The Opposite of Cancer

They started off, as all couples do, simply delighted with each other. They came to our house a couple of times when they were still dating. "John" was the brother of a good friend, "Sally" was his soon-to-be betrothed. They were fun. They had a good sense of humor. Both of them were skilled, particularly at the witty retort.

They got married and a couple of years passed. Next time we saw them, they were "old married folk" and the gleam had begun to wear off Young Love.

But the edge had not worn off their sense of humor. Indeed, John and Sally were still funny, but their jokes were just enough at each other's expense to make you feel odd about laughing--as if a chuckle was a declaration of alliance with the joker against the jokee. The jokes made you feel increasingly as though you were taking a stroll between sharpshooters.

More time passed. Our friends went to visit the John and Sally and found the trip to be an excruciating experience. Every interaction between them was now open warfare. Humor remained, but it was strictly employed for the purpose of cutting each other off at the knees. There were no "jokes" anymore, just cruel flippancies, sarcastic put-downs, and brutal humiliations at one another's expense.

The marriage lingered on for a couple more years, but it eventually died--or was murdered--with bitter, heartless laughter, each at the other's expense. Now they tell jokes about the "ex" and laugh. The laugh smells like acid on sugar.

I think of John and Sally when I remember a Bible study leader I knew in college. Somewhere along the line he did a study of Ephesians 5:4: "Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving." Taken by itself, the passage seems to suggest to the uninitiated that Paul was a rather Puritan fellow, forbidding fun and urging a sort of tiresome, long-faced piety. But Bible study teacher argued that this was to misread Paul (who, after all, insisted that we "Rejoice in the Lord always!" and who positively burbled with joy in letter after letter). So what was Paul talking about?

My teacher called it "coarse jesting": the temptation to make another person the butt of a joke.

My wife and I took this to heart very early in our marriage. Jokes which publicly exposed some flaw in a family member or held them up to ridicule were absolutely verboten.

Instead, what we decided to practice was finding some way of regularly making the other people in our family know that they are loved. It didn't have to be a big, showy awkward thing ("Dearest darling! Here, before these guests assembled for our macaroni and hotdog dinner, allow me to offer a few remarks on how you have graced our home for lo! these 18 years!"). Nor does it have to be some sort of artificial Stuart Smalley Therapy Session ("Honey, I just want you to know that you're good enough, smart enough, and--gosh darn it!--I like you and affirm you in your okayness!")

Instead, we simply made the decision that each of us would tell the other and our children that we loved them everyday and that we would make a point of thanking and praising the other and our children for nice things done or little achievements. No big deal.

And yet, a huge deal. For it has acted, if you will, like the opposite of cancer in our house. Instead of the little needles and pokes growing into bigger jabs, simmering resentment, and finally a raging case of mutual antipathy (made all the harder to confront because "you can't even take a joke"), we decided to try to create an atmosphere in which, quite simply, one did not always have to have one's guard up: a safe place. A home.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how often people miss such no-brainers and create the domestic hells that John and Sally created for themselves. But the key is to think small. Just as cancer starts small and metastasizes, so happiness begins with something as minor as a brief compliment for the dinner or a clever put-down we choose not to utter. The life of God is chiefly a matter of small things we mistake for trivial ones--like mustard seeds. Or young cancers.

Copyright 2002 - Mark P. Shea