Turning in my Medals

October 16, 2011

After the seminar, we shook hands in that way which suggests familiarity, though we had never met. We did not disengage for a long moment. The panel at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, where I once had been a Fellow during a break from CBS News, mixed it up on press coverage of presidential elections, a subject of great interest to both Elizabeth Edwards and me. Our brief encounter afterward was in code and punctuated by intense eye contact. I admire your grace, I said softly. “Back at you,” she answered quickly. “You and I are better people for what we give to others.” And then she was gone.

I never saw Elizabeth again.

Elizabeth Edwards seemed at peace. I am not. It was as if she moved through life inside a bubble, in an aura of tranquility. She was gravely ill, though she had not yet been publicly betrayed by her husband. Implicitly, I realized I know no peace. For me, The Sea of Tranquility rested only on the moon. Yet people who read or listen to me think I am the prototypical well adjusted human. An imposter is more to the point.

I present myself as all I wish I could be. Maybe we all do that. The more I project peace of mind, perhaps the faster I will discover that prized state. I believe that the sick and suffering in fact are anxious if not frightened. We fear the unknown. Who does not? So we crave relief and imagine that others hold the keys to the kingdom. Of course, that is not necessarily the case, but many of us need to believe it is true.

When two bouts of colon cancer piled on my multiple sclerosis a decade ago, I wrote a series of columns chronicling my journey in the Science Times section of The New York Times. The public response was strong, largely because I did not have an M.D. after my name. I believed then and now that ordinary folks draw strength from each other. The Hell with the doctors. We want to touch and be touched by each other. How did you do it? We wonder. I have to know.

Hence, power is ascribed to me. How did you make it through that? I am asked by audiences. You are an inspiration, I am told by individuals. I ignore these well intentioned plaudits. I wonder if people really understand how angry and fearful I am. When I speak the truth about my conflicted state of mind and admit my tough emotions, audiences quickly tell me how courageous I am to open up. Oh, please, I say loudly in my head. There are no heroes here. All of us just try to make it through the night.

All of us overhear others in coffee shops or on street corners, speaking too loudly and announcing, it seems to anyone within earshot, I could never deal with that or I can’t cope. The truth is, they do not know what they are talking about. Until they stare down a crisis and are tested, people do not know what they can do. So they sell themselves short.

I have come to believe that we are all stronger than we believe. We wander through life believing we are going to cave any minute. That is why we look to others to show us the way, as if any among us has the map and can guide us across rough terrain. Try purchasing your own compass.

We travel different roads. Some lean on therapists or support groups. Others, myself included, choose to go it alone. There is no right or wrong way. Just understand we all make it up as we go along. There are no medals or merit badges for coping, at least there should not be. A happy life is its own reward. Maybe we should quit looking for others to anoint and spend more time in front of a mirror.

Please take my medals back and pin them on your own chests. You will grow into them. My college age daughter, our youngest, once looked at some plaque lying around. She asked me if I had noticed that no one in the family ever gave me an award. Actually, yes, I answered. “Ever wonder why?” she inquired with a straight face.

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