Sometimes cancer challenges our deepest-held beliefs. And sometimes we wish it would, but it doesn’t.
I’ve never believed in an afterlife, not really. I was raised with a mishmash of beliefs, a cherry-picked amalgam of spirituality and magic, cobbled together from family tradition and eastern practices. And most of them just didn’t take.
I mean, I love the way celebrating Jewish holidays connects me to my family, living and dead, and to a community that I belong to by birth, yet know less about than most students of the history of religion. I love being Jewish. And I loved the beautiful Sant Mat books my mom gave me to teach me about reincarnation and returning to the sea of love. Karma and mitzvahs are beautiful ideas, both of which encourage kindness to one another.
I do believe in kindness.
And somehow that I can't pin down or properly articulate, I believe in some sort of Earth magic, where there's something in the very fabric of our planet and the life on it that is more, and that can't be explained.
But mostly I just believe in science, and try as I might, I just don’t believe that I will continue to exist after I shake off this mortal coil. I don’t believe that there is a heaven waiting for me; and I don’t believe that I will be reincarnated, either as a lower form of life (come to think of it, I don’t really believe that any form of life is higher or lower) or as a more enlightened being. I don't think that Teva, as we all know her, gets to continue as an entity when the energy of the body has transferred into some other kind of energy here on Earth.
Yet here I am, facing the likelihood of my early demise, and I want, want, want to believe in something more, but I can’t. I just can’t. I believe in science, in the magic and beauty of nature, in infinite wonder. And before cancer, that was enough for me.
But sometimes it just breaks me in half because I am so hungry for this world. I want to devour it. To eat it up and wring it out and pick its fat out of my teeth.
And I know that in a normal life span I could never have enough, so how will I be sated?
So I strain against the constraints of time and space, of this life. And I wish for more…even though I simply do not believe that I’ll get it. I see friends taking great comfort in their personal relationships with their gods or spiritual leaders, and I am virulently jealous.
I once heard a kid (probably on an NPR podcast, or something) describe what they believe happens when we die as this: everybody gets what they believe in.
But you can’t make yourself believe, now, can you?
And yet, every time somebody tells me that they’re praying for me, I say thank you, and I mean it. I can’t explain how it is that I believe that will help, or the depth of gratitude that I feel for each person who keeps me in their thoughts in that personal sacred moment.
And I hold up what I believe, this vague and shabby nothing tinged with hope and loving kindness, against the beauty and glittering wonder of my friend’s and family’s faith. There’s not enough to wrap myself in, and it’s not something you can borrow.
I tried, once, to open up to a group that I thought might understand, and I looked around at a circle of my peers, all living with metastatic cancer, and they looked back with sad, kind eyes, but no recognition. Not one arm went up to say, yes, I’m scared too, because I don’t know how to believe.
Atheism doesn’t sit well with a terminal diagnosis.