When Suffering Becomes Political
Last month, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer for the third time. It’s not a reoccurance, it’s residual and most likely been growing since the original diagnosis twenty years ago. This is a very slow growing cancer and will not kill me. Obviously since I have been living with it quite nicely. I will save you the gory details, but my specialist told me, “this will not take over, but it is a nuisance and disruption to your life. It needs to be taken care of soon.” Taken care of means surgery. I do not respond to radioactive treatments and the cancer doesn’t show up in my blood work. It likes to play hide and seek, so to say, and the only treatment option I have is have it surgically removed.
It has hit me differently this time for a variety of reasons. Since the diagnosis, I have been dealing with my insurance company daily—every day for hours. Hours out of every day to get the runaround, incomplete information, and flat out false information. Incredibly frustrating. The bureaucracy has left me feeling crazy and demoralized. I could not get approval for a qualified surgeon, one who specializes in thyroid cancer to do my surgery. They were all out of network. I had my specialist file a referral to my last surgeon, it was denied. They made the decision without taking my medical history or consulting the physician whose care I am in. But, then it turns out we found one in network that my insurance insisted was out of network but turns out is. My head explodes here.
I have felt vulnerable and scared. I have been completely unsure if I will get the care I need in the United States. I can’t even believe I typed that sentence. To add to my frustration and stress, my story seems to get political with many people when I tell it. Everyone has an opinion of our healthcare system. An opinion that gravitates to politics. Someone is to blame and who gets blamed depends on a person’s worldview or political persuasion whether is congress, Obamacare, insurance companies, and the outrageous cost of health coverage This is not a conversation that helps me right now, I feel completely missed--my pain and fear ignored.
And maybe because I have had an extremely personal experience, it hit me over the past two weeks that we politicize the suffering of others. I wonder if this helps us make sense of pain (by the way, there is no making sense of it) and distances us from connecting to others, especially those different than ourselves. It’s great self-protection but it leaves those caught in suffering feeling even more demoralized. The person is missed, their suffering is not acknowledged, and they become an object. That’s exactly how I felt when my healthcare got political with people.
Possibly this triggered my response because of the work I do, work with Palestinian refugees. Do you know, since I left the Middle East last month, how many of my friends have followed up and told are worried about me. Imagine, Palestinian refugees are worried about me? The American with citizenship and with opportunities at my fingertips. Many have told me they are praying for me--Palestinian refugees are praying for me. It’s extremely humbling for me.
I know all too well that they are a people group who have been politicized for decades. Muslim, Palestinian, and refugees--they get it from all sides right now. I have written about this in the past and talked about it a great deal. For the past 14 years, what I have heard from Americans when I talk about the plights of Palestinian refugees is political. There are many trigger words for Americans surrounding Palestinians—Arafat, Hamas, terrorism, Israel’s right to exist, rockets, intifada, and Gaza. We seem to throw these words around without a complete understanding and/or have a biased view of the situation for Palestinians--especially Palestinian refugees.
I think it makes it easier for us, to make the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians black and white--good guys and bad guys. Except this conflict is not black and white, it is very complicated and painful to unravel. I see the pain of it daily in the Middle East. The Palestinian narrative is rarely heard or known here. Their story is hidden often times when their voices are heard, they are discarded as radical or unimportant. Once again, their suffering becomes political and the trigger words I listed above are thrown around to describe all Palestinians.
Think about what it must be like as a refugee with permanent refugee status, such as 69 years without citizenship anywhere. No real chance to go back to your country with many in power saying you have no right to go back. No compensation has been given for their losses-homes, land, and lost of livelihood. You live in limbo in host countries, basically at their mercy. I talked about the bureaucracy of an insurance company, can you imagine the bureaucracy of trying to find legal work, acquire an education, or travel as a refugee? The obstacles are mindboggling and they are relentless. The everyday reality is facing walls and lack of opportunities.
In 1991, Kuwait expelled 200,000 Palestinian residents in a systematic campaign of terror, violence, and economic pressure. At the time, the PLO endorsed Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Palestinians had been in Kuwait for decades and were not supportive of the PLO’s endorsement. By the end of the year, the community dwindled to 20,000. I share that story to highlight the vulnerability of Palestinians and their host countries. Most people do not know this happened, it received little international attention at the time. Once again, regular Palestinian civilians were used politically and made to suffer for a leader’s decision.
It’s not just Kuwait. I think it’s easy to read that story and place blame just on Arab states or the PLO but that is an incomplete story. I don’t think Palestinians would be refugees for 69 years if there wasn’t plenty of complicity to go around for all of us—as in the entire world. I honestly believe that is what happens when a human being’s suffering is turned political, we become complicit in their suffering.
Think of the hot button issues right now--refugees, immigration, healthcare, and racism. All of these involve the suffering of some and become points for debate for others. I wonder how often we stop to think about our own biases pertaining to these issues. We all have biases, mine might be different than yours. I do struggle with the state of my heart. I think that’s a great place to begin, being aware of your biases. Then wondering what it would look like to be in another situation--to be stateless or looking for a better life or sick and in desperate need of healthcare or experience hatred or violence because of the color of your skin, your religion, or your sexual identity? Could awareness and wonder lead to action?
You know my specialist said something interesting to me. I was asking him about my future with cancer. I am concerned that it will keep popping up and at some point they will not be able to operate anymore. It’s a fear I have and something that has been taking much of my mental space. He said, “you know, at some point, I hope we get it all and you’re cured.” I sat there stunned. I have always thought of thyroid cancer as something I have to manage. I have never thought I would be cured. I just assumed, at some point, it would become worse.
And maybe that’s the entire issue. The complex problems we are facing we try to manage them and we are failing miserably. You can’t manage and fix human suffering. But, I wonder if we can be cured of turning suffering political. I wonder if we can be cured of demoralizing our fellow human beings. I wonder if instead we could restore dignity and hope to those hurting, sick, marginalized, and humiliated by acknowledging and respecting their suffering.
What a wonderful cure that would be.
Last week my specialist and I figured out a surgeon who was qualified to do my surgery in network with my insurance. It was a very, long month and I am not done battling my insurance. I have to tell you just by having my doctor fight for me and help figure out the next step helped restore something in me. I felt valued and seen, I wasn’t alone. Partners are important. Advocating for someone else’s rights is powerful. I firmly believe the most important thing I can do with my life, my privilege, my rights is not to fight to protect them but to use them to fight for others.
Which is why I will keep advocating for Palestinian refugees, thyroid cancer and all.
“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another.” ~Thomas Merton, Love and Living