By Dana Haight Cattani
“But on the whole his life ran its course as he believed life should do: easily, pleasantly, and decorously.”
—The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy1
From beneath her fashionable blonde wig, Darla introduced herself to my gynecologic cancer support group.
A first-timer, she listed a few descriptors—grandmother, business owner, widow (twice), cancer patient for the past eighteen months—and then quoted her current blood work numbers, the most dismal I had ever heard. She explained that her ovarian cancer was so advanced and her body so depleted that her doctor advised against any additional treatment. Then Darla said, “But I have my faith, my friends, and my family. So I’m fine.”
I stared at her. Apart from the obvious fact that she was not fine, I was struck by this epiphany: I also had faith, friends, and family. But I did not feel fine. Not at all.
In the two years since my diagnosis with advanced endometrial cancer, I have sifted this question many times: Why is my faith—my religion—not more comforting to me?
“What do I want? To live and not to suffer,” Ivan answered.2
During my cancer treatments, friends and neighbors from outside the Church often brought up my faith as a presumed source of strength. I did not want to correct these friends or go into too many details, but in the face of a wily, opportunistic cancer, my faith seemed rather paltry. In waiting rooms where I was surrounded by other cancer patients, I recognized their tics: stroking newly-bald heads, popping mints to ease a dry mouth, or swallowing for no obvious reason, the cords of their necks conspicuous as plumb lines. I could not discern that my faith made me any less miserable or anxious than anyone else.
At the same time, many well-meaning Mormon friends hinted that I must surely find solace in the notion of eternal families, covenants, and promised blessings. Some even suggested that I drag my cut, burned, and poisoned body the five-hour round trip to our nearest temple so I could feel closer to God. I did not want to correct these friends, either, or go into too many details, but I figured that, under the circumstances, God could make a house call. Besides, I had little interest in the eternities; I wanted tomorrows.
Faith did warm me, but like a February sun in Indiana: the light fell on my shoulders, but still I shivered. Although I was mindful of many other people in difficult circumstances and knew of no reason I should be exempt, still I was aghast that God could countenance a life-threatening illness in me.
Leo Tolstoy described a similar shock in Ivan Ilych, a 45-year-old government official who slips on a stepladder while decorating his new house and injures himself. A minor ache soon becomes a serious condition that even the celebrity doctors cannot identify or cure, and Ivan finds himself quite unexpectedly facing the possibility of death.
“It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.” …. [Ivan] could not understand it, and tried to drive this false, incorrect, morbid thought away and to replace it by other proper and healthy thoughts.3
Ivan’s initial denial of his mortality is normal and natural. Our human impulse is to dodge this unpleasant fact as much as possible. When bad things do happen, Mormons (among others) sometimes rush in where angels—at least the less sanguine ones—fear to tread. It’s all good, we quickly explain. We understand the great plan of happiness, the nature of God, and the atonement. After my diagnosis these reassurances became, as my radiologist said of fresh produce, difficult to tolerate.
The great plan of happiness seemed particularly tough to square with the wretchedness of my new life.4 Schematic representations of this chipper plan, a fixture in Mormon curriculum, depict life as a clearly-marked path with obvious lanes and directional signs.5 Ostensibly, the plan answers life’s great questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? These are fine questions, and our stock answers are perhaps sufficient on ordinary, dull Sundays. However, at times of crisis, our familiar call and response cannot alleviate the crippling sense that inexplicably, on God’s watch even, something has gone terribly awry. Worse, variations on the theme “What is the doctrine?” seem irrelevant and even dismissive to acute sufferers. The questions must shift to address a changed reality. How could God allow (or cause) this loss to happen? How can I go on? Why worship a God who does not deliver us from evil? These, also, are life’s great questions, and our doctrine is largely silent on them.
The gospel does not excuse us from the existential crises we prefer not to discuss in rigorous, searching ways. To me, it is not comforting to attempt to cram my life into a predetermined theological framework, to assert what should or could or might be in the future at the expense of acknowledging what is.
And what was worst of all was that [mortality] drew [Ivan’s] attention to itself not in order to make him take some action but only that he should look at It, look it straight in the face: look at it and without doing anything, suffer inexpressibly.6
Our confident claims about the nature of God did not fit easily with my cancer experience, either. We teach that “God is perfect, all wise, and all-powerful” as well as “merciful, kind, and just.”7 Modern scripture describes God as a kind of divine examiner who “proves” us through hand-picked trials that teach us needful lessons, and that all “these things” shall give us experience and shall be for our good.8
In the midst of treatments, I found it very, very difficult to imagine a merciful, kind, and just God selecting this particular trial for my good. I wanted God to be a source of support, and I could not fathom that suffering and relief could flow from the same font. If they did, I certainly did not want to risk drinking from that source ever again. A parent who beats a child one day and buys her an ice cream the next is not trustworthy. A rod or staff that strikes cannot then comfort. A god who is not good cannot be god.
The alternative—a god of limits, a world of randomness—is not particularly comforting, either, especially to those of us who were taught to expect blessings commensurate with our obedience.9 Nonetheless, this possibility leaves the door open to a god of goodwill and sorrow whose rod and staff might yet comfort us.
“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to [Ivan]. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?” he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.10
After my diagnosis, the atonement also troubled me in new ways. We teach that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ paid for the sins and experienced the suffering of all humanity.11 We proclaim that “it’s comforting to know that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, suffered all things. He understands your pain and can help you through your trials.”12 Freely chosen, the atonement was the ultimate sacrifice that pales all others. Accordingly, when Joseph Smith cried out for relief in Liberty Jail, he was rebuked: “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?”13 While this response may have provided needed perspective, it also seems to shame Joseph and to trivialize human suffering. Quit your whining. Jesus had it worse.
At the most literal level, I could not plumb the idea that Jesus had experienced the entire gamut of human misery. Some suffering is sex-specific—pre-menstrual syndrome, childbearing, and hot flashes, not to mention gynecologic cancer—and not possible for a man to experience directly. Some suffering is age-related, such as incontinence, dementia, and joint pain, and typically beyond the scope of a person who dies young. Some suffering is decidedly modern such as environmentally-induced asthma or radiation sickness. Some suffering is rooted in relationships—with children or spouses—that to our knowledge, Jesus did not experience. Finally, long-term suffering exacts a different toll than temporary suffering. Anguish always seems drawn out, but a night in Gethsemane, perhaps six or eight hours, is not comparable to decades of caregiving for a special-needs child or impaired spouse. Three hours on the cross is not like living with multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease or even months of cancer treatments. I suspect there are some things that even with a finely-tuned sense of empathy and bowels full of compassion, you cannot know until you know.
Sometimes we stand in need of comfort, and stand, and stand. Sometimes we are all Rachel, weeping for her children, who would not be comforted. And sometimes it is too late—or too early—for comfort.
DURING MY CANCER treatments, a particular memory re-surfaced again and again. In it, I was recovering from a complicated miscarriage, and my mother had come to bring me food and company for the afternoon. Days of feverish heartache on the heels of several years of infertility treatments had left me vulnerable to a black mood, which I embraced. I responded to my mother’s every kind reassurance or suggestion with a curt rebuff. Devastated and hormonal, I wanted to curse God—and my mother, for good measure—and throw down Rachel’s gauntlet: “Give me children, or else I die.”
After a good half hour of my vitriol, my mother abruptly stood up from the couch where we had been seated and picked up her purse. All business, she said, “I can see I can’t be of any use here today. I’ll call you in the morning to see how you’re doing.” She turned and walked briskly to the front door. I heard the deadbolt click, the door open and shut, and then her fading steps on the cement walkway. I stared at the closed door, astonished that my mother would walk out on my distress.
When dusk settled and the room darkened, I gingerly stood up and turned on a light. After three days in my pajamas, it was time to get dressed.
THE THOUGHT OF Ivan Ilych’s impending death fills his wife, children, and associates not with sorrow but with strategies for turning his demise to their benefit through a government pension, inheritance, or professional promotion. Only Gerasim, a servant, is free of self-interest. In fact, without complaint he empties the commode and holds up Ivan’s legs for hours to offer him some relief from pain. The dignity and care of this servant, a man Ivan might have ignored or despised before his illness, becomes his chief consolation:
At certain moments after prolonged suffering [Ivan] wished most of all (though he would have been shamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied. He longed to be petted and comforted. He knew he was an important functionary, that he had a beard turning grey, and that therefore what he longed for was impossible, but still he longed for it. And in Gerasim’s attitude toward him there was something akin to what he wished for.14
Ivan denies his mortality over and over, and he suffers in that denial. Gerasim offers him an antidote to suffering: conscious acceptance and a willingness to comfort and be comforted.
What if it is not the role of religion to comfort? What if its true function is to embolden us to keep the great covenant of life: to cling in shared grief and joy to this exquisite, desolate sphere? Eve, a rookie, negotiated the terms: give up the comforts of the garden in exchange for a life of multiplied sorrows and sweat on our brows. Call it the Not-So-Great Plan of Happiness. Comfort was not a landmark east of Eden, and I imagine Eve sometimes rued that she had ever come to this place of travail and fratricide and woe. As she undoubtedly discovered, comfort is elusive and agency rings hollow when we want choices we do not have.
Illness and other crises ask of us urgent existential questions and pester us to sit with them until we can bear to open our clenched eyes and see. If religion forestalls this process with facile promises or distracting justifications, could it impede rather than advance our moral development?
“It’s God’s will. We shall all come to it some day,” said Gerasim.15
There is more sadness—and more goodness, vast hidden reserves of goodness—in the world than I could have imagined. Religion and especially doctrine with their promises of protection and prizes are less comforting than I might have hoped. Sometimes, as Tolstoy and my mother knew, we are not meant to be—or ready to be—comforted, and we must bear what cannot be escaped. Sometimes, as they also knew, what comfort there is may creep up on us almost imperceptibly, like moss coating a wet stone, like Rachel’s exiled children slowing walking home.
- Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, translated by Aylmer Maude and J. D. Duff, (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003), 115.
- Ibid, 144.
- Ibid, 129.
- Alma 42:8.
- Book of Mormon Teacher Resource Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 7–10, https://www.lds.org/manual/book-of-mormon-teacher-resource-manual/plan-of-salvation-overview?lang=eng (accessed 21 November 2014).
- Tolstoy, 130.
- “What Do Mormons Believe about the Nature of God?” http://www.mormon.org/faq/nature-of-god (accessed 21 November 2014).
- “Trials,” The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992). http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Trials (accessed 21 November 2014). Abraham 3:25.
- “How Do I Help People Make and Keep Commitments?” Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 195–202, https://www.lds.org/manual/preach-my-gospel-a-guide-to-missionary-service/how-do-i-help-people-make-and-keep-commitments?lang=eng (accessed 10 October 2014).
- Tolstoy, Ivan Ilych, 145.
- “God’s Plan of Salvation,” http://www.mormon.org/beliefs/plan-of-salvation (accessed 21 November 2014).
- D&C 122:8.
- Tolstoy, Ivan Ilych, 135.
- Ibid, 101.