In an age when women are multitasking the traditional roles of femininity (wife, mother) while redefining what society says a woman can or can’t do (CEO, President), I have to wonder…is there a danger in being consumed by our roles in life?
I am crying by myself in the next room, flushed by a moment of weakness. It’s the kind of cry in which you discretely allow yourself 20 seconds to ‘let it out’, clean up the mascara, and go back to the party. I call this the ‘secret cry’; women are masters of the secret cry.
A family member has just lost her battle with cancer; that makes the third member of my clan to lose their battle in the last year alone. Cancer has always been particularly vicious to our family. I myself am a survivor, celebrating 10 years of reclaimed time in my short 27 years of life. But today, I’m crying in secret because even after all the practice, I’m buckling under an unreasonable, absolutely self-inflicted pressure to be calm, peaceful, and wise through any cancer-related catastrophes, this included.
I took on the role of ‘positive cancer survivor’ and know I’m struggling to live up to it’s responsibilities.
When I was diagnosed at age 17, I promised relentless ambition to prove that battling cancer didn’t need to be a dark, ominous period in which no one talked about the elephant in the room. This commitment altered the treatment experience into one of heightened happiness and gratitude rather than fear and struggle.
In subsequent years, it’s been more challenging to keep that positive attitude, especially during the diagnosis of other people, diagnoses I can’t control or make decisions about. Because of my decided role in the family and in the face of cancer, I still attempt to wear a peaceful smile even in the face of great loss and pain. No one is looking to me to be positive right now, yet I’m unable to let the guard down. “I’m the cheerful, accepting one, right?” I tell myself. “I’m not afraid of cancer, right?”
Whenever we choose a role in life – mother, girlfriend, cancer fighter, colleague – we run the risk of becoming too consumed in our perception of said role’s responsibilities. We sacrifice our health to stay ahead at the office. We give up seeing friends to spend all our time with a new love interest. We become so consumed in either the joy of the role or living up to our expectations of the role that we lose balance. The circumstances evolve, and yet we stay locked in our role an it’s rules.
Worst yet, we believe taking on a role means we must possess complete mastery of it’s subject, and thus we become too scared to ask for help when we need it, or admit we don’t know all the answers. In the end, we end up looking foolish, making up answers to equations we don’t understand.
Sometimes this results in more comical outcomes, and Jimmy Kimmel might be the modern day master of identifying these kinds of flubs. His Lie Witness News segments expose hipsters pretending to be big fans of made-up bands in order to be in-the-know. There are no laws demanding a festival-goer know every band on the schedule to attend Coachella, yet there they are, pretending that the band Get The F$ck Out Of My Pool “gives off good energy”.
The problem lies not in taking on new roles in our lives; roles like motherhood and partnership can give us a great sense of purpose, joy and confidence. The problem is the self-inflicted pressure to then be an expert rather than an explorer. Like students of life, taking on any title should be a commitment to continue evolving in the subject matter of our passion. There can never be a realm of life that we can ever truly know every detail, which is what makes the act of living so fascinating. We could never know every detail about our lover just as an astronomer will never know every secret of the universe. The key to success is in staying open to new possibilities, new answers, and a hunger to reach new depths. True masters know to remain ever-students of their discipline.
Later that night when we climbed into bed, my significant other asked if anything was on my mind. Like a flood gate I began sobbing, finally admitting that not only was I not at peace, or hopeful, or had any clue what to do, but I was scared, insecure, and flat-out angry, at cancer and at myself. Fear and anger are not emotions the strong cancer survivors often share outwardly; at least not this survivor. It felt terrible to realize that cancer was beating me this time, and destroying my ability to be accepting and strong. It was then that I realized there were moments to play the role of ‘cancer survivor’ and ‘strong woman’, and this was not one of them.
In this moment, breaking down openly in front of someone rather than into the palms of my hands in secret, I could see it was time to be partner to a wonderful source of strength and support, now holding me while I cried. It was also time to be a daughter, a niece, a granddaughter, and a human facing the great unknown of what’s to come. It was time to admit that it hurt, and to allow the hurt to open up, blossom, and eventually fade back into the earth. There would be moments to again be a force of positive energy in a terrifying situation, but for now it was enough that I just feel the pain, and allow it to deepen my love for the people who’s turn it was to end their fight.
We don’t need to have every answer, or know what to do in every problem situation that comes our way, even if we’ve been there before. But if we can remain open, even when it’s incredibly painful, we will experience beautiful moments of awakening, and chances to grow even deeper into every role of our lives.