Dear Carolyn: My younger brother, 29, was diagnosed with cancer yesterday. He’s the healthy, extremely fit one of the family, so it is extremely unexpected.
As the oldest I have always looked out for my younger brothers and now I just feel helpless. And I don’t know how to process this. He lives about 2,000 miles away and hasn’t decided if he’s going to do his treatment in our hometown (an area with abundant medical resources) or where he lives now. Any advice?
I’m sorry about the tough news.
I’m also sorry to have to spell out what I’m sure on some level you already know: that your brother and the cancer are calling the shots, not his well-meaning oldest sib.
It goes further than that, though – you’ve been “helpless” for years now. Arguably you’ve been so since your brothers became adults, and it’s never a bad idea to rethink childhood roles when you all aren’t kids anymore. More important, though, you’ve been helpless in profound ways all along, from the very beginning of your looking-out-for-them tenure, because there comes a point in all things and with all people where we’re not in control. You can shout to warn someone who’s blindly running into the street, literally and figuratively speaking, but you simply can’t always be there.
The fact that you cite your brother’s place as the “healthy, extremely fit one” in the family as incongruous to cancer suggests your sense of control and roles and certainty (oldest protects youngest, fittest doesn’t get sick) is at the foundation of your sense of well-being.
If so, your brother’s diagnosis is a bulletin: That foundation is basically sand. You can’t control outcomes, any more than your brother could exercise his way out of developing cancer.
People control their actions, not their results. And that defines the limits of certainty, too, for anyone: We can be certain of what we put in – to a relationship, project, job, trip, experience – but not of what we ultimately get out.
In that context, your helpless feeling makes perfect sense, because reality finally took a turn that collided with your illusion of control. (It’s surprising it took this long.) But the deceptively simple solution can make sense, too: Choose to build on things you actually can count on and control.
▪ You can’t keep bad things from happening to you, but you can make the best choices available to you at any given time.
▪ You can’t keep bad things from happening to people you love, but you can be there so they don’t have to go through them alone.
No doubt this feels like a poor substitute for the comfort you once took from feeling in charge. Once you get the hang of it, though, embracing limits can be so powerful that you never feel helpless again. That’s because the things you build on are real – love, effort, connections, impermanence, acceptance of the unexpected – in a way your sense of invincibility could never be.
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