So, by now, everyone in the universe has seen Oprah’s speech from the Golden Globes, right? The one about the importance of telling your truth and sharing your story?
“Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” she told us, and she’s right. Of course she’s right. She’s Oprah.
But I think that’s only half of our power. The other half comes not from speaking, but from listening to each other’s stories, to each other’s truths. And not just listening – but really hearing, consuming, absorbing, and digesting each other’s stories. Reflecting on them and on what they mean to the person in front of us and what they might mean for us. Learning from each other’s truths. Which is how empathy is born.
Yes, having the courage to speak up about our own lives and experiences is the first step. But then, we must stop talking, and listen. And let the truths of others swirl around within us and integrate into our fibers, because that internal tornado of insights and observations and pain and beauty can lead us to places that we never would have been able to go otherwise. That tornado can tear down whatever barriers we have erected between us and the world, and all of a sudden connection is possible. True, meaningful connection – the type that requires really seeing each other. No judgement, no competition. Just sharing, and listening. And when that happens? Everything changes.
Because if we only do the first part – if we only share our own truths and shut ourselves down to hearing the truths of others – it can be just as isolating as if we hadn’t spoken up at all. You may get your voice heard, but will there be anyone there to hear it?
By now, I’m pretty comfortable sharing my story, but that hasn’t always been the case. Yes, now I kind of put everything out there – I write a blog about some pretty personal details of my cancer experience for god’s sake. But I used to struggle to even tell the people I was closest with what was really going on with me. I said “I’m fine” way too often. (In fact, if you ask Evan or anyone else in my family, I still say that way too often, but I’m working on it).
Then I got cancer, and then I got terminal cancer, and all of a sudden I was filled with so much that it became impossible not to talk. If I hadn’t started speaking up, I think I would have exploded. So I did, but at first mostly out of necessity. I needed the people in my life to know that I was not ok, because I don’t think I could have survived all the pain and trauma and fear and disappointment on my own. When I Skyped with Anna and Sophie for the first time, just days after Sophie was born and after I was first diagnosed, and I had to step out of view of the Skype camera because it was not fair for my sister, this beaming new mom who deserved to beam, to see me dissolve in tears – when that happened, I had to let my mom hold me for the first time since getting diagnosed, because I could no longer hold myself up. When Evan came home from work a few days after the mets diagnosis and found me huddled on the floor of our living room, my face soaked from hours of crying over a baby that would never be, I could not pretend that I was ok.
So I started admitting my truth. That I was not ok, that I was terrified, that I was intensely hurting more often than not, that I needed help. Slowly, and I mean SLOWLY, I began to expand the circle of people that I trusted with this information, until I eventually (like, years after my first diagnosis) put something up on Facebook about it. When I did, I was flooded with messages of support and love. I was floored. I had no idea that simply being honest about my life and my pain would elicit such a response, that I would be held so tenderly by so many people, many of whom I hadn’t spoken to in years.
I also discovered that sharing my truth didn’t always have to mean sharing with another person, that sometimes it could stay between me and my journal, so I began writing more and more, and man did that feel good. Just to get it all out. But then at some point, I did need to be witnessed, so up it went on Facebook again. Not without nerves or fear, but motivated by the understanding that I needed to be seen. And then everything really changed.
That’s when the bare short film process started, and Kerith and I (ok, mostly if not almost entirely, Kerith) made this beautiful film inspired by my truth. How amazing is that? Even the filmmaking process itself centered around sharing stories and truths, because it required sharing some pretty intimate details of what I had been through with our (amazing) actresses, in order to help them best understand the project. And holy moly, when I got over my nerves and spoke up and shared those details with them? The level of performance that they were able to achieve was unreal. Again – the power of sharing.
AND the film is helping people! Some of the messages that I have received from women who have been through cancer and watched the film have brought me to tears, because they express a level of connection that I am So. Proud. To have helped create. People watched the film and realized that they weren’t alone in their fears and struggles. And that is everything.
When we no longer feel alone, there’s space to feel connected and empowered. Because who can feel brave standing in the darkness all alone? Very few of us. I certainly don’t. But with our friends, with our families, with our people, with resources like bare playing in the backgrounds of our minds – we can stand in that darkness together, and all of a sudden it’s not quite so scary.
All of which motivated me to share my story in even wider contexts, which somehow spiraled into MBC advocacy work – which has turned into a discovery of the power of my voice in an entirely new way, and a desire to use it. What better way to live?
But all of this is only the first half – the first half of how I want to live. The second half requires listening. It requires witnessing, rather than being witnessed.
This hit home for me a few days ago when I was listening to a Terrible, Thanks for Asking podcast episode (which is an incredible podcast that everyone should check out, in my humble opinion). This episode was about a women with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which I obviously don’t have, but I have had my brain messed with pretty intensely, so at first I skipped the episode, thinking nope, that’s too close to home. I’m gonna cry way too much listening to that.
Up until now, even since getting cancer, I have avoided certain topics like the plague. When a friend recommends a movie, my first question is, but is there any cancer in it? And I typically won’t watch it if the answer is yes. Because it was all too much, too much of a reminder.
So I skipped that TBI podcast episode for a good 2 days. But I kept staring at it in my phone. It was bugging me.
Then I listened.
And good lord, am I glad that I did. There were so many times listening to this woman describe her life with a TBI when I wanted to yell YES. That’s what it’s like now. Ever since brain surgery. There was a surprising amount that I could relate to, that I think people who haven’t had their brain messed with just don’t get a lot of the time. She talked about the memory loss, and not like, “where did I put my keys” kind of memory loss, but like, “wait what, we just had WHAT conversation a few minutes ago?” type memory loss. She talked about needing to write EVERYTHING down in the hopes of remembering anything. She talked about emotions that get away from her. She talked about the impact all this has had on her family, and feeling like a different person since her accident, and how none of it is her fault, but it still just f-ing sucks.
And I got it, and I felt understood, and I didn’t feel alone. It didn’t scare me listening to all this, because I’ve already been through it. I’ve already lived it. It just left me feeling…connected.
So I am downloading audiobooks weekly that I’ve wanted to listen to for years but have been too afraid to. I’m listening to all the podcast episodes, and with rapt attention. I’m even listening to an entire series about a woman who lost her husband to cancer – a topic which has, up until now, elicited a MAJOR response in me to run and hide and never think about again. Because I am terrified for Evan, for what he may have to go through one day.
But the truth is that listening to all of this doesn’t make my situation any more real, or the pain that Evan may be facing someday any more likely – it just makes me feel more prepared, less alone, less afraid, even – because instead of squeezing my eyes closed all the time, I’ve started opening them up. And I may not always like what I see, but it’s so much less scary to see than to not. The podcast about the widow – yes she has been through unbelievable pain, but she is also surviving. She is ok, in a way. And Evan will be too.
And, for the record, none of this means that I’m no longer scared – I am terrified, trust me -, or that I don’t cry anymore – still cry a lot – , or that I don’t wish things were different – how could I not? But it means that the way in which I live has shifted. When I started writing years ago, I shifted from living inside my own head to sharing my truth, and that was powerful. Now I’m shifting again to sharing and listening, and that’s actually been even more powerful. Plus not being scared to hear the truths of others or face those topics anymore is so damn freeing.
This new sense of….boldness when it comes to consuming scary material that I used to shy away from – material about cancer and death and infertility and brain injuries and all things cry-worthy – it allows me to feel like I can stare it all in the face instead of having to turn away and sprint for my life. Because you know what? Nothing is worse than living it, and hearing other stories helps me learn and feel connected and brave and like – bring it on. I’ll see your podcast about death and raise you a life about death. And I’ll win for having the courage to listen.
So here is my new hope for bare. I hope that it can be something that others consume in the same way that I consumed that podcast episode about the TBI. I hope that bare can be something that might seem dark and scary at first because it is about cancer, but in reality it brings light to others’ lives, because being aware of hard things in life is way less scary than living in the unknown. Cancer is scary. I’ll give you that. But try looking straight at it. Look straight at me – a terminal patient. Listen to our stories. I think you might be surprised by what you might learn, by how brave you are, by how much even the scariest of stories can better your life.