Faith, A Lesson of History

Chilean writer, Isabel Allende (most famous for her novel The House of the Spirits) in her memoir, Paula, tells the story of her extraordinary life to her daughter Paula, as she lay in a porphrya-induced coma from which she would never awaken. I read Paula more than 15 years ago and yet a passage, a series of sentiments, recorded on page 23 have never left me, and they come back to me now more powerfully than ever. Allende tells her daughter of her past — a thing she calls her “innermost garden, a place not even my most intimate lover has glimpsed.” “Take it, Paula,” she tells her, “perhaps it will be of some use to you, because I fear that yours no longer exists, lost somewhere during your long sleep — and no one can live without memories.”

I am a lover of memories, of the past, of history. I majored in history in college, studying American, Chinese, European, African, social, economic, political and cultural history. I find fascinating how some unique, charismatic figures, like Jesus Christ and Chairman Mao, and revolutionary innovators, like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs altered the course of human history. The rest of us are merely swept along by the tide of events set in motion by others, past and present, and by events that are brought about by non-man-made forces (i.e., depending on one’s religious and philosophical views, God, Mother Nature or the randomness of the universe that brings about things like natural disasters and illness), forces that are entirely beyond our control. It is the stories of the rest of us that I find most intriguing and valuable — the story of the black Caribbean woman who fled her abusive husband for a New York City shelter with her three children, the tale of how an American World War II POW survived months alone drifting at sea and then years of torture by the Japanese, the saga of the incredible will to live of members of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed into the Andes in 1972, the unlikely story of one woman’s ability to live 15 years after being diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. There are so many stories. Indeed, the truth that has been lived by our fellow human beings is much more inspiring than any fictitious yarn woven by the greatest storytellers.

But Allende reminds me that there is value in our own individual memories, our own past, our own history; after all, what are we but the product of all our experiences. Rather than looking without to find inspiration, strength and hope, sometimes we must look within ourselves to discover and discern our own story. Of course, looking within is much more difficult, for we must confront our painful mistakes, our inner demons, our fears, our weaknesses, our insecurities, our ugliness.

In previous posts (It’s Stage IV Colon Cancer and Numbers Mean Squat), I’ve made passing references to my faith. I wrote that in the face of the uncertainty of whether my unique physiology would respond to chemo treatments, ultimately, I would have to put faith in myself and in a higher being who I have always felt was watching over me from the day I was born. Then, I wrote that Instead of believing in the statistics that would have me very likely dead in five years, I choose to put faith in me, in my body, mind and spirit, in those parts of me that are already so practiced in the art of defying the odds. When I was diagnosed with cancer, Josh read my surgical and pathology reports what seemed like 100 times. I could barely manage to get through my surgical report once without being nauseated by the image of parts of my body being removed. Josh read every relevant medical study he could find online multiple times, learning foreign medical terms and making reasoned conclusions about my prognosis that left him more hopeful. I read one sentence of one study and felt drowsiness setting in, and that was the end of that endeavor to take my medical care into my own hands. Josh puts his faith in science, based on numbers and reason. I put my faith in me and a higher power, based seemingly in nothing tangible, in what some would call complete irrationality.

As irrational as it may seem, my faith comes from my memories, from an understanding of my own history and, to a much lesser degree, the history of my parents and those who came before them. My first memory is of crawling up the narrow staircase of our house in Tam-Ky, Vietnam, where there was no guardrail to protect me from falling off onto the dust-covered cement floor. My second memory is of sitting on my grandmother’s lap on the Vietnamese fishing boat on the South China Seas, a bare dim bulb swinging overhead and the mournful prayers of 300 people begging to reach the safety of the refugee camps in Hong Kong ringing in my ears. I remember a year later trying to fight off the mask that would deliver the general anesthesia in advance of my first sight-giving surgery at the world class Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. I remember lugging my large print book around and all the other kids staring at me like I was some freak of nature. I remember not being able to fill out the answer sheet for the PSATs my sophomore year in high school because the bubbles were too small for me to see, even with my magnifying glass, and sobbing for the rest of that weekend, feeling the weight of all my limitations. I remember the elation that I felt when I told my parents over the phone I had just been accepted into Harvard Law School and how I heard my father clapping with possibly more joy than I felt, like a little boy who had gotten what he wanted for Christmas. There are so many more memories, both joyful and painful, but I think anyone can understand based on these memories alone why I have faith in myself and a higher being. I felt the hand of God more than once in my life and during the many times when I felt his absence, I found, through my shame, frustration, heartache, self-pity and self-loathing, a strength and resolve that I didn’t know I had.

When I woke up at 4 a.m. the day after my colonoscopy, the day after we learned that I had colon cancer and before I was transferred to UCLA and before the surgery, during what I would call the darkest hours of my life, after I realized that this wasn’t a nightmare from which I would awake, the fear overcame me and I couldn’t breathe as I sobbed hysterically into the lonely darkness of that miserable hospital. The future, however long or short, loomed ahead of me like a black cloud and I could see no light whatsoever. I dug deep then into my past, to find another moment of comparable fear. In truth, there was no fear that I had ever experienced that was comparable to this. But there was one memory that was somewhat analogous. During the summer after my first year of law school, I went to Bangladesh on a human rights internship and worked for an NGO for ten weeks. Although I yearned for what I knew would be an enriching experience, I was terrified. A little Asian girl who can’t see very well going alone to one of the poorest countries in the world without any familiarity with the language or culture — it was a bit daunting. Bangladesh, in the days and months before my trip, seemed shrouded in shadows, much like my future seemed from that hospital bed. What if I was mugged or got into a terrible accident or developed dengue fever? I remember acknowledging the fears and doing everything I could within my control to mitigate the risks — I had my mother sew secret pockets for my money and passport into my underwear; I worked out hard so I could be physically strong and fight as hard as I could if I were attacked; I bought travel insurance. Then, I let everything else go and put faith in myself and a higher power, and I just walked forward, through the fear, into my incredible adventure that was Bangladesh. Rather than shrouded in shadows, Bangladesh was and is a beautiful place filled with vibrant colors and kind people. That night in the hospital room, I willed myself to again acknowledge the fear, told myself to do everything within my power to control my destiny and let everything else go, and then ordered myself to look ahead and walk through the fear once more.

Although my journey with cancer has just begun, I can already say with complete conviction that it is not the dark, hopeless place that I feared so much.

I love what Allende says about her life and past. I feel exactly the same about mine. She describes her life as:

a multilayered and ever-changing fresca that only I can decipher, whose secret is mine alone. The mind selects, enhances, and betrays; happenings fade from memory; people forget one another and, in the end, all that remains is the journey of the soul, those rare moments of spiritual revelation. What actually happened isn’t what matters, only the resulting scars and distinguishing marks. My past has little meaning; I can see no order to it, no clarity, purpose, or path, only a blind journey guided by instinct and detours caused by events beyond my control. There was no deliberation on my part, only good intentions and the faint sense of a greater design determining my steps.

Each of us has a story. Each of us has experiences from which we can draw strength and can serve as the basis of our faith. It is just a matter of whether we are willing to dig up those often unpleasant memories, to actually glean the lessons of our history, to find the secrets of the journey of our souls. I spent years in psychotherapy doing that work, analyzing myself and my past in every minute detail in order to prepare myself for the challenges of my future. And now that the greatest challenge of my life is here, I am profoundly grateful for the work I’ve done.

Just as Allende sought to give the secret of her life story, her past and her memories to her daughter, I find myself wanting to do the same for my daughters. So much of what I write on this blog is for them, so that they may understand their mother, but also so that I may teach them. This is one of those teaching moments. I would never deign to tell anyone how to live his or her life, anyone that is other than my daughters.

So to Mia and Belle, I, as your mother, tell you this, just in case I’m not there to stroke your hair and whisper these things into your ears. When you are afraid and overwhelmed and hurt, look within yourself and find the strength that lives within your soul. Know that my blood and the blood of all my ancestors — brave, hearty, practical peasants and entrepreneurs who endured and escaped war, poverty and famine — and all of our history flows through your veins. Have faith in yourself, in your own beauty, intelligence and strength, and know that a part of my soul, scarred as it may be but hopefully imbued with some wisdom and certainly overflowing with love for you, resides within you.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jonathan
    Sep 21, 2013 @ 13:10:04

    Julie,
    Kate introduced us. We spoke on the phone and then you talked with my wife, Alexa. I am moved by your powerful reflection to think deep about my own past and share that with my daughter, much in the way my parents have long shared with me, through tough times and happy. You and your daughters and husband are in my thoughts and prayers today. Thank you.
    Be well,
    Jonathan

    Reply

    • julielyyip
      Sep 22, 2013 @ 12:08:17

      I remember you Jonathan. I’m so glad that my words have moved you to look into your own past. Everyone has a story of value to tell. I wish I had enough time to hear everyone’s stories.

      Reply

  2. paddleboardgirl
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 21:24:15

    So true and so beautifully written… You continue to amaze me –

    Reply

  3. Susan
    Sep 24, 2013 @ 20:45:34

    We have never met but I was a fraternity brother of Josh’s at South Carolina. You are such an inspiration, and from your blog, it definitely appears you are a force to be reckoned with! You, Josh, and your daughters continue to be in my prayers.

    Reply

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