When I think about what I learned during cancer treatment and its aftermath, it’s not what one might expect.
There’s a mythology about the noble “cancer survivor” who has spiritual epiphanies, becomes a super-heroic and nice, wise woman who can now rise above all the baloney dished out by everyone around her. I don’t know if that really happens to anyone. I know I’m not any nicer. In fact, I probably appear to be less “nice” because some of what I learned was how to do better at establishing and maintaining boundaries.
This might have happened anyway, as part of becoming more mature, without going through the cancer nightmare. But the learning curve accelerated as I was subjected to so much nonsense by so many people, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts.
Having grown up with abusive parents, as a child I learned to keep my head down and just keep quiet in the face of bad treatment. I didn’t turn out to be a people-pleaser but I have often been very slow to extricate myself from bad situations.
What I know now is that good boundaries are essential to good psychological and physical health. A book I have read over and over again on this subject and keep on my bedside table is Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life (New Harbinger Publications, 1997.) Authors Jan Black and Greg Enns call psychological boundaries a “life enhancing system of ‘yes’es’ and ‘no’s’.”
Practicing good boundaries does not mean not caring about others or getting into verbal fistfights with knuckleheads. It does mean sizing people up quickly, being very fine-tuned to one’s inner responses and asking oneself, without hesitation: is this good treatment? Should I stay or should I go?
I got to practice good boundaries recently when I made what I thought would be an uneventful trip to a new local knit shop. I had my dog Maggie with me and I was going to take her to explore a park we hadn’t yet been to. On the way, I thought I’d just pop into the store, look around, buy a skein or two and take off.
That Sunday afternoon, the owner and a number of customers were there for a knit-together, sitting on comfortable chairs, with the air conditioner on, each knitter working on her project. They all immediately liked Maggie and wanted to pet her, and she was thrilled to greet each lady.
One of the women in the circle is someone I’d known through other knitting groups, who knew I’d had cancer, who’d even discussed it with me once, expressing some concern. She immediately made an off-the-wall remark about my now-longish hair. I ignored it.
I sat down to chat and took a look at what each one was knitting. The level of conversation at these gatherings is usually light and breezy, though not everyone in these groups is really a kind person, and they often reveal that. I do enjoy seeing what everyone’s working on.
A couple of the women urged me to join them on subsequent Sundays for their all-afternoon knit-together. It was an absolutely gorgeous day outside, I was headed to a park to walk outside in the sun and fresh air with my dog. I looked around the room. Without writing anything disparaging here about what these women looked like, let’s just say they did not look like people who take good care of themselves. I smiled and said I’d think about it.
What I was thinking was that I’d like to spend time with people who are smart, engaging and conscious about health. Barring that possibility, spending time with myself is at least as good and often preferable.
I was thinking that I wanted to be kind and polite to these women, while also not letting in what might not be wholesome for myself.
I did a little shopping and Maggie ran around the store a bit.
Back in the circle, I said I was looking for a particular park and had directions from Map Quest. One of the women spoke up and said: “Oh, no, don’t go that way. Main Street is right over there at the stop light.”
Another one also chimed in to say I was “all wrong” with the directions I had and that I’d be a “fool” to waste my time going that route. OK, I said, and I let her start telling me her way to get to the park. She went on and on and on, including describing the type of glass on the firehouse I shouldn’t pass. It must have looked like my eyes were glazing over when she angrily snapped: “Hey, are you paying attention? I’m not going to waste my breath on you if you’re not!”
Ah, yes, I thought, another knitting lady with some anger management issues!
I told her I was listening, repeated back the directions she’d given me and said: thanks.
And then I beat it out of that store as fast as I could.
Spend an afternoon – or five minutes – with someone like this? I don’t think so.
Cancer clarifies the importance of radical self-care. Medicine is food and exercise and sleep. Medicine is also steering clear of toxic energy wherever it happens to surface.
We got back in the car. I followed the directions I already had written down from Map Quest, and we headed over to the park to walk on the grass in the sun.