Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine
Earlier this year, I was contacted by a youth organization in Wisconsin called One Step. The group operates a summer camp for young people with cancer, where campers can spend time with other patients their age, as well as survivors of the disease, and experience beautiful Lake Michigan.
I said yes instantly, but I was nervous. How would I be able to face these young people dealing with challenges that I'd never faced? I assumed I was being brought in as an entertainer to help cheer up these young patients—some as young as 5 years old—and offer them some sort of boost. Little did I know, these brave young people were going to teach me more than I ever dreamed.
I had gotten it all backward. The gentleman who invited me to the camp eventually explained that every summer he invites someone to the camp to be a student, not to be a teacher or to offer their presence to the young people there. Instead, I'd learn about strength and resilience through these courageous cancer patients, experience their power and incredible energy.
I was absolutely overwhelmed, devastated, and uplifted by the camp experience. It's difficult for me to even write about it now, the feelings come in such waves of intensity. These young children taught me many lessons, the most important of which I try to keep in sharp focus daily.
One young woman I met especially struck me. She was in her early 20s and had beaten cancer after a long battle. She still went back to the camp every year to reconnect with the friends she had grown close to, and to support new incoming campers still grappling with the most challenging aspects of their illness.
Almost losing her life gave her clarity. It also gave her purpose.
This young woman's eyes radiated a sparkling kindness, like two universes gazing out from some impossibly vast and infinite space hidden behind her face. She seemed to look through your weakness and recognize all the best things inside you, compassionately overlooking or accepting your fear, your shallowness, your failings.
She was never not smiling. It was a sincere and natural smile that transcended happiness, and in her presence I felt some sort of essential value of goodness and rightness and kindness that I couldn't quite explain, but felt deeply.
I asked this young woman to please tell me her secret. What did she know that made her able to be this way? What did she see through those supernova eyes? What was she feeling inside that made her able to smile so purely and genuinely even in the face of such suffering and having been through such trying circumstances herself?
Her answer surprised me.
Cancer had given her a clarity she had not known before. She said that ever since her diagnosis, she saw life as an incredible gift. Her experience with almost dying actually introduced her to her own life. And that even the challenges and difficulties in life felt like opportunities to grow and appreciate the magnificence of every shred of it even more deeply. She calmly and gently explained that there was no secret to her other than an unflinching and unshakable positivity. Simply being alive was her source of constant joy.
Almost losing her life gave her clarity. It also gave her purpose—an active devotion to a deep and crucial hope. Now, she had a mission to help others like her, to share her power and joy. Every day for her was a beautiful new chance to make her life count.
Every young person I spent time with at One Step shared this similar quality, this clarity, this purpose. Each one went out of their way to show me incredible kindness and extraordinary warmth. They could tell I was overwhelmed and scared. As the sun set and the camp day was winding down, I was in an emotional state of dazed humility. I felt so silly that I had come into this experience as I had, thinking I could somehow help them. Instead, they imbued me with the clarity to realize more profoundly that life is a precious gift. They did it simply by being themselves, completely and fully human examples of a triumphant joy.
I'm still processing what I experienced there, and I imagine I will be for a long time. But one thing was immediately clear: It is this spirit of joy for life that I want to serve and promote and protect and amplify and worship and conjure up and share. It reaffirmed that it is the one true calling we can all respond to and devote ourselves to. Living fully is the answer. Not allowing ourselves to float aimlessly throughout life in a cloudy daze is an unquestionably hard challenge, but one we owe ourselves to face head on, with clarity and purpose.
We can do so by attempting every day to be our best selves, tirelessly believing in the beauty and splendor of every second of this chance we have to be alive.
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