11/04/2013 02:11 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Helplessness: Lessons From Childhood

In October, I enjoyed attending an awards dinner hosted by the Cancer Research Institute. They recognize patients who have beaten the disease, and they award the scientists and philanthropists who make it all possible. This Institute focuses on immunotherapy. It's research helps the body combat the disease on its own.

My table had one scientist and two families who had members who survived cancer. One was a mom who went on to birth two children who are now two and five years old. The other family were the Whiteheads, whose daughter Emma, "a six-year-old girl from Pennsylvania with end-stage leukemia whose life was saved by an experimental treatment, an immunotherapy that turned her own immune system into a cancer-fighting army" writes the Cancer Research Institute.

According to the New York Times ,

She was near death; she had relapsed twice from chemotherapy, and doctors had run out of options. Her parents sought an experimental treatment at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, one that had never before been tried in a child, or in anyone with the type of leukemia Emma had. The experiment, in April (2012), used a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS to reprogram Emma's immune system genetically to kill cancer cells. The treatment very nearly killed her. But she emerged from it cancer-free, and about eight months later is still in complete remission. She is the first child and one of the first humans ever in whom new techniques have achieved a long-sought goal -- giving a patient's own immune system the lasting ability to fight cancer...

and just this past month, she went for her 18-month check-up.

I can't imagine what that family must have gone through. Cancer is never easy on anyone -- it's never easy on any family. But trying to imagine what sense of helplessness and confusion a six-year-old child would be challenged with is particularly hard. She's had a lifetime being cared for by a loving family. Holding on to as much cheer as she can, and gifted with an abundance of energy the rest of us would envy. But she's been cared for up until this time entirely by her family. At six, she has no agency. She has no ability to make life-decisions on her own. She's learning about the risk of death in the most intimate way possible. And she's not at the steering wheel of her own life. She can keep up a great attitude, but her wellness is completely dependent upon others making the best choices they know how to make. Fortunately, in this case, she has one amazing set of parents -- and some great doctors.

Emma aside, the same goes for every baby that comes into this world. They aren't able to control, choose or understand much of anything. If we walk away, they are helpless. Emma wasn't going to get well on her own. Spiritually, what can we learn from that deep place of helplessness?

We can learn that helplessness isn't inherently a trauma. We are each born into it, and someday each will return to it, but it's a natural state of living and being alive. Do we approach helplessness as the infant? Having moments of wiggles, having moments of fear, having moments of confusion -- but always knowing and trusting the source of life that brought us here? Or do we forget the lesson of the infant? That we're alone, that there's no one to help and that helplessness means tragedy? Tragedies of abuse aside, we learn to trust others through our helplessness.

Trust -- one of our most crucial virtues -- means nothing if we always have control and power and if we're never reliant upon another. Trust also teaches us how to be human. Because helplessness is the normal state of affairs in life. We don't make ourselves breathe. We don't bring ourselves into this world. We don't control the factors of chance or luck that make us thrive or wallow. We are helpless before the love of others, or the lack of love of others. We can't control our parents' failings as parents or their successes. We can make the most of our talents, but we didn't put those talents there, nor did we earn the fortune or poverty of our upbringing. Infancy taught us to trust in the face of helplessness as if our life depended upon it -- and it did. And it continues to depend upon that trust this very day.

If we can't let go, if we can't occasionally be powerless and if we can't lean into trust with another human being -- we're living as less than human. We're a cog in a wheel that must always turn just the right way. Always produce, always succeed, always win. But never be alive. Be grateful for our moments of helplessness, as best we can, for they open up opportunities to rest in the arms of another loving force that's all the harder to see when we pretend we're perfect.