Jan Meyers Proett
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|Posted on May 3, 2012 at 6:32 PM|
Early Spring in Colorado can be maddening. A warm day can beckon like a lover, but the invitation is a nervous one; her frost is sure to follow. The offer of fledgling blossoms and birdsong is predictably withheld in the next blanket of snow.
March 27, 2012 was a pristine tease. I had a few free hours before work, and gardening, walking, reading outside were all options. It was gorgeous. But another whim rose in me. A winter film had grown on the windows of our home, and I wanted it gone. I wanted the fractured light to stream in, un-muted. So with the warm temperature cheering me on, I began a chore which I actually really enjoy: washing windows.
I filled my bucket and went around to every window in the house, removing screens, wiping glass, as beads of sweat formed on my brow. I made great progress around the outside and now inside. I felt full, my satisfaction growing. I remember musing on the proverb, “Her arms are strong for her tasks.” I liked it.
I reached for the corner of the highest indoor window, set above our stone fireplace mantle about six feet. I do not remember my foot slipping. I do not remember knocking the rags and cleaners to the floor. I do remember the corner of the heavy, wood coffee table, coming toward me in slow motion, as the full weight of my body fell long to meet it like a heat seeking missile. Just prior to impact, I had a molasses- paced thought, “This is going to change things for a while.”
I have never felt such pain.
I crawled like a broken inchworm across the floor until I found my cell phone. I do not remember, but my husband Steve can tell you of receiving only a whisper into the phone, “Come… home.” I knew something was terribly wrong, but I did not know that I had broken five ribs on one side of my body - three in front, two in back, with one in back broken in two places.
Thus began my altered reality: a three day hospital stay, and six week convalescence. And more opiates than I ever thought I would ingest. I don’t know about you, but I never thought about my ribs, until they made their presence known, shrieking with every breath, every movement. I can tell you this: ribs matter. Each trauma doctor repeated the same mantra: there’s nothing we can do except manage your pain, the ribs have to heal on their own, we can’t bind them in any way for fear of inhibiting your lungs. And this will take a long, long time.
So, I’ve had some time on my hands to think. Even in a drug fog, I could sense some things becoming clarified for me. I offer them, with hope that you’ll never need them.
1. Comparing Suffering Is Not Helpful. To say this was a vulnerable experience would be like saying Victoria Falls is a quaint stream. It was an exercise in trusting the bones to somehow ‘find’ each other again, while they moved with my movement. I slept sitting up. The pain often broke through like a jack hammer. By week four I found myself gripped with fear, wondering if the pain might be present throughout my life. I was mindful of those I know whose bodies have been taken from them; for whom pain is not recoverable. A friend in a wheelchair, soldiers coming home without limbs, a courageous woman who endures chronic pain, the brother of a dear friend as he lived into dying of a brain tumor, my own brother’s skeletal form as he was racked with pain in the last stage of esophageal cancer. But I have learned it is not helpful to compare our own suffering with the suffering of others. If the baseline for our suffering is not the suffering of others, but Eden, then we can be kind to ourselves for the way we, too, suffer in this world. I was reminded of other seasons of my own suffering: the pain of confusion as mom slipped into mental illness, the two years a lethal form of Dengue Fever had me debilitated, and the pain of a broken heart. Remembering their pain, as well as my own, helped me bear it when I could not roll over in my bed. So does this mean that, in our suffering, we are to be self focused? Oh no. The Apostle Paul captures the communal nature of suffering, how the comfort given to us is then meant to be shared when he said, “Jesus comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” My dying brother comforted me as he would quote the book of Isaiah from memory, something he cultivated in the bedridden last days of his life. My friend’s dying brother comforted their family with his humor midst the fearful experience of losing his brain functioning. I don’t know what it will look like, but I have a feeling I’ll comfort more, better, from having to extricate myself from pain medications.
2. You Can't Hide when You Can't Move. Nouwen said, “Entering a private room and shutting the door does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force.” No kidding. And he was referring to the Spiritual Discipline of Solitude, not the forced aloneness of broken ribs! I love being alone. Throughout my life it is in solitude that Jesus has spoken most clearly. But I swear I had no idea the amount of internal chatter that would surface as I was forced into quiet exile. I mentioned being afraid; the truth is, I was gripped with fear. I became aware of how much my thoughts of the future are fear based, rather than presuming the abundance of love which is my inheritance. And honestly I realized how often I feel justified in the big rocks I pick up to throw, even in my mind, because stones are not big enough. Try not moving for a while…and introduce yourself to your need for the communion table.
3. You Cannot Stop Life. Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics are helpful here. The law of the conservation of mass – energy tells us:
“When Einstein discovered the relationship E=mc (in other words that mass was a manifestation of energy) the law was said to refer to the conservation of mass-energy. The total of both mass and energy is retained, although some may change forms. The ultimate example of this is a nuclear explosion, where mass transforms into energy.”
All I will say on this point is: as my life took the form of being still on my bed, the energy inside of me remained the same. And I wanted to explode. But slowly, over time as I simply had to let go, all that energy got transformed into a kind of contentment I cannot explain. Einstein and the Spirit of God, my mass-energy friends.
4. Love hovers over those in pain. Basil, bishop of Caesarea, crafted the first treatise on the Holy Spirit in the latter part of the fourth century. I think he must have felt like a charlatan, trying to bottle beauty. Seriously, how can the Spirit be put into a document? But his thoughts captured the fire that fell on Jesus’ friends and his own enjoyment of utter love, and they originated much from his love of the book of Genesis, where God’s hovering over His creation is shown as loving, fun, and kind. When he returned to the Hebrew language he realized that the Spirit “is like a bird that covers her eggs with her body and by her body’s warmth imparts the vital force that will give them life.” Steve and I have chickens, and they are so sweet as they nestle down on their eggs. Yet Jesus exposes our resistance to that kindness: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me.” (Matt 23:37). I experienced that hovering. It was the only thing that got me through, even when I fought it because I was mad that I was missing my gardening, gathering with friends, or work with peoples’ hearts. God was kind and often comical; a blanket of healing over my pain and complaints.
5. Only non-self-righteous care helps. We’ve all experienced it. Open up and share a bit of your struggle at your small group, and usually the response is either an awkward changing of the subject, or immediate advice-giving. Annie Dillard would say that’s when we should “put on our crash helmets lest the true God wake up and find us.” But loving is not about cures and advice. The most helpful friend is the one who, as Nouwen says, “can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Casseroles were welcome. I appreciated those who cleaned my house. But it was when Steve simply sat with me that healed my heart.
6. Pain is horrible, but a gift. Physical pain is awful. The only place it doesn’t exist on this earth is in a colony for leprosy patients: “where people literally feel no pain, and reap horrifying consequences. “ Dr. Paul Brand’s work with leprosy patients in India convinced him that pain truly is one of God's great gifts to us. He was referring to the ability to sense when there is danger. I mean it in the way that Jesus comes to us, so tenderly, in our pain. That is a mysterious gift.
I’m (sort of) coming to believe it.
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Categories: Her Shalom