Imagining in the dark times to come

Flooding in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo by Rich-Joseph Facun.

Flooding in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo by Rich-Joseph Facun.

When I had cancer, I sometimes wondered why I wasn’t more afraid.

Some nights, after what felt like gallons of chemotherapy, I could barely sleep. My loneliness was convulsive. I would remind myself throughout the night of the friends whom I’d called or who had joined me at the hospital, of my parents sleeping the floor beneath me. Still I’d struggle to fall asleep. I’d want to curl up, but couldn’t cuddle close enough to myself.

The next morning, the loneliness and fear I’d felt that night didn’t get me out of the house. My hopes for my future—not just the fear I wouldn’t have one—made it possible to go back to the hospital. If I’d focused only on my fear, I wouldn’t have been able to see past my nose.

Now, cancer-free for six years and self-employed, I depend on my parent’s health insurance every time I go to the doctor, afraid of something (normally imaginary) that will signal a recurrence: A lymph node will be solid, my weight will have dropped, my blood tests will be irregular. I was lucky to have their insurance when I first got sick. Now, I have another year on my parents' plan unless Obamacare is completely repealed—in which case my having had cancer at 18 will also make health insurance extremely expensive for the rest of my life.

So this election has felt personal to me. Not to mention, I love a woman who would be threatened and perhaps excluded from the country for her race and religion under policies our future president has proposed—just as I’m working to convince her to immigrate to the United States.

The latest information suggests that more Americans voted in 2016 than in any election in our country’s history. There is real reason to fear that President-Elect Donald J. Trump does not know what he is doing and does not respect the spirit and the letter of the U.S. Constitution. Years of Trump and his associates’ lives in the public eye suggest that the rights of all Americans—but especially people of color, women, immigrants, and Muslims—will be threatened and our humanity questioned. It was a close election; but all elections have consequences. And in the face of the consequences of this election it can be very easy to feel only fear and anxiety. It can be easy to think we’ll jump at each new threat as it presents itself and win that fight.

But if we want to protect this planet—from nuclear war or climate change—we have to imagine how we can create a more democratic and more just culture and politics. If we stop dreaming and instead let the vicissitudes and fears of electoral politics—or Trump's latest Twitter distraction—limit our desire to imagine, we won’t be able to speak with each other about those dreams, let alone get out of bed tomorrow. If we see ourselves as only victims or potential victims, we won’t be able to see, respect, and use our power together. Without hoping, we can’t dream; and without dreaming we can’t sustain the fight for the present or the future. If we want to guard the world we share we can’t just fear and wait to respond to each challenge the future will present us. We won’t be able to get ourselves out of bed if fear makes it impossible to see past our noses.

I wake up every morning and see the scar created by my biopsies, just to the left of the center of my chest. I try to remind myself that I don’t get to look at that scar tissue thanks to my loneliness and fear of death.

Those sleepless nights were rare. They were rare because as painful as they were, as useless as my attempts to calm myself felt, my friends and family would be with me the next day. None of them had gone through chemo before, but they were still with me. It was only because of my friends and family that I could keep the fear away enough to dream and leave for the hospital the next morning.

We need each other to dream and to hope. It takes art and nature and friends and thought and conversation to dream together. Fear has and will convulse my sleep—but not every night. I think we can only respond and fight back against the threats of the present if we hope in the dark.

If having cancer taught me anything, it’s that I need you. We share this world. We share our lives. Let’s remember each other in those sleepless nights—and get out of bed and talk and go to the world’s hospitals together in the morning.