Both Things Are True. Notes on Living in the Courageous Middle
“This book is an invitation to reside in the brave in between—the courageous middle—in a way that’s equipped by the stories we gather from our very best and very worst days. It explores the possibilities of this courageous middle of our own lives, and the broader courageous middle space in our culture –a space where moral courage, forgiveness, and resetting with grace are becoming far too rare… This is a space where dualities might find a way to dance.”
These days I reside in a room that is most likely my last –I may have one more healthy year in front of me, or perhaps a few more. Today I feel perfectly healthy, healthier than I have in years. And yet my diagnosis is grim, and my medical team is clear-eyed with me: there is no cure, and the odds of long-term survival are scant.
If you’re especially fortunate, you enter your last room –or chapter –of life feeling physically run-down, and exhausted. Which is to say, you’re old. Or maybe you step into that room young and full of health, having no idea at all you’re in the room at all. Which is to say, tomorrow you’ll be hit by a bus.
I’m in the room young(ish!), feeling quite healthy, and I know I’m there. An uncommon trifecta.
On July 1,2019,I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic colon cancer. I was 48. I had no family history, and no classic symptoms. Just a horrible diagnosis, with even more horrible odds for long-term survival.
After a couple of weeks of feeling run down –a low-grade fever and strange night sweats –my doctor and I chased a theory that perhaps I picked up a virus or some such treatable bug from a recent trip to Honduras for work. After some concerning lab results and a spiking fever, days later I was in a hospital ER, overhearing hushed whispers accompanied by very little eye contact.
A CT scan revealed a 15 cm tumor on my liver, and worrisome activity in my lung. A biopsy confirmed the worst.
I was also a single mom to a 16-and 14-year-old.
Six years earlier, I discovered that my husband –who I loved dearly –was in the midst of a three-year affair. Like my cancer diagnosis, there were scant symptoms. He traveled frequently for work, and he disguised a growing distance between us as his own struggle with depression. After a valiant attempt to repair what had been broken, our marriage ended months later.
Having lived through divorce, and now living through cancer, I can say with confidence that divorce is far harder. Here’s why: with betrayal, your past (or your story) is taken from you; with cancer, your future is taken. The past is what is uniquely yours. It’s the most sacred place of all because it’s the narrative arc that helps you frame who you are today, and who you hope to become. Your future is a grand mystery. It’s thrilling –yes –but it holds no memory. Which is to say, it’s not yours. Yet.
In the swirl of my trauma and unbearable grief, a deeper stirring –a vantage point –has emerged, providing a frame for navigating the inevitable beautiful and terrible chapters of my life. This vantage point provides a way of relishing all that divine, abundant mercy provides us, and a kinder discernment for living through the inevitable loss and heartbreak that each of our stories includes.
This vantage point is neither cynical nor shallow. Instead, it’s a rich repository for expanding the aperture for seeing all that surrounds us –the beautiful, and the terrible –with the confidence that each wing of our human experience is holy and true. And each holds important insights for every season of our lives, even when the chapters include the worst form of betrayal and the worst form of cancer.
Rather than viewing the terrible as some kind of lapse of divine providence, the story I am telling is an invitation to explore both triumph and tragedy as necessary and sacred components in all of our paths. And instead of viewing joy and sorrow as opposites, I will explore how both are part of a holy harmony, full of mystery and surprise. And through rich storytelling, I’ll draw readers closer to discernment –a heart to spot and marvel at miracles, a lightness to spot the utter absurdity and humor woven throughout, and a more expansive imagination to pause and extend empathy for others when tragedy strikes.
Most of all –a heart to see our stories perhaps from a more sacred place –capacious, and without fear. Instead of seeing our days as succeeding or failing, rather than seeing our physical selves as healthy or unwell, I will move readers to wrestle with a more fundamental question: who are we becoming as we accumulate achievements, and also afflictions?
“I first came to know Amy Low when she began working with Emerson Collective nearly nine years ago. From the beginning, it was clear that Amy is a gifted storyteller. She used her gift to help shape early narratives for Emerson and has helped our partners and Fellows tell their stories. Now she is telling her own story—as a mother battling cancer. Amy’s story of hope and perseverance in the face of pain and heartache is one that will resonate with and inspire many.”
–Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president, Emerson Collective
“So many people are in pain these days, enduring hard times, facing challenges. They are wondering, ‘How do I do this?’ Amy Low is the perfect guide. She has been in the depths and she has not come out with empty hands. She carries a wealth of hard, realistic, credible wisdom. She draws on a deep tradition of intellectual and moral knowledge and enlivens it with her own contemporary voice and experience. I can’t wait to read this book.”
–David Brooks, New York Times columnist and bestselling author of The Road to Character, The Second Mountain, The Social Animal, and Bobos in Paradise.
“We are all, sooner or later, in search of a way to ‘be’ in the midst of uncertainty, injustice and fear. Every day, all over the world, people get news they cannot bear–of a diagnosis, a coup, a melting polar ice cap, a sudden, wrenching loss, a newly named variant. With honesty, humor, wisdom and grace, Amy Low shines a light through the darkness. Again and again, I read her blog posts through tears and laughter, in the same passage. I thought to myself: ‘This is how I want to be!’ Fully alive in the best and worst of times. This will be a book to treasure, to live by, to wrap up with a bow and give to everyone we know.”
–Amanda Ripley, New York Times bestselling author of The Smartest Kids in the World, The Unthinkable and High Conflict.
“I’ve been following Amy’s short reflections for the past 2/12 years and have been awe struck, over and over again, by the power of her words. So many of these dispatches read like poetry—deeply wise, profound, gorgeously written. Her words vibrate with optimism, humor and her relentless spirit. In these dystopian days we need a voice like Amy’s to shake us out of our stupor and remind us to take one more step forward, one more step up that mountain. I cannot wait to read this book.”
–Dave Isay, founder of NPR’s StoryCorps, and author of the New York Times bestselling Listening is an Act of Love, Callings among others.