Laughing in the Face of Cancer - Kate Bowler

Susan David: Toxic Positivity

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Laughing in the Face of Cancer

Lent has me thinking about the ubiquity of suffering. Sickness is part of the universal human experience, but we try so hard to disengage from it. You would think we all understand that we are all going to die (unless you are Walt Disney, who has probably come the closest to cultural immortality)! But it’s not as if we can open conversations with that macabre statement. Can you imagine? Here’s your coffee, ma’am, and by the way, we all die. Or: Yes, I’d like to request an Uber to take me downtown before the finality of my existence arrives. I would moonwalk out of that conversation faster than anyone. No denying – it can be a real challenge to engage with someone who reminds us of the fragility of life.

Facing uncertainty or messy stuff can be, well, awkward.

I am now living into a future I didn’t expect. And while my head is still reeling to capture all of this, I’m trying to be open to wonder and joy. As my new friend, Bob Crawford, told me during our conversation at Oak Church, “the human heart is big enough to hold absolute joy and absolute sorrow at the same time.” As I live into my unexpected days, I have to ask – how can I live into a breadth of experiences instead of being re-defined by the same (bad) experiences? How can I face the absurdity of life with gusto and not escapism?

When something terrible happens, it hits you at the same weird, tingly place deep belly laughs come from. Life is absurd. Life is surreal. Having stage 4 cancer has made me hilariously accepting of reality. Remember that day I was accused of murder by actual police officers? Even though I knew I was innocent, my brain had completely accepted my impending life beyond bars (and fortunately, Toban was there to deflect my possibly inappropriate jokes about having murderous thoughts).

Reality is a strange world to inhabit. Fortunately, we have some hilarious guides.

Alexandra Petri may be the queen of awkwardness, but you’ll instantly want to be her best friend [But get in line – she drew me a card of Tonya Harding that said “Break a leg” and I’ve never loved anyone more]. Alexandra realized that in the face of hard things, humor can be sort of a superpower… if you know how to use it. Listen to Alexandra here, and laugh with us in the face of life’s absurdity.


Alexandra Petri is a Washington Post humor columnist, author of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, and is a repeat auditionee for America’s Got Talent. Follow her on Twitter.

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