A Wisdom Born of Pain

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

John Powell once wrote a remarkable little book entitled, Unconditional Love, the story of Tommy, a former student of his who died of cancer at age twenty-four. Shortly before he died, Tommy came to Powell and thanked him for a precious insight he had once drawn from one of his classes. Powell had told the class: There are only two potential tragedies in life and dying young isn't one of them. It's tragic to die and not have loved and it's just as tragic to die and not have expressed your love to those around you.

Sometimes only death can teach us that. Sometimes, through a painful conscription, we can learn it without having to die to pay for its wisdom. Here's an example:

For twenty years, I've been teaching a summer course at Seattle University. One of the rituals I've developed during those summers is to spend the big American holiday, July 4th, with some family friends on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle. This family has its own rituals and one of these is that it watches the July-Fourth parade off the front-lawn of one of their friends' houses.

Four years ago, sitting on that lawn, waiting for the parade, I was introduced to the youngest daughter in that family. She was a senior in high school and a member of their state-winning basketball team, but she was also suffering from cancer and the debilitating chemotherapy treatments being used to combat it. Just 18 years old, weighing less than 100 pounds because of those treatments, she sat wrapped in a blanket (on a warm summer day), quiet and melancholy, while her friends, healthy and robust, drank beer and celebrated life. Things didn't look good that day. The long-range prognosis was iffy, at best, and her body and spirit didn't belie that, though friends and family did. She was surrounded on every side by attention, affection, concern, the sense that everyone cared. She was very ill, but she was loved.

I got to know her a little that day and somewhat more in the months and years that followed. Her family and others prayed hard for her, storming heaven for a cure. Those prayers, along with the medical treatments, did their work. She hung on, against the odds at times, slowly improved, and after many months emerged healthy, whole again, back to normal, except once you've stared death in the face "normal" is never quite the same again.

When she eventually returned to school, rejoined her friends in their social activities, and picked up the pieces of her former life, she knew that, while things were the same again, they were also very, very different. In the wake of such an experience, ordinary life is no longer something you take for granted, there's a deeper joy in all things ordinary and a new horizon, wisdom, maturity, and purpose that wasn't there before. God writes straight with crooked lines and sometimes cancer, terrible as it is, gives more than it takes.

Her new health is more than physical. It's too a thing of soul, a colour, a depth, a wisdom. Asked publicly by her friends if, given the choice, she would give the illness back so as to have the life she could have had without it, she replied: "No, I wouldn't give it back. Through it I learned about love." Like the young man in John Powell's story, the love she experienced when she was ill taught her that there are worse tragedies in life than getting cancer.

Doctors who research on the human brain tell us that we only use about 10% of our radical brain capacity. Most of our brain cells never get activated, both because we don't need them (they exist for wisdom rather than utility) and because we don't know how to access them. The same doctors too tell us that, paradoxically, two things do help us access them: the experience of love and the experience of tragedy. Deep love and deep pain, together, deepen a soul in a way that nothing else can. That explains why Therese of Lisieux was a doctor of the soul at age 24. It also explains the wisdom that this young woman now lives out of, gently challenges her friends with, and radiates to the world.

Five years ago, a young girl had her youth and dreams stolen from her by a brain tumour. There was pain, disappointment, depression, some bitterness, little hope. Everyone seemed luckier than her. That was then. Today, a radiant young woman, Katie Chamberlin, strolls the campus of Gonzaga University, healthy, happy, preparing for a career as a teacher to special-needs children, and, more important, wise, beyond her years, having learned at a young age what most of us only learn when we die, namely, that ordinary life is best seen against a bigger horizon, that life is deeper and more joy filled when it isn't taken for granted, and that love is more important even than health and life itself.