I've noticed something in the year and a half since my diagnosis with Stage IIIC cancer. People treat me differently. And I don't just mean the way people reacted when they first learned I had cancer or saw my tell-tale bald head (a phenomenon I call "Cancer Face"). I mean the way those in my inner and outer circles still behave around me, even a year out of treatment.
There's apparently a certain grace extended to those who were nearly lost that other, "luckier," ones don't receive. I guess almost dying and having an unknown prognosis gives you some sort of pass. Not that I receive perks or free stuff. I'm talking about gentleness of attitude, and mercy.
I have been experiencing an abundance of patience, and very little annoyance directed at me. For instance, if I'm late for something or need to reschedule, my lunch date will simply say, "No worries! Whenever you can make it is fine!"
Or if I happen to mess up, I'm inevitable told, "Hey, that's okay... everyone makes mistakes!"
And at work, clients and colleagues are super-respectful of my schedule, in a manner I never experienced in my pre-cancer, workaholic days.
I am very close to my parents and have been most of my life (except for a couple of rebellious periods, which is a whole other column). My mother has always been a planner and an organizer, and my lackadaisical approach to scheduling and promptness was frustrating to her at times. Since my cancer, however, my mom has become incredibly laid back. Now when I call to say I'm going to be half an hour late, she says, "whenever you get here is totally fine", and she means it. They're just glad to see me, whenever they see me. After a few of these easygoing exchanges, I asked my husband. "Have you noticed how extraordinarily easy my parents are, about everything?", I asked.
"They almost lost you," he said. "Petty things don't matter anymore."
That's when I realized that this "special" treatment was widespread. Everyone seemed kinder, gentler. Which caused me to wonder, is it me, or is it them?
I've noticed that I'm doing it too, easily extending grace and -- even better -- finding humor in situations that might have frustrated me in the past. I have more empathy for others. And the people or situations that are terminally toxic? I just remove myself altogether. Life is entirely too short for such nonsense.
So why don't we treat everyone like this all of the time? We talk about not "sweating the small stuff" and "going with the flow," but how many of us really practice this in our lives? How much energy do we burn agonizing and worrying about things we can't control or that simply don't matter in the big picture?
That's not to say we should accept unacceptable or disrespectful behavior, but rather, why not ask ourselves "how important is it?" when confronted with an (historically) annoying situation.
I don't know why any of us has to have a near death experience -- or come close to losing a loved one -- to chill the eff out, but I'll take it. It doesn't have to be that way, though, does it?
What if we all just lived our lives in more of a place of gratitude and generosity rather than angst and annoyance? What if we just slowed down a bit, breathed deeply once in awhile. There's clearly something to this stopping and smelling the roses thing. It changes one's entire mindset.
And none of knows how much time we have, do we? I want to treat every interaction with others as though it might be my last, from those in my immediate family to the barista at my favorite coffee shop. And that includes being more mindful about being prompt and courteous and respectful of others' time.
Not to say that my life now is nothing but rainbows and sunshine. Far from it. And I still want to be called on my bullshit. I don't need to be treated with kid gloves, cancer or no. My husband doesn't cut me any slack, and for that I am grateful. And last week my brother got peeved at me for not returning his call in a timely manner. "Thank goodness," I said. "You're not afraid to get mad at me anymore, I must be out of the woods."
I guess it just comes down to mindfulness, respect of self and others, and picking not only our external battles, but our internal ones as well. Asking ourselves, how important is it, really? There is tremendous freedom in just letting go of the little things. And don't think of it as giving someone a pass (although what would be so wrong with that?), but giving yourself one.
Now go tell someone you love how much they mean to you. Give a friendly wave to that crossing guard on the corner. And next time someone steps on your toe, smile and say, sincerely, "hey, no big deal!"
Image via Brooke Kelly.