Whenever I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust and will not be afraid, for what can flesh do to me?
Psalm 56: 3, 4, Book of Common Prayer
If I think about it, there’s really quite a lot that flesh can do to me. It can make me miserable as it reacts to chemotherapy, with sleeplessness, baldness, and itchiness, along with deep weariness that can’t be erased with a good night’s sleep. But I think the psalmist is speaking of what other people can do to me—the psalm’s context is literal enemies, who are “hounding me all the day long.”
Most of us spend a lot of time pleasing other people or wondering what other people think of us or our actions. This behavior is pounded into us early in life by well-meaning parents who tell us not to pick our noses or play with our fly in public. We carry it to school with us, wanting approval from teachers and peers. Many of us bear scars well into adulthood because we were always the last person picked for games on the playground. (I was a dead loss at Red Rover; I was always afraid someone would hurt my hand as he or she tried to get through, and dropped hands.)
Cancer can be a freeing of all that concern for the opinions and approval of others. Once you’ve lost all your hair, including your eyebrows, it’s easier not to care what people think. They will see you in the grocery store and turn away from your drawn-on eyebrows or give you such a compassionate look that you want to cry. You have no control over these stranger’s reactions, and slowly it dawns on you that you never did. An even greater comfort is realizing that, as a friend tried to tell me years ago, most people aren’t thinking about me at all—they’re thinking about themselves, as I am.
Not being afraid—that’s a harder thing. The key is in the first line: trust in God, which is of course easier said than done. One of the values of being an adult, however, is having a history of seeing God at work and learning that God is trustworthy. This doesn’t mean no enemies, whether humans or wonky cells. It means that God is with us in every life event and intends good for us. We can trust and not be afraid.