By Dana Haight Cattani
Dana Haight Cattani was diagnosed with uterine cancer in April 2012. She lives with her family in Indiana.
Or download the audio file here: Job’s Comforters
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.
After Job experiences the devastating loss of his livestock, children, and health, his friends arrive to comfort him. For several days, they sit together in silence. Then they spend dozens of chapters shouting, insulting, and interrupting each other as they argue about whether Job deserved his fate.
Eventually, the whirlwind shows up to facilitate, and—since no one wants to talk anymore—delivers a monologue. The Book of Job depicts the first recorded support group, and it takes an act of God to bring it to a somewhat satisfying closure.
Almost three years ago, a serendipitous encounter at a local book reading led to an informal gathering of women in my community who had been diagnosed with advanced gynecologic cancer. We have been meeting at restaurants for lunch twice a month ever since. Our numbers vary. Two of our early members have died, and several newly diagnosed women have joined the club, so to speak. Mostly, we are seven.
Aside from the bad luck of cancer, the members of this support group ostensibly have little in common. We range in age from 45 to 70. We are British and German and Californian, NASCAR enthusiasts and poets, nurses and academics and journalists and businesspeople. We are of different faiths: Christian and Jewish and agnostic, devout and lapsed, Big Pharma and mistletoe supplements.
We begin our meetings with a check-in. Each person briefly updates the group on any significant news or concerns since our last meeting so that we can spend our ninety minutes together wisely and compassionately. No topic is off-limits. After a discussion of diminished libido, one woman took a field trip to an adult store and returned the next time with a shiny silver vibrator. (We turned it on and passed it around the table, of course.) After a discussion of end-of-life planning, one woman priced cremations at three nearby funeral homes (no point in overpaying) while another woman arranged for us to tour our community’s brand-new hospice facility. (It was surprisingly reassuring.) When we discovered a number of cancer “orphans” in town, we approached the director of our local cancer center and proposed a voluntary registry to help patients with like diagnoses find each other. Somehow, it makes us feel better to be doing something.
We try to avoid the pitfall of counterfeit support, well-intended comments that actually increase anxiety and distress:
- You really need to go to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York (or M.D. Anderson in Houston or the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota) to get decent treatment. (The implication: Your treatment plan is all wrong. Don’t you want to get well? Are you lazy or just cheap?)
- Morning and evening kale smoothies with gluten-free protein powder and ground chia seeds will have you up and playing tennis in no time. (There is a simple, readily available solution to your problem. You must be too stubborn or skeptical or squeamish to implement it.)
- My colleague never missed a day of work while she was having chemotherapy. (Some people are warriors who carry on heroically, but apparently you are not one of them.)
- Think of your cancer as a gift. (Get over yourself. Cancer is not that bad and might even be good.)
- I lost my job, my home, and my mind, but that’s nothing compared to what you’re going through. (In light of your unimaginably horrific life, I feel better about mine. Isn’t that a wonderful blessing?)
- Why didn’t you see your doctor sooner? (You are at fault or at least complicit in your illness.)
As in the story of Job, this kind of backhanded comfort masks a self-serving sentiment: the desperate need to alleviate the comforter’s fear that she could be vulnerable to similar afflictions. The comforter reassures herself by implying, in the unkindest cut of all, that the sufferer must have deserved or abetted the suffering, or at least not handled it properly. These judgments are not complicated by context or nuance, such as the wise allocation of physical and emotional energy, money, or that unknown quantity, time. In colloquial speech, a Job’s comforter is another name for a boil. In person, Job’s comforters offer the sufferer nothing but painful new outbreaks.
In my group, we begin with life itself and then ask three basic questions: How do you feel? What do you value? How can we support you? We expect a fitful range of emotions, and we do not try to talk anyone out of her feelings. They are all legitimate, even the ones that will soften over time. Similarly, we expect a wide array of treatment preferences. Within my group, some people request aggressive body scans to monitor their cancer, while others decline scans because at times they generate discomfort and anxiety without providing much new information. One woman searched exhaustively for a clinical drug trial while another decided to forego any further treatment in order to focus her remaining energy on her children and grandchildren. The group does not praise one strategy and condemn another. We are all quite aware that each of us is doing her level best to live well.
Toward that end, we do have one rule: No shoulds. We do not try to tell each other how to feel or what to do. Instead, we offer attentive listening and confidentiality. In a word: support.
Rabbi Harold Kushner recently described Judaism in this way:
Judaism sees itself, first and foremost, as a community, and only secondarily as a theological system. We don’t have to believe the same things, we don’t have to practice the same things, we don’t have to agree on anything except that we feel like members of a family….[Community is] a way of being assured that you are not alone in this frightening cosmos.1
My cancer support group feels like the kind of community Kushner describes.
In many ways, the Church does not. Our theological system typically trumps our community structure. In theory, members are expected to accept the same doctrines and practices. The Handbooks, standardized curriculum, and the temple recommend process provide bureaucratic oversight and accountability. At church, we begin with an idealized model of mortality and then doggedly bear down on people’s real lives to try to make them fit. When they do not, we sometimes assume that it is the people and not the model that are inadequate.
For example, my friend Pam once attended a Relief Society lesson on The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Class members read favorite parts and shared their thoughts. Pam sat quietly until the teacher asked her to comment. Then Pam explained that she felt the Proclamation did not apply to her. A professional with two children living at home, she worked full time while sharing parenting and household responsibilities with her husband, who was also employed. She told the class that the Proclamation’s gender roles did not match her life.
Immediately, the focus of the discussion changed from the content of the Proclamation to its application to all people, Pam specifically. Class members earnestly told her that yes, indeed, the Proclamation did apply to her. It applied to everyone. They provided their own analysis and testimonies. When the class ended, Pam left the room feeling deeply alienated. She had spoken her truth, and it had been rejected as inaccurate. No one acknowledged even the possibility that her view could be valid. Instead, the class members tried to correct her life experience, to make it mesh with their own expectations, needs, and beliefs. In spite of their best efforts to bring Pam into the circle of belonging, she viewed herself as more distinctly outside it than before. She may not have walked into the class feeling burdened, but she certainly left it that way.
Both Paul2 and Alma3 counsel their people to bear one another’s burdens. In effect, the Saints are urged to function as a support group, to offer assistance and encouragement in difficult times. Since my cancer diagnosis, I have attended church weekly (except when I was too sick) and my cancer group twice a month. I have found support in both venues but with noteworthy differences.
As in my cancer group, at church we have rules. We are not shy about shoulds. We should feel happy and full of faith, regardless of our circumstances. We should trust our leaders to receive and interpret God’s word and explain it to us. A family should consist of one bread-winning man, one stay-at-home woman, and their biological children. We should be grateful for trials because they are evidence of God’s love. We should avoid even the most mild disagreement because it carries a spirit of contention. If we are of one heart and one mind, we should recognize and share the same values.
In contrast to my support group, at church we start with answers and then, occasionally, allow for questions, preferably ones that correspond neatly. Most weeks in Relief Society, there is some version of this scenario. Women who have just sat through a passive hour of sacrament meeting talks enter the room. Some with heavy hearts have come in hope of relief or at least respite. These women—all of us, at one time or another—want and need to talk, to interact, to process their brokenness in community. Instead, they may watch the teacher march through a recitation of disembodied quotes with occasional pauses to ask a leading question. If a woman with a heavy heart raises her hand to describe briefly her pain, she is likely to be encouraged to pray, read the scriptures, hold weekly Family Home Evening, and attend the temple. While these strategies may help, they may hurt, also. They may imply that she must not be doing her part—at least not with enough frequency or faith—or she would not have this vexing and intractable problem in the first place. She is, at some level, at fault.
At church, we tend to apply the same all-purpose solutions to every difficult situation with the expectation that they will do the trick. If, unaccountably, the pat answers fail to satisfy, it is the sufferer who is indicted as dense, weak, or oppositional. She may be, but piling guilt and rejection on top of her existing suffering is unlikely to help her feel supported.
Which of us, if our daughter asks for bread, will give her a stone?
We do have support processes at church, and my family has been the grateful beneficiary. Through ministering, organized compassionate service, and spontaneous acts of kindness, the Church community has sheltered us and propped us up with hospital visits, meals, rides, household help, even foot massages. I have felt the love of God in the touch of my brothers’ and sisters’ hands.
It is our Sunday meetings that often seem devoid of support to me, especially when compared to my cancer group lunches. In fairness, the cancer group formed around very specific needs and has a de facto admission requirement of a diagnosis. The group does not try to provide maternity and bereavement support; educate toddlers, teens, and parents; facilitate repentance and forgiveness; or feed and shelter the needy. If my cancer group were to replicate itself two million times and spread worldwide, it would require a governing body, curriculum, and handbooks, too. With fundamentally different charters, it is not surprising that theology is central in our Sunday worship while support is central in my cancer group.
Could our Sunday meetings channel some of the nimble responsiveness of a small support group? In my experience, our services are prescribed4 in ways that discourage flexibility and sensitivity to local and individual needs, not to mention candor and original thought. I believe that we would have to reduce and relax the scripting of our weekly worship in order to make room for more meaningful support at church. Toward that end, here are some suggestions:
- Encourage sacrament meeting speakers to select their own topics. Trust the members to help construct this shared worship experience. Encourage them to prepare and speak in their own words about a gospel subject they currently find significant. Make sacrament meetings less rote and more personal, fostering deeper community bonds and richer opportunities for support.
- Expand the broad outline format used in the 2013 Come, Follow Me youth curriculum to include Relief Society and priesthood manuals. The quotation-based format of the Teachings of Presidents of the Church manuals is more suitable to a reference book than a discussion-based lesson. Put the lived experiences of local members at the heart of gospel teaching. Bearing one another’s burdens begins with valuing our own experiences and trusting their authenticity and importance.
- Normalize open-ended questions in classes. Eliminate leading questions such as “Why do you think the most important prophet for us is the current president of the Church?” “Why are these teachings comforting to you?” “As worldly attitudes about motherhood change, what can we do to uphold the noble and sacred responsibilities of mothers?”5 Instead of steering respondents toward approved answers, include sample open-ended questions with every lesson. Leading questions suffocate genuine support by presupposing answers, shutting down or marginalizing the very people who are most likely to feel burdened.
- Develop in-service training materials that guide teachers in managing discussion. Direct teachers to ask questions with a range of possible responses. Coach teachers to square their shoulders to respondents and listen attentively with full eye contact. Encourage teachers to nod as they listen, not necessarily in agreement, but in appreciation for the gift of participation and engagement. When the respondent finishes, remind teachers to say, if nothing else, “Thank you.”
Current limitations notwithstanding, occasionally something wonderful happens for me in Sunday meetings, and I feel inspired or enlightened or even just heard. And sometimes, when my cancer group check-in brings only recurrences and failed treatments, I think, “I’ve got to find some healthier friends.” No group can be all things to all people all the time. But regrettably, in my experience at church, our Sunday meetings can be persistently unhelpful in providing support. Given the scriptural injunctions to bear one another’s burdens, I wonder if it has to be this way.
A dear friend—I’ll call her Mrs. Job since that’s sometimes how she refers to herself—has had a calamitous year with a series of devastating health crises in her family. A brilliant scholar as well as a veteran cancer patient herself, she takes a dim view of most religious explanations of suffering. Since her infant grandson’s diagnosis with leukemia, she has spent days with him at the hospital so his parents could rest or work. Once as she was holding the baby with his heart-rending chemotherapy IV tube, a hospital chaplain poked his head in the door. He said, “I believe nothing. May I sit in silence with you for a few minutes?”
She said yes.
- Harold Kushner, “An Interview with Rabbi Harold Kushner,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 46, No. 4 (Winter 2013), 147–8, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/premium/Dialogue_V46N04_608e.pdf (accessed 3 December 2014).
- Galatians 6:2.
- Mosiah 18:8.
- Handbook 2: Administering the Church 2010, “Curriculum” (17.1.10) and “Sacrament Meeting” (18.2.2), https://www.lds.org/bc/content/shared/content/english/pdf/language-materials/08702_eng.pdf?lang=eng (accessed 30 May 2015).
- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, “Follow the Living Prophet,” https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-of-presidents-of-the-church-ezra-taft-benson/chapter-11-follow-the-living-prophet?lang=eng, “Principles of True Repentance,” https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-of-presidents-of-the-church-ezra-taft-benson/chapter-5-principles-of-true-repentance?lang=eng, and “The Sacred Callings of Mothers and Fathers,” https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-of-presidents-of-the-church-ezra-taft-benson/chapter-15-the-sacred-callings-of-fathers-and-mothers?lang=eng (all accessed 25 May 2015).