I don’t know John and Elizabeth Edwards. I’ve never met them and I have no strong opinion about Sen. Edwards’ politics. I do know this: they are human beings and they’ve been dealt a tough hand.
Elizabeth Edwards has suffered a recurrence of breast cancer; her prognosis is that the cancer is “treatable but not curable.” My mother died of breast cancer. As a pastor, I have walked with many women who have experienced that dread disease and I have struggled along with their families. I’m sure that everyone reading this joins me in praying for the Edwards family.
In America, everything that a politician does is controversial to somebody. Last week, the Edwards held a press conference to talk about her health and about his candidacy. They announced that Sen. Edwards would stay in the presidential race. Reaction has, of course, been mixed. Some folks are saying that he is doing the right thing in not letting his wife’s illness stop him from continuing his quest for the White House. Other folks are saying that Sen. Edwards is being selfish, that he should stay home with his wife, and that he is attempting to use her illness for political gain. He of course says that no one should vote for him because his wife has cancer, which I wish could go without saying.
Unfortunately, all too often the comments that people make, in whichever direction they run, are based more on pre-conceived political opinions than on legitimate admiration or true compassion. What do I mean? I mean that it may be that most of the people who are glad he is staying in the race support him or his party anyway while those who are criticizing him were probably already critical of him on other counts. Think of it this way: were the couple in question a conservative Republican candidate and his wife, do we really believe that the same voices would be singing the same tunes? Or am I just being cynical, my capability for which I do not deny?
My wife and I discussed this matter yesterday morning. We agreed that all of this was really the Edwards’ business and not ours, which I guess is really an idealistic position, since if you’re a public figure your business unfortunately becomes everybody else’s business. We also agreed that it made little sense to us for someone to expect Sen. Edwards to cease his campaign because Mrs. Edwards had cancer. In our conversation, I said, “I’m the pastor of a church. Were you to be diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, would anyone expect me to stop pastoring the church and stay home? Being a pastor is what I do. Well, being a politician is what Edwards does. So, should he stop being a politician because of this crisis?” I know that the parallels are very inexact. What he is doing requires him to be away from his wife far, far more than what I do would require me to be away from mine. Still, with all modesty, I think I had a good point, and my wise wife agreed with me.
In his book The Lonely Patient (New York: William Morrow, 2007), Dr. Michael Stein writes about the patient’s experience of recovery from illness.
Bed-bound for too long, the patient inevitably feels condemned, captured, disallowed from participating, and ashamed. Standing is often an ill person’s first act of real recovery, his first act of participation, an experience that is hardly spectacular, since he has done it without thought, perfectly and easily, countless times before in his life. Standing and walking are escapes from the gravitational pull of the woe and resignation that is illness.
In bed, the patient thinks, Is this what I will have to put with for the rest of my life? Walking is the return of doing, of going, of regaining control of the physically possible. It is a metaphorical “getting on with it.” The patient is proceeding—he is “taking the first step.” (pp. 102-103)
Had the Edwards decided that the best way for them to deal with what they have to deal with was for Sen. Edwards to leave the campaign trail, that would have been perfectly understandable. But I also understand the need to get up, to keep walking, and thereby to maintain some control over the situation.
Sometimes, if you sit down and stop walking, you never get up again.