“What we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”
–G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
I don’t tend to think of doctors’ waiting rooms as spots for serious reading. Usually, they’re places to glance through magazines, feeling somehow especially distinct from the celebrities whose lives are paraded there, the recipes which never quite look as beautiful in your kitchen as on the magazine page, the locations you’ll only ever dream of going. They’re also places for people-watching: speculations about the things that bring the people there, grins or grimaces at the children behaving or misbehaving.
An oncologist’s waiting room leaves a smaller scope for speculation. Most of the faces there aren’t smiling. The baby girl — there with her grandparents — who tiptoes and flirts with the patients makes a welcome center of attention: beautiful, alive, growing.
Somehow, though, waiting there this week, I found Chesterton to be exactly the thing. He summons to an intense love of life and of this world, a sense of ownership: “A man,” he says, “belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. . . . [It] is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is, the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness is a reason for loving it more.”
It’s tempting to feel, in an oncologist’s waiting room, that you may be waiting for a death sentence. Which is silly, because every birth certificate is a death sentence; we don’t need a doctor to tell us that. Even so, when an oncologist tells you to take a daily aspirin and “just be normal” — even with the knowledge that some obscure genetic switch is permanently stuck “on” — it feels like a grand and unlikely escape.
All the spring I lived in the realm of “surly contentment,” grudgingly acknowledging God’s right to rule as He pleased, but resenting that pleasure, which seemed, in almost-daily news of engagements, weddings, births, to mock my longest-held dreams: “You may not, but, see? These others may.” I wrestled, all the strength of my fingers behind the preposterous project of keeping as “mine” the things not given to me.
And then there came His whisper: Your very life is Mine, with all ordained days written before one of them came to be, before you ever waited in an oncologist’s office. His. All of it, from the white lashes with which He marked me eighteen years ago, down to the very cells of blood without which I would die, and yet which threaten to betray me. This, all of this, is His.
To be alive, quite apart from extra gifts and graces, is a gift and a grace. It is a “solid and startling fact,” observes Chesterton, “that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.”
The fact that I am? Extraordinary. I want to live in the joy of that, fiercely loving this gift which was mine before I could assess its value, fiercely fighting all that would steal or dilute this joy. I want to live in courage, as Chesterton defines it.
“It means,” he says, “a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors and mountaineers. . . . A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. . . . He must seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”
We drink His death, Who for joy swallowed sorrow, Who for our healing was wounded: this wine of death, living water welling up to eternal life. Drink, live, and thirst no more.