Cancer, Christmas, and Hobbits

Making Wisdom Popular

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A few days ago, I was informed that a dearly beloved family member has had their cancer return. About nine years ago, they were diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. Two years later, they beat it, but always knew it was possible it could come back. Each new year cancer-free was met with increasing optimism. As anyone who has survived cancer knows, the five-year-mark is key. It, too, was passed, accompanied by a sigh of relief.

That changed a week ago. The cancer has returned, about seven years later. This time, it’s in their bones, which means it is no longer simply “breast cancer,” but “metastatic breast cancer.” Metastatic as in “metastasized,” as in “spread.” All metastatic breast cancer—cancer of the breast that has spread to a part of the body other than the breast—is an automatic Stage IV. As Christopher Hitchens once noted after a Stage IV esophageal cancer diagnosis, “There is no Stage V.” The disease would go on to claim him.

I had a beautiful conversation with this dearly loved family member today. Fortunately, the cancer is only a few small spots on their bones—it has not spread to any internal organs; and it appears their bones have already begun defending themselves against the cancer (apparently they can either simply disintegrate, or engage in proactive attempts to isolate the cancer—that’s what theirs is doing). It’s also a slow-growing variety. The time frame of life could be as short as 2 years, but it could also be as long as decades. While there are reasons to be optimistic, the diagnosis itself is certainly sobering.

In a few days, we’ll all be getting together for Christmas, having a good meal, and going to enjoy some s’mores under a new gazebo out in the backyard of a house I’ve visited since I was a baby. We used to have camping sleepovers in that backyard when I was young.

And it just struck me: I infinitely prefer s’mores with love, to power, fame, and money, without it. Time is precious. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. Nor is this mindset I (try to) have simply because of Christmas. It’s a habit of mind I have been deeply convicted about the last decade or so as I read the wise words of great Sages throughout history—words that have a way of enlarging and illuminating the puny perspective we each tend to fall into naturally.

I’m from California, but spent many years in other states getting educated and working. I moved back to my beloved home-state in 2017 after law school—a decision that makes zero sense financially, but which makes all the sense in the world for the things that matter most—family; friends; roots. Jet planes get me everywhere else.

But these things don’t last forever—and they are infinitely more precious than the wares of this world. With these, my conscience is at ease. As George Washington once observed, “of the consolations which are to be derived from these (under any circumstances) the world cannot deprive me.” I concluded long ago, after life had sobered up my youthful naivete, that these are what matter most. They are, in the deepest sense, irreplaceable.

It is, in my view, extremely helpful to remember how little time we have (even if we live to 100)—how few of us will simply not be remembered by other human beings after we are gone (so we better strive to be remembered by God)—and how, in most areas of life, the “still small voice” of love and intimacy always beats the drama of fires and earthquakes.

How easily we forget these things. “Faith, hope, and love; these remain. But the greatest of these is love.” It’s why on my desk, I carry on a great Catholic custom of placing a skull—a memento mori, or “memory of death.” A reminder that my time is finite, and the Four Last Things remain ahead—death, Judgment, Heaven, hell.

“We’re all terminal,” my beloved family member said, with a laugh. It’s true. We may delay the inevitable, but it remains inevitable. We each have this “Ring” to bear—this source of evil, pain, and death for ourselves and the world. None of us want this, but like Frodo, it’s ours whether we want it or not. But as Gandalf reminded the ring-bearer, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

It is thus auspicious that this news comes during the Christmas season, when we celebrate the greatest Mystery ever proposed to the soul of man: the Incarnation of God as the Christ-child, in a meek and lowly manger, in a backwater Jewish town—quietly, humbly, and with barely any notice. We celebrate the birth of “God’s Hobbit,” as one of the little things of this world. This Child would go on to climb His own “Mount Doom”—a mount upon which He joined Himself in every possible way to the pain and suffering of His creatures, destroyed the Ring, and thereby redeemed us from its power—a gift we need only accept. It is no coincidence Tolkien informs us that the Lord of the Rings, and the Ring itself, was destroyed by Frodo on March 25—the traditional day on which Mary was informed that in Her womb, the Divine Child was now growing—the day of the Incarnation.

On this we place our hope, on the “small things with great Love,” as Mother Teresa once said—on the Hobbits with heart, more than the kings with swords

On s’mores with Love, more than the goods of this world without it.

Joshua CharlesCancer, Suffering, Death