Home About Us Features Write Now! Submit Resources

On Relativity and Human Relations

by Maureen O’Leary

In any of my college English courses, in any given semester, some hapless student will introduce into the discussion the phrase, "It's all relative." This is more likely to take place on an enervatingly hot September afternoon, maybe a Friday, when everyone's quota of academic goodwill has just about dried up. The student's tone of voice will indicate that there really is no more to be said about whatever topic; indeed, the suggestion is that the entire discussion was pretty much pointless to begin with. In the past, I have called students to task for their lazy dependence on such an empty phrase. "It's all relative" is just another in the category of thinking-interruptus phrases that student's toss out when wary of complicated thinking. Now, however, I am more likely to respond by exclaiming in the eureka voice all academics recognize, "Yes! Exactly! It is all relative!" For last summer I learned the fundamental truth of this truism.

On the final day of classes in the spring of 2005, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. On the first day of fall classes, my treatments ended. There was a pleasing neatness to this timing, a kind of elegant parentheses the English teacher in me admired. I was not entirely surprised that even disease itself would respect the dictates of the academic calendar. But there was little of the neat or elegant in what took place between those parentheses.

A suspicious mammogram led to a biopsy which led to a cryptic phone call giving me the bad news. I thanked the radiologist, hung up, and burst into tears. One moment I was a healthy woman with a long life ahead of her and the next I was a person with a life-threatening disease and a looming medical ordeal. In relation to my pre-news state, my situation felt tragic. Despite the ubiquity of cancer, despite having seen many close to me successfully battle through it, I found myself completely unprotected from the freezing of the blood that comes when the finger swings round and points to you.

After more tears, I pretty quickly moved onto relief as I recalled the doctor's assurance that my cancer was non-invasive and at a very early stage. I do not want to make light of my situation nor of that of anyone else receiving such dark news, but I did seem to skip lightly through several of the prescriptive stages of grief, gliding fairly smoothly to a state of optimism. Yes, I had cancer, but it was eminently curable. Relative to what the news might have been, my situation was enviable. That very evening, a lovely early summer evening, I sat in the backyard with my husband, children, and close friends enjoying a dinner that felt celebratory more than anything else. We drank champagne; we toasted the engagement of my stepdaughter; my younger daughter's boyfriend presented me with gorgeously lush white peonies that opened to impossible fullness the next day like the promise of the full long life ahead of me.

Monday morning and another phone call plunged me into something deeper than shock and tears, into a state of terror and despair. A more careful look had suggested that there was suspicion of invasion. The implications of the word "invasion" were, to me, boundless. Was this a death sentence or just a notice that more treatment would be required? I again ran up and down the scale of emotions; my family and friends accommodated both the light and the dark visions, acknowledging and intelligently resisting my black moods and encouraging and expanding my buoyant moments.

A week after my initial diagnosis, my oncologist told me unequivocally that I would be okay; my fears of full-blown invasion had no justification. Her statements filled me with euphoria. I think, in fact, that she regarded me temporarily as a kind of halfwit since I beamed at her while she spoke as if she were giving me an award. A few days later, I was back down in the Slough of Despond after an appointment with the surgeon. Once again, I climbed my way back up. All of this took me and mine dizzyingly through to the wait, the endless wait, for the pathology report following my surgery. When there was an unexpected delay, I concocted stunningly harrowing scenarios and convinced myself that the surgeon could not bring herself to give me the grim news. When the report came, it was, relatively, so positive that I felt, once again, as if I had won the lottery.

Throughout that long summer, a strangely lovely one in some respects, I shimmied through various emotional states. Some days I exuded a cheerful confidence, aware that my cancer was, compared to what it might have been, a small glitch in a relatively smooth life. Other days, I succumbed to profound depression, feeling cursed that I had to undergo daily radiation and live with fears of recurrence whilst others sunned themselves in exotic climes enjoying perfect health. Visiting such radically different emotional states in such a compressed period of time was a kind of madness; I actually felt crazy at times. And lonely. For the journeys to such intense highs and lows are essentially solo; no matter how lovingly eager others are to keep you company, no one can really join you there. The ups and the downs diminished in extremity over time. The gap between the two ends shortened and I regained my equilibrium. I am glad, not only for my own sake, but for that of my friends and family. They are, in fact, the source of that steadier me. As buffeted as I was during my summer of cancer, a virtual weather vane in the winds of relativity, I found their support, their solidity, their love, anything but relative. Quite the opposite. As I sank and soared, lamented and exulted, the steadying compass of my ties to family and friends repeatedly returned me to equanimity, to sanity. The arrow always pointed back to them and I followed.

So when my students say, "It's all relative" on some hot Friday afternoon, I'll agree with good grace. But I'll hasten to add this –almost all is relative. Our connections with others, I'll tell them, are not. Those are absolutes. And then I'll give them another quote to add to their repertoire: as E. M. Forster advises, "Only connect." It is human relations, not relativity, that will see us through. Absolutely.