It’s surreal how certain words can change your life.
“Cancer” is one of them.
My dad was diagnosed with thyroid cancer about three months ago. When I came home from college, his thyroid had been removed and his vocal chords surgically scraped for cancer cells. Over bowls of homemade soup, cooked lovingly by synagogue friends, he cracked cancer jokes, and I came up with superhero powers he’d gain in radiation therapy. We decided that Imagine Dragons’ Radioactive would be our new theme song.
Over several months (and so many steamy bowls of soup), my dad and I talked about sickness and religion. And I discovered that faith comes with its own psychology on illness – one that can both help and hurt the sick.
People often say that religion is a source of comfort in times of stress and, in so many ways, it’s true. When my dad was diagnosed, our home filled with visitors fulfilling the Jewish precept of bikkur cholim, or visiting the sick. Guests brought flowers, my dad’s favorite Tunisian stew, and even freshly baked bread, all meeting my dad’s hefty list of treatment-related dietary restrictions for our weekly Jewish holiday, Shabbat. Our community offered constant prayers for his health and asked us how we were holding up daily. When he didn’t have the energy to walk to synagogue, friends arranged a prayer group in our house.
Religion creates community, and our Jewish community kept my dad’s spirits up.
Religion also offers consistency. Rituals set life’s rhythm, lending a comforting sense of normalcy to moments that are anything but normal. Even if our daily worries had radically changed (from finishing Parks and Recreation on Netflix to doctors appointments), Shabbat came and went each week. Prayer times stayed constant.
Our practices continued as usual.
Maybe we couldn’t cure cancer (my last biology class was in high school), but we could control our religious observance. We could pray more, give charity, and do more mitzvot, or good deeds. My dad started getting up in the middle of the night to say extra prayers and study new Jewish texts.
And then there’s the whole God thing. Believing that the Universe’s decider, the O.G., cares deeply about each individual means that God wants the best outcome. It can make the inevitable uncertainty of sickness just a little less scary.
But talking with my dad also showed me the challenging psychology that religion can create around sickness.
Religion unintentionally comes with a Book of Job archetype, a lofty expectation for people in any kind of rough situation to meet.
(Book of Job crash course: There’s a guy named Job. A lot of horrible things happen to him. He stays the perfect picture of faith.)
Everyone in a religious community has gotten the Job-esque chain emails about the patient with ________ [fill-in-the-illness] who demonstrates unwavering positivity and belief in God, with inspirational quotes on the power of faith (emunah) in bold print. These stories and the expectation they create are powerful and motivational.
But they also put pressure on the sick. When my dad felt scared or pessimistic about his situation, he had the added stress of feeling guilty, as if grouchiness meant failing some sort of cosmic faith test.
Religion also doesn’t comfortingly answer the “why me?” question, which sick people of faith inevitably ask themselves. Without a belief in an omnipotent being that could intervene should it want to, you can simply blame sickness on an ever random universe where things like cancer happen to exist.
But with a religious worldview, there’s the risk that sick people will blame themselves. After all, Judaism, like many other belief systems, has the concept of making a tikkun, repairing misdeeds, sometimes through suffering.
“God is trying to teach me something with this,” my dad told me once. “I’m just not sure what yet.”
Once he said it, we both realized how much the idea irked us. This is how God teaches people lessons? Cancer? I didn’t want to see his sickness that way and rejected that theological idea outright. Still, on bad days, I inadvertently found myself wracking my brain for what I could’ve done wrong to let this happen.
The sense of agency that religious ritual offers is also double-edged. Following Jewish custom, friends suggested psalms for us to read and texts for my dad to study for healing. They generously took on these religious rituals themselves on his behalf. It was empowering for us.
But agency can come with a feeling of responsibility – to find the right words, the right text, the right ritual to make it all go away. When I prayed during my father’s treatment, I wanted to find the magic words that would make it all better, even while struggling with this slot machine notion of God that would spill out health for my dad if I hit on the right combination of heartfelt phrases.
Ultimately, religion offers incredible resources. But as religious people, we also have some soul-searching to do on the theology of illness. To support the sick in our communities, we need to remember that the same ideologies that are sources of strength, can place unintended pressures on those who are already struggling.
The rituals that give us a sense of comfort, normalcy, and agency come packaged with feelings of personal fault. Acknowledging these challenges is an important step toward building even better support systems for patients – in body, mind, and soul.