Finding Hope, Redemption, Courage... from Cancer

"(At one time) my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don't know what lies around the bend, but I'm going to believe that the best does. It has a fascination of its own, that bend." - Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Friday, June 24, 2011

What Cancer Has Taught me, Part 359: How to Overcome the Haters

"Always remember that others may hate you but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself." - Richard M. Nixon

Confession: I hate being hated.

No, I’m not proud of that hating-being-hated thing. The very phrase is irrational. You and I both know that I’ve realized I’m not – nor are many of us – going to be popular. But there’s a vast difference between being popular and being despised. And though I’m desperately trying to turn those parts of myself that have been against things to be for them, this week, I’m having a little trouble with that.

I never realized just how much I love being from this part of the world, until this past week and a half, when almost all the scuttlebutt is antagonistic towards this place and these people. That’s not to say that everyone thinks negatively about us – for that would be unreasonable and sort of despair-inspiring, wouldn’t it? But unfortunately most who care to discuss the elephant-in-the-room tend to mock and scorn VanCity and its people, and remind me frequently of what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do.

Or rather, what Vancouver has done, and what the Vancouver Canucks have failed to do.

Interesting that the line between those two things has blurred recently; we have become our hockey team, and our hockey team has become us.

Now, back at the beginning of the month, that was a pretty good thing, hey? All the “cool kids” were planning the Cup Parade for our beautiful city – down Georgia or Granville? Smithe or Robson? – and even a few Americans and Albertans were joining the Canuck Train. The Skytrain sounded like a launch of Disney’s “California Screamin’” rollercoaster at each stop, and people could sense that a really great party was coming. Four weeks later, the “cool kids” are pointing their fingers and laughing – no, scorning – the team, and the city, whose party they once joined.

It’s unfortunate for all of us that the same people who gravitate to you while you’re having a good time, are those who run away first when things fall apart.

If I rewind to January 2009, I remember a few people who responded to learning I had leukemia with the same distance. They asked me if I thought I’d done anything bad to deserve this, which was painful, since I’d just come out of a season of disappointment in a role that I loved. These people likely meant well, or at least I hope they did, as they tried to help me identify any major error in my life that might have led me to something so exacting. Was it something physical? Like what I ate or how much I exercised? Was I getting enough sleep? Stretching enough? Drinking enough water? Taking enough vitamins? Should I have taken more life-changing supplements? Or was it something more complex - the stress of unforgiveness, or a broken relationship?

It is a terrifying unsettled-ness to think you have caused your own demise, to think you might deserve something awful to happen to you; to think that I had earned the constant bone pain, the overwhelming exhaustion, the accelerating crowding of my bloodstream, all while trying to raise a three-year-old daughter and abruptly wean an-eight-month-old baby was paralyzing. It ground salt into my already-gaping wounds to think I could have merited the punishment to die before I turned 30.

Just as, apparently, the city of Vancouver has now earned the punishment of the world’s derision, or even hate?, for the unfortunate events in our city, on - how appropriate - the ides of June.

At first I thought it would go away, that the next big event would come along and the media, along with our southern neighbours and fellow countrymen, would divert their attentions to something far newer or more significant.

But here we are, nearly two weeks later, and our team – or our city, I’m still unsure which, entirely – is still getting booed. And, I have a sinking feeling it’s likely going to continue.

Take for example, the NHL awards of last week. Jay Mohr, along with several of his presenters, despite poking fun at most of the influential hockey cities of this past year, when mentioning our city, laced his jokes with far more bite than fun. The ‘come on, what were you thinking’, and ‘didn’t the mounds of marijuana help calm you down’ jabs had real force behind them. And, he insisted that all those in the audience – yes, they were likely Canuck fans – get kicked out of the awards show when he asked the crowd to applaud Bettman, and instead, they booed him.

Classless, he called it.

I admit, I’m not proud of it, but that part made me laugh just a little.

Now fast forward a couple days to the NHL draft. The only team booed at the opening was, of course, Vancouver. And though at first I thought it was jealousy – we were the team to beat this year, after all, right? – I realized it had to be much more than that, considering we were beaten. It was over. We had lost.

So, why did the crowd in Minnesota continue jeering? Was it because of the riots, in which our hockey team had no participation?

But, in any case, according to the internet, this kind of booing was not only not classless, but actually justified, for ‘Vancouver was in no position to be judging anyone right now’.

And, apparently everyone else is. Sigh.

Our booing of Bettman, classless. Their booing of us, justified. Why, of course? - Because we’d done something bad.

I won’t argue with the bad part, but ...

Most non-Vancouverites believe that we have a hate problem. Even many who live here think that we’re emotional misfits, that we’re overly angry. Twitter feels so strongly about our riot that many are calling others to hate us, to #embracethehate. Team 1040 speculates that many teams who are having difficulty selling tickets may even stoop to the marketing technique of “hey the Canucks are in town, come watch us hate them.”

Now, I know we have a pretty large group of roadies in Canuck Nation, but this is kind of, well... what in the world is going on?

I agree, that what a few of us did on June 15th actually boils down to the definition of a hate crime, in that their actions showed extreme hate for our city and its people, or maybe extreme hate for something else that was misdirected at us for whatever reason, and that those actions were indeed criminal. Those involved are being punished for their actions, not only by law-enforcement, but by the rest of our citizens. Some public rioters have been forced either into citizen house arrest or to leave the city as a result of receiving death threats. Some of these rioters seem unrepentant for their actions, but many woke up the next day and thought, what on earth did I do??

And really, haven’t we all had moments like that?

See, I still believe that the riots were something we didn’t want to happen, something the True Vancouver, the best and brightest parts of us, never really wished on our city or our people. For many of us, it was something that happened to us, even if the world sees it, and perhaps rightfully so, as something we did to ourselves.

Unfortunately, though, most of us are grieving something that was out of our control, and yet no one seems to think we deserve any compassion.

Oh wait, I’m doing that whiny Canuck fan thing again, aren’t I? Shoot.

Vancouverites are actually increasing this problem, unfortunately. Apologizing for the mess is one thing, but continually feeling embarrassed about it is another. It allows our opponents to continue to think they are justified in what they say to us and about us. It allows our city to be continually defined by one bad night.

Imagine if we let ourselves, our individual persons, be defined by our worst night. We’d continually live with our heads down, accepting the verbal beating as though we deserved it. Or, imagine if we let ourselves be characterized by the worst things other people said about us. We’d begin to believe it, wouldn’t we? And what we believe, we act on, and we’d just continue the cycle of negativity.

Now, imagine if we let ourselves be defined by our best night, by the best things other people said about us.

What a difference, isn’t it?

I can’t imagine who I’d be if I let leukemia define me, rather than refine me. And really, Vancouver, you have a lot of best nights and best things to define you (February 28, 2010, and June 16th, 2011, come to mind). You have a lot to be proud of. So why not let June 15th refine you, not define you?

My hat’s off to those people, and groups, who are doing this right now. Honour Vancouver Heroes in the Riots, Vancouver Spirit Rally, True Canucks.Ca, AnthemYVR, are just a few of those initiating a different opportunity to define Vancouver, by our response.

Just as we will be defined by our response to any person or thing who opposes, or even hates us.

We have a few options to choose from as our response. Those who are pointing fingers at us right now want us to agree with them and hate ourselves. Or, maybe they want us to hate them. As the Nixon quote said at the beginning, if we do either of those things, they win.

But there is a third way, a way we lose sight of, often - a way to overcome the scorn, and hopefully, bring us closer to those that seem to be trying to remind us of why we should continue to be miserable.

And I suppose we begin along that path by trying to understand the scorn. For my part, I’ve noticed three things about those who like to point out other’s flaws: they’re insecure, afraid, and unhappy.

Let me explain.

Those with a lot of negative energy towards a group or thing tend to do so out of extreme insecurity. Most people who need to remind others of their failures do so in an attempt to forget their own. When we have to put other people down, there’s usually something deep in us that makes us feel awful, something we have to push others lower for, so we can climb above. Sometimes it’s as simple as being frustrated that someone else is getting more attention than you. Other times it’s because the thing you think so negatively about has something, or is something, that you want. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, Hatred is the coward’s revenge for being intimidated.

We also tend to react negatively towards something or someone out of fear. Those who told me that leukemia was my fault were desperately trying to find something that reassured them it couldn’t happen to them. Maybe deep down Toronto, Chicago, Calgary, Edmonton, Boston, Minnesota, or Montreal, all recognize that holy cow, this could happen to us. And, if they judge us for our riots then maybe that judgment will protect them from ever being caught in the same kind of horror. Maybe that image of our destroyed city will help them not do something equally embarrassing the next time they are presented with opportunity. We all tend to ignore that what we hate tends to be part of us, or at least we fear it is. As Nobel Prize Winner, Hermann Hesse, wrote, if (we) hate a person, (we) hate something in him that is part of ourselves. What isn’t part of (us) doesn’t disturb us.

We also tend react with hostility when we are most unhappy. Freud thought that ‘hate’ was an ego state that wished to destroy what we perceived as the source of our unhappiness. Surprisingly, it’s not those who are hated who are truly unhappy; its those doing the hating. As Coretta Scott King wrote, hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater far more than it injures the hated.

So, then, if its actually the ‘haters’ who are unhappy, afraid, and insecure, it would follow that those of us who are hated – possibly for being happy, confident, and secure – are in the best position to break this divisive cycle. If we can find the strength to be happy despite the hate, to be confident in the face of fear, and to feel good about ourselves despite the trash talk, then we can not only defeat our adversaries, but we may have a good chance to dissolve their anger as well.

I will never forget that scene in Mona Lisa Smile where Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character responds to the continual spewing of venomous insults by Kirsten Dunst’s character by walking up to her and hugging her. Dunst’s character responds by breaking down and admitting what she’s really upset about – which, as usual, had nothing to do with Gyllenhaal’s character at all. I’m not suggesting that we hug everyone who insults us - though I think many of us need more hugs than we’re getting! – but I do offer that we see those who insult us in the same way, as someone who needs a hug, rather than someone I’d like to slug. At the very least, a smile goes a long way.

We can respond with love in the face of hate. When we hear people saying negative things about our city, we can either point out what we still love about where we live, or better yet, offer our own positivity about where they live. And, if we haven’t been there, we can ask them what they love about their city. Nothing turns a conversation faster than the switch of focus from a negative thing to a positive one. And let’s face it, we all just love to talk about us, don’t we? If we could compliment, or show genuine interest in the lives of those who tend to put us down – things like, how was your weekend? Or how are your kids? Or are you going to go away this summer at all? - they may feel a little less disposed to rag on us. We may even receive a smile back. And if, when asked, we could tell the beautiful stories from our city, we may gently, slowly, turn the tide of anti-Vancouver sentiment into an acceptance that we are all flawed and ambivalent; that is, we are all capable of great good and great evil. And, in times of great tragedy, we need each other’s support.

And if I could go back now and talk to all those who felt afraid about being around someone with cancer, not only would I remind them that its not contagious, just as a city’s riot does not leap from city to city just by having contact with other people from that city, but I would say that I understand their fear and I know how awful it feels to think our worst case scenario could actually happen. I get it, and I would reassure them that even IF the worst case scenario does happen, you’ll still be okay. The thing we fear the most may just be the thing that could bring the best parts of us - and the best years of our lives - to the surface.

Did you catch that, Vancouver? We’re going to be okay.

So are you, Boston, and Detroit, and Chicago.... Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto... Surrey, Abbotsford, and Agassiz... and you too, St. Paul... we’re all going to be okay.

It is never easy to overcome hate. We are all predisposed to it, and find love far more difficult. But, as 17th-century philosopher, Rene Descartes, wrote, ‘this is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve, and bad things are very easy to get.’

Difficult, yes; but infinitely worth it.

And definitely easier if we do it together.

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