Cancer the Ineffable

I want to argue against something, but I can’t quite manage it.

There is much to admire about the non-profit organization that shares a name with its slogan, hashtag, cross stitch kit, etc., “F!ck Cancer.” They fight for a good cause. They raise awareness, in particular, through their obvious comfort with a well-deployed obscenity. Even their logo is a work of minor genius.

I didn’t realize just how culturally pervasive Eff Cancer is until I saw Reddit the day after Jorien ‘Sheever’ van der Heijden announced her breast cancer diagnosis. For page upon page of comments, thousands of fans were able to express their reaction in only two words. It reminded me, l’havdil, of the ritual responses of Judaism, how when something terrible is announced in the Jewish community (G-d forbid) you will see, repeated dozens of times at the bottom of the page, “BDE,” Baruch Dayan HaEmet, Blessed be the true Judge.

Here is where I confess that the “l’havdil” is not written with mere obligation, but with a glimmer of hesitant passion. When it comes to cancer I am, of course, against. but when it comes to Effing Cancer…am I for?

The point, I suppose, of saying “Eff Cancer,” (beyond marketing) is that no time is more appropriate to be inappropriate than in the face of a scary, pervasive, and often deadly illness. There is no reason to respect this force of evil and terror in our lives. We mock our enemy and redouble our efforts to care for those it hurts and find new ways to fight it, together.

But I still have this little dream that one day I’ll write an honest essay about why it’s wrong to say Eff Cancer.

I don’t want to sit and moralize. I don’t want to be the person who hauls out the book and points, finger quivering as it channels the power of justice, to where it says you’re not meant to swear, how it’s indicative of moral decay, how it blemishes the faculty of speech and betrays a lack of character.

don’t want to be that person. No one likes them, and for good reason. They live in a world of abstraction. Their hearts are closed. That version of me cares more about the rules than he cares about the trials and agonies of living, breathing human beings. How dare he brandish standards of proper behavior in the face of the deepest suffering many ever know? How can he place that book and his finger under the noses of their families?

Again: I don’t want to be that guy.

I want to be the guy who actually understands morality, cares about it truly and deeply. I dream of appreciating proper behavior, not just in standard situations but particularly in extreme circumstances. I want to want to know in my bones that the rules are the salvation from suffering, that our love for human beings should extend to the love of unflappable dignity written black-and-white on the cracked surfaces of human souls, holding their continents together.  Our love should extend to what a human being can be, a gentleman, a lady, a sage.

In Yeshiva one sometimes encountered strange guys like the ones in my dream. Their whole lives testify that the dream may be within mortal reach. They have good upbringings and refined natures and even in the face of deep frustrations they never swore, probably never thought to, were probably traumatized by the kids at camp from Crown Street who knew all the words. The relief of the curse word, the rush of released profanity, would feel to them like a violation, and the voice it gave to their frustration would be a stranger’s voice.

I am not one of those people.

But perhaps there’s hope for me and those like me.

Maybe we aren’t just (to use C.S. Lewis’s mocking term) trousered apes. Perhaps we do not spend our whole lives constrained, ready to find emancipation in the tactile pleasure of stabbing exactly the right four-letter word deep into someone’s face like the world’s happiest pole vaulter. We probably know we are meant to control ourselves. We are meant to learn how to love refinement and never lick our fingers. Just as the inner animal breathes a sigh of relief as we fire off fusillades of flippantly fabulous F bombs, we know another part of us whimpers, left to fight disease and terror without the cloak of manners to give grace purchase an inch above the pain.

Maybe the story of the Creator and His rules will one day be to us, upon full understanding, just as moving, as vast, and as profoundly human as the story of cancer.

I want to one day know that not swearing, as a principle, as a way of life and a state of being and a form of worship, is closer to me than cancer can be to anyone.

Until then, I can’t argue.