Everything Happens for an Opportunity
I was taking an exercise class the other day and the teacher (Jess Sims, love) ranted about how crappy it is to say “everything happens for a reason” to someone who’s struggling. “There’s just no good reason for some things to happen” she said, and I nodded to myself. Then she added: “but everything that happens does present an opportunity.” Ooo, I liked that twist.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time contemplating the phenomenon of incurable cancer, but I’ve yet to find a good reason for it. I think a cancer diagnosis “presents an opportunity” to learn some valuable lessons, but it always seemed to me that curable cancer would be sufficient to learn them. After being diagnosed, I learned a lot of new things about myself, about science, about life, but after a few years, I thought to myself, “I’m good now, I’ve soaked up what I think I can learn from this, is there any point to dealing with cancer longer, other than existential misery?”
Unexpectedly, I got some clarification about this while watching the Netflix special “My Octopus Teacher.” My Octopus Teacher tells the story about a man who dives to the exact same spot in the ocean every day, forging a friendship with an octopus, learning a great deal about both the octopus and himself in the process. In the film, the man says, “People ask, ‘Why are you going to the same place every day?’ Because that’s when you see the subtle differences. That’s when you get to know.” And wow, even though pain and loss was an unavoidable part of his journey, the subtleties and insights gleaned from going to the same place over and over and over was truly remarkable.
So that’s my path. It’s difficult and redundant, but not pointless. Unless science comes up with a cure for my cancer, I will stay in this same Stage IV place perpetually. Absolute best case scenario for me is that I continue with treatment, scanning every few months, peering over the cliff edge each scan, and watching friends struggle and die of my same disease, over and over and over. But the very fact that I must stay here helps me make realizations that I could not achieve any other way.
In truth, if I had been handed an earlier stage diagnosis, I probably would have muscled through the treatments and come out the other side, only having solidified lessons I’d already learned from things like playing competitive sports or taking the Bar exam: buckle down, push through, succeed, move on. In the case of incurable cancer, the stark reality that there is no “getting to the other side,” forces a very different practice of patience, acceptance, and appreciation of the present moment (even if the moment is kind of shitty – looking at you 2020). It has been humbling and difficult to learn that not every challenge is there to be conquered. Sometimes, the most effective, powerful, healing thing to do is acknowledge the struggle with a clear-eyed honesty that does not attempt to falsely resolve anything. For this learning, I am grateful. (But for the record, in case the universe is listening, I’d still like to find a cure.)
Whether you’re forging a friendship with an octopus, endlessly dealing with a cancer diagnosis, or taking a class from Jess Sims with so many reps it just feels endless, there’s always more to learn. Instead of getting frustrated by repetition, perhaps the experience will spark insights that can’t be produced any other way. Everything doesn’t always happen for a reason, but everything does happen for an opportunity.