Cancer Cannot Kill Doggerel

Paul Harvey

I spent a lot of time growing up waiting in the hospital waiting room. This wasn't because I was ever ill when younger, or because I sustained any injuries more grievous than spraining my ankle about 10,000 times playing basketball for the last 40 years. Rather, my father, a family physician in a small town and one of just two doctors for one entire county in the Oklahoma Panhandle, got called in a lot -- and if my mother wasn't around, the hospital waiting room was my babysitter. For years, I stared down the mysterious hallway which had a sign reading something like (to the best of my recollection) "No One Under 13 admitted," waiting for the day I could walk freely down the ward and glimpse at the effects of the exotic diseases that must be lurking there.

In that waiting area, I read an awful lot of Boy's Life, Highlights, and pretty much the entire corpus (slight exaggeration, but it seems like it) of Reader's Digest, Field and Stream (weird, since I have always hated fishing, and have gone hunting exactly one time in my life), Guideposts, U. S. News and World Report, and other stuff that I can't even remember. Then there were the dermatology medical journals, my favorite since they showed all sorts of gross and disgusting skin diseases. They didn't stock National Geographic, presumably because those pictures of bare-breasted women out somewhere on the African savanna would shock the church ladies.

The waiting area was also replete with all manner of tracts, posters, and various transitory publications featuring a staggering amount of inspirational doggerel. I used to read that stuff (it was at least amusing, more than I could say for Field and Stream), and wonder who exactly it appealed to. But I was just a boy; who was I to say? Time to get back to the daily prescribed Bible reading, and wonder why exactly I was supposed to read the book of Leviticus, rather than (say) the autobiographies of Jerry Kramer and Bart Starr of my football heroes the Green Bay Packers.

Since then, inspirational doggerel has become a mega-industry. In "Doggerel Fails Me," a terrific piece up at Killing the Buddha, Mary Valle takes up a theme recently explored at fuller length in Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Ehrenreich's subtitle overstates the case, as it seems all subtitles of trade and popular non-fiction books (of the "How such and such Changed the World Forever" variety) do nowadays, but I appreciated the takedown of pink ribbon kitsch and feel-good maxims that seem to signify the death of tragedy.

Valle, a participant in a trial for cancer victims, knows whereof she speaks, and concludes that if doggerel of the "cancer cannot" variety helps some people, then fine. But the inspirational poem is a lie, because of course cancer can; it took my father, about as selfless and positive thinking a person as humanly possible to be. I'm still pissed off about that, and thinking about the words I read in that waiting room make me even angrier. I found Valle's conclusion much more potently comforting:

But I backed down from the ledge: people must like “Cancer Cannot” or you wouldn’t see it so much. It was time to do what I had come for. I took a seat and said a prayer for my new friend, and for the parents who donated the Meditation Room and their daughter, and decided that I’d contribute my own book to the Meditation Room collection, seeing as how there was no poetry on the shelf. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson: not a lie in the bunch.


Anonymous said…
This is a thoughtful and well thought out post. Having had a father die of lung cancer, a mother survive colorectal, and a brother endure leukemia, I've also spent a lot of time in waiting rooms. Your thoughts echo my own - my own anger has been directed at the misguided shiny happy people wearing yellow bracelets like a magic amulet that will make all that nasty cancer stuff go away. Some of those people are genuine in their concern and support. I can't help feeling though that the vast majority got swept up in a feel-good cause.