You get to Choose Whether It Takes Your Agency
This week the English Students Association, an academic support and social group for English enthusiasts and English majors alike, hosted local writer and comedic speaker, Gabriel Flood. The Virginia Journal of Bioethics and To Write Love On Her Arms (a mental health and suicide awareness CIO at UVA) co-sponsored the event. Students met Flood, and were quickly taken in by the writer’s quick wit and honesty. Flood, an emphatic and enthusiastic speaker, shared his journey: his life without and with cancer.
The 33-year-old described himself as an “uncomfortably personal writer, sometime comedian, and minor dog whisperer” - a humble description that the students came to recognize (Flood 2016). While Flood acknowledged that “the reality [of cancer] is so much more complex than [his] single story could encapsulate,” he shared insightful lessons with the audience. Flood’s candid objectivity was refreshing, allowing students to relate better to Flood’s lived experiences.
Flood initially talked about how he used to be before his diagnosis: he did not care for his job and had a poor sense of where he wanted his life to go. After he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer most often found in geriatric patients, Flood realized that his life would change drastically - and rapidly. An adult with no insurance, he would have to start making challenging decisions in order to fight a diagnosis dictating that he had “only 12 hours” to live. Yet, Flood emphasized, he did not have to make these decisions alone. Throughout his fight with cancer, Flood had support from his social worker, nurses, and doctor. He praised his social worker, painting her as a “knight” who “navigated a maze to which [he] could not even find the entrance.” Aiming to celebrate the dedication from his nurses, Flood highlighted that “the nurses will save your soul while the doctor is saving your life.” Listening to Flood speak about how he chose to navigate his cancer was not only heart-warming, but also wildly inspirational.
Although he shared a plethora of life lessons with ease, Flood was conscious about emphasizing what may be his greatest lesson yet: how he retained his power by remembering the agency in his happiness. The ambitious writer talked about how he felt when he initially received his diagnosis - he experienced a “mortality shock.” After processing a dim fate, he quickly turned to humor and witty jokes in order to bring light to the darkness of hospital hallways and patient waiting rooms.
“The greatest power that [the mortality shock] has, is that it can take away your agency...but you ultimately get to choose whether the cancer takes your agency” (Flood 2017).
Flood chose not to be defined by his cancer, his 6-month chemotherapy or his debilitating pain. He chose to be defined by his choice in overcoming these things, and moving forward.
As someone who is getting ready to graduate from UVa, I find myself introspecting about the choices I have made these past years on Grounds. I find myself reminisce about the gardens I have explored, and the late-night conversations I have shared. I reflect on the people I have met, the lives lost, the tragedies occurred, and the battles waged. The good and the bad neatly wrapped into one academic degree.
I realize that my memories are not collections of moments or events, but instead collections of feelings - and people. I remember feeling elated when the Lawnies of 2016 were announced. I remember feeling lost when I heard gunshots on Wertland Street. I remember feeling content while dancing with my best friend in Garden VII. It therefore seems to me that Flood is correct: I am not defined by the things that happen to me, but instead by my choice to react to those things, and move forward. It follows that we are not defined by the things that happen to us, but instead by how we choose to react to those things and move forward. I believe that the intention to move forward keeps us on track, together.
Today, the young writer continues to live his mantra as he battles a (slightly less-aggressive form of) new cancer. Flood is an example to us all, as he reminds us to remember those things that make us happy - and carry those things with us as we grow together.
Flood, Gabriel. 2016. “Gabriel Flood,” Quora.com, Accessed February 2017. https://www.quora.com/profile/Gabriel-Flood.