go of my old fair-weather friend after all. Fear and I have been faithful companions for many moons now.

What are we so afraid of? Why has much of the world set their dial on fear -- fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of not fitting into the tribe? What about the celebration of difference -- the proverbial Thanksgiving smorgasbord? We get to select: a dollop of tart cranberries to garnish our meal or not, white meat or dark, a modest coating of gravy or a swimming pool on the plate. It's that simple, people. We get to choose, whether it's what we put on our plates or what we put forth in the world. If you don't like Aunt Mary's sweet potato concoction, don't reach for it (or judge those who do).

When Mother Teresa was asked to participate in anti-war demonstrations, she politely declined (as only one on the steps of sainthood can do), retorting that if she were asked to join a pro-peace rally, she would be there with bells on. I continually recall this fact as a reminder of what the slightest of shifts in the semantics of word and intention can produce.

Do we have to be against something in order to be supportive of something else? Why can't they coexist side by side?

The antidote for anger is gratitude. But I'm pulling at straws here, because I'm seething in a vat of my own venom. I keep reaching, pushing through rage, until my hand is met by compassion. I release my attachment to outcome for the things that I cannot change, and in doing so I see opportunity before me: opportunity to participate in making an impact on political change, opportunity to bear witness to community outpouring and the kindness of strangers, opportunity to be a part of the solution. When we shift, the world shifts with us. As Lisa's spouse Therese recently said to me, "Miracles are just events we don't typically see in our everyday."

The Nov. 1 wedding of Lisa and Therese received a great deal of media attention, including two HuffPost blog posts by me, coverage in People and even a call from The Ellen DeGeneres Show. My cousin's bravery in allowing me to share her story fills me with awe. It started the morning of the wedding; I awoke to an inbox flooded with expressions of emotion from all over the world. When we apply a human face and story to any circumstance, suddenly the heart takes pause and can then speak to the (block)head. There are pivotal moments in life when we need to act from this "heart," not worrying what someone else will think, lessening the grip on our personal affiliations -- religious, political, or tribe-oriented allegiances -- however difficult they may be to shake.

We can remind ourselves that fear, the counterpart to our anger, is a four-letter word that starts with "F." No four-letter words allowed. If for only a moment, we can take pause, asking ourselves the next time anger grabs hold of our ankles: What are we so afraid of? Better yet, how the hell are we going to gratitude ourselves right out of it?

Thanks(for)giving (me choice).

Gratitude, please.

 

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