“What are you doing with yourself these days?” asks my doctor. She’s very good at distracting me from what her hands are doing as she examines me. She weaves in the important questions among questions that have nothing to do with the reasons she’s examining me.
“I’ve written a book,” I say.
“That’s great,” she says, “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who could benefit from hearing about your experience.”
But my book isn’t about “my experience.” At least, not the one she means.
“It isn’t about cancer. I don’t really want to write about that. There are tons of books out there about breast cancer.”
Her hands stop moving, and she looks at me as if she’s seeing someone she hasn’t quite seen before. “What’s it about?” she asks.
I give her the blurb I use in my query letters, and she stops again, her eyebrows lifting. I can tell she’s trying to reconcile this polished woman who has come into her office in business attire for fourteen years with the little girl whose childhood I’ve just let her peek into.
As I watch her face and answer her curious questions, I realize, yet again, how quick most of us are to define the people we meet by the one facet we see.
And I thought about that today when I heard the media reaction to the news that Angelina Jolie made the decision to have a preventive mastectomy at the age of 37 with no sign of cancer looming. One news anchor even made the comment that, up to now, we’ve known Angelina as the strikingly beautiful actress and wife of Brad Pitt who has adopted children from third world countries. But now? For the moment at least, she has become the spokesperson for young women who face cancer—one whose beautiful breasts have been replaced by implants at the hands of the best reconstructive surgeon available.
And still we can only know some facets of this famous woman. We will not see her as she agonized over the decision. We will not see her as she woke from surgery to the magnitude of what she has lost. We will see her only in the aftermath, in the moments when she has carefully thought about how she wants to present this decision to a world where other young women face a similar decision without her considerable resources.
Just this week, the Washington Post ran a story in the Health and Science section about a 26-year-old woman who did have cancer and who opted for the same course of treatment as Jolie—but who has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation.
I admire Jolie for her strength and her decision to put her chances of surviving for her children above her physical beauty. But I am in awe of this 26-year-old, who shows even greater courage in the face of a much more frightening future.
And as I think of them both, I am reminded of my conversation with my doctor. The greatest truth for all of us is that no single event, no single circumstance, no single experience defines who we are.
I am reminded of how often I look at another person through the narrow lens of what I know of her and make judgments about her life. I think of how often, as a society, we lock other people into the narrow view we have of them. In fact, the issues our country faces are made more complex and unsolvable because we see each other through the narrow focus of our opposition.
Yes, I am a mother, a wife, a teacher, a cancer survivor, a Presbyterian, a writer. I’m a dog lover, a beach walker, a reader. A skeptic. A believer. I believe in creation…and evolution. I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman…but not just a man and a woman. I’m a liberal…who loves my conservative friends and family members…but who doesn’t always care for liberal politicians.
All of these things and others make me who I am—a unique person in this time and space—a person who changes just a little every time I have a new experience or meet a new person or see a new facet of an old friend. But no single thing defines me—not motherhood, not my career, not cancer, not even my faith. And that is true of all of us.
And that means, as a wise woman once told me, that I have something to teach and something to learn from every person I meet in this world.
So what do you have to teach me and to learn from me?