A few thoughts on compassion from a local lesbian
In honor of PRIDE month 2023, Allison Gruber shares what she has learned in her "gay life" and through living with stage IV breast cancer about what it means to live in compassion for herself and others.
I’ve been thinking about the word “compassion” lately. I’ve been thinking about the act of compassion, too. I’ve been thinking of where and how we find compassion, and how we grow, develop, and sustain it. Though the term “compassion,” has a number of understandings, the description that seems to make the most sense to me is this: “do no harm, seek to understand, be gentle.”
Today is the first day of Pride Month, 2023. Give yourself a pat on the back, LGBTQ Americans, you survived another year of your Gay American Life. This is no easy feat, and these days it only seems to be getting harder. I say this as a Gen-X Gay, an “Elder” now, who was just starting to poke her toe out of the closet when the murders of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepherd hit the national news. Before long, it wasn’t just gay people talking about the discrimination, and often violence, that LGBT people have experienced since the beginning of time when the first gay caveteen actually drew something good on the cave wall and got called a “queer.”
Honestly, I don’t think it’s any secret that we LGBTQs are the special sauce in the arts and humanities, and always have been, and as an Elder Gay, I think during Pride Month all LGBTQ Americans are allowed to brag about this scientific fact. And if you young ones get any crap for bragging, you tell ‘em Gruber sent ya.
I’ve been a Local Teacher and Unknown American Writer for many years, but not as many years as I’ve been an American Patient. That mess I got roped into first, quite traumatically, in childhood. Again in my early thirties when breast cancer fell on me like an anvil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Flattened me right there in Milwaukee, not far from the Old German Beer Hall, within comfortable walking reach of the Bronze Fonz. (Yeah, it’s a real thing.) Back then, in the Olden Days of 2011, I was stage II, received the requisite lumpectomy, lymph node removal, chemotherapy, radiation, et cetera.
I say “et cetera,” because I have told this story so many times I might bore myself to actual death were I to tell it again. I don’t want that. If you want an itemization of the “et cetera” you can certainly buy my first book You’re Not Edith, which was mostly about the “et cetera” of being a writer who got breast cancer while starting a brand new job, while in a new city, while young, while gay.
Without seeking to gain, the most radical thing we can do as LGBTQ Americans, during Pride Month, is to live in compassion toward ourselves.
When I was re-diagnosed, stage IV, incurable, three weeks shy of The Pandemic hitting the US, I was 44 and a public school teacher in a failing marriage, and with access only to the most clumsy and incompetent cancer care America had to offer. (There was one exception during this time, but that’s a story for another time. If you really can’t wait, you could check out my second book, Transference – half of which was written in the middle of an honest-to-God nervous breakdown.)
Call me fragile, but after a stage IV diagnosis, after being a middle-aged public school teacher during The Pandemic, in Arizona of all places, I was feeling a bit of stress before the divorce surprised me – and when the last of everything material and familiar in my American life was swept away, in the Fourth Worst Year of my life, I had no choice but to exercise compassion toward myself.
Part of living in compassion included finally getting the mental healthcare I so badly needed to treat the PTSD, anxiety disorder, and depression I’d been struggling with most of my life. To acknowledge, finally, that my mind and my body are inextricably connected — that if one is unwell, the other will follow – that was hard for me to internalize. Such is the nature of this type of suffering.
Suffering is not a virtue. Suffering just is. Being gay is not a virtue, it just is, so is being straight, so is having breast cancer, so is being cancer free – these states of being simply are. What matters, in this one unlikely life we are given, as best as I can tell, is not the size or shape of our suffering, but our ability to give and receive compassion.
I am pleased to announce I have exited the Fourth Worst Year of my life, and am six months into 2023 which has, so far, not been the Fifth Worst Year. And by now you’re reading this and maybe thinking, “I thought I was on the LGBTQ+ with breast cancer section of LBBC, not the Tangential Middle Aged Lesbian section,” but just as I used to say to my students who watched me wind to a point, pacing the classroom like a tiger, my faux hawk disheveled, my glasses thick, my Motorhead T-shirt on point, “Stay with me. Don’t fail me now.”
When I was a kid, and I was in the ICU for reasons I haven’t the time to go into here, there was a young night nurse from India. She told me during these visits – visits she sometimes made during her own breaks, or after a shift, about the British schools she attended in India where they taught her to say the soft “baaath” instead of the duller American, “bath,” and as a kid who was already fascinated by language, I loved such stories. Sometimes, if I wasn’t up for talking, she would simply sit with me and watch television. I never forgot that woman’s name, her face, or the sound of her voice, and above all I never forgot what she brought to me, and inadvertently first taught me the true importance of: compassion. She made me get out of my head. She helped me feel less alone. She reminded me I was human. She didn’t even know me, I was someone else’s sick kid, I had nothing to give, and yet she gave me her good energy through compassion.
Without seeking to gain, the most radical thing we can do as LGBTQ Americans, during Pride Month, is to live in compassion toward ourselves. This is one thing I have come to learn in my gay life, and maybe it’s something you have come to learn in your gay life, too.
What matters, in this one unlikely life we are given, as best as I can tell, is not the size or shape of our suffering, but our ability to give and receive compassion.
To understand ourselves, to connect with ourselves, our true selves beyond the labels and the rhetoric and the toxic discourse in America where powerful and wealthy people play poker with our actual lives, to live in compassion toward ourselves during this month, in honor of ourselves and our history and our continued survival, that is an act of resilience. That is an act of bravery. That is radical. So in honor of our accomplishments, in mourning of our dead, compassion. In honor of our future, in celebration of our past, compassion. Toward ourselves, toward each other, toward our friends and allies and caregivers, compassion.
Then save it up, all that good feeling, and seed it in your mind where you can grow it for yourself and for those in your life. Give away your crops, then grow them up again.
If I’m being perfectly honest, at this stage in my life (no pun intended, and hopefully none was taken) I find my sexual orientation, my gender identity (which is mostly just short hair, hoodies, and band T-shirts) to be some of the least interesting things about me. I mean, you don’t even know the story about the javelina.
I don’t worry about my identity; I worry about cancer. Cancer is my primary problem; my sexuality, my haircut, my Motorhead T-shirt is not. Living in compassion for me is less about healing the wounds of being gay in America, and more about how to heal myself as a human with a complicated history, a bit of bad luck, a handful of mental health issues, a lethal progressive disease. While I can never make my breast cancer just “go away,” I can practice compassion toward myself and my care providers, and I can make this part of my human experience feel (mostly) okay.
If I live in compassion toward myself and others, I can live with breast cancer; I can live with anything, and living is a vastly different from surviving, but you probably know this already by now.
Whether gay or straight, whether by design or choice, we are sharing a singular experience with breast cancer. We are bound by a desire to treat, and perhaps someday cure, a disease that cares not a whit about our identity, our pride, our beauty, our money, our lives. We are bound by shared suffering (and joy and accomplishment), and so my compassion goes out to you, and perhaps, if you’re reading this, you’ll send some back at me — if for no other reason than that it’s Pride Month, and I am a local lesbian.
The views and opinions of our bloggers represent the views and opinions of the bloggers alone and not those of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Also understand that Living Beyond Breast Cancer does not medically review any information or content contained on, or distributed through, its blog and therefore does not endorse the accuracy or reliability of any such information or content. Through our blog, we merely seek to give individuals creative freedom to tell their stories. It is not a substitute for professional counseling or medical advice.
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