From FOMO to JOMO

What cancer has taught me about the joy of missing out (JOMO)

dog restingAs it turns out an antidote for the subject of my most recent post, FOMO (fearing of missing out), is JOMO (joy of missing out). JOMO is basically saying “no” to the push to stay busy and connected with whatever presents itself in order to say more ‘yeses’ to activities that are more in-line with our values and interests. Many are jumping on the JOMO wagon. Productivity gurus are incorporating JOMO in their training. Stressed out working moms have self-help books to achieve JOMO. CEOs are trying to find balance and enjoyment within the pressures of fierce business competition. It’s all part of a new cultural phenomenon – searching for peace and joy within a world of relentless busy-ness, competition, and high expectations.

At first blush the acronym, JOMO, seemed forced and naive to me; but then I realized that it was exactly what David, my husband, and I were attempting to do since my diagnosis of stage-4 cancer. Doubling down on the present and embracing joy is integral to the 3-part strategy my husband and I developed to cope and grow.

1. Pursue the best possible treatments for the best possible outcomes.
2. Double down on the present. Experience joy where we can find it.
3. Think deeply about eternity.

I highly recommend you read his post, For Whom the Bell Does Not Toll: Stage 4 cancer patients have another definition for victory.

And there is evidence that we are doing just that. Laughter has always been coveted in our relationship but there is now more of it as we appreciate grandson antics and their hilarious comments. There is more laughter as we look for the amusing in ourselves and others; reminding ourselves to not take ourselves too seriously. There is more laughter as we retell shared funny experiences. There is joy as we actively pursue our passion to see marginalized people treated with God-given dignity and value. There is joy as we worship in church. There is joy as we enjoy the natural beauty around our creek cabin. There is joy of family and friends. There is so much joy and delight in our lives that we’ve been blessed with. We are grateful. But ….

• This is easier to do if I’m not in pain
• This is easier to do when I have had some distance from a disappointing oncology appointment.
• This is easier to do because it is my story and not a loved one’s.

In other words, there is within the JOMO movement a limitation. There is an exclusion clause, unspoken but nonetheless imbedded in its good intentions. Stopping to smell the roses sometimes leads to being stung. Being stung too many times can lead to anaphylaxis. Smelling a rose must give way to getting help to breathe. There are life experiences that leave us limping along, breathless from the sheer pain and exhaustion of life’s journey. Sometimes I feel like that. JOMO becomes elusive at best and downright annoying at worst. And so I cry. (See: More on finding comfort from God.)

It’s here that the 3rd part of our strategy takes dominance over the “doubling down on the present.“ Thinking frequently and intentionally about eternal life with the God who loves me is fundamental to any nod of acceptance and significance that I give to JOMO.
“So Heavenly-minded that a person is no earthly good” is not born out in the course of my life nor for countless others. It’s quite the opposite: becoming more heavenly-minded has prompted the Jesus-committed to do what can be done to effect positive change in this world while at the same realizing that Christ will ultimately set all things right. And some have made great sacrifices to that end.

But what about the fear of missing out on all the beauty and companionship of this world?

flowering dogwoods texasMany years ago, my two young daughters and I were riding our bikes together in our neighborhood. The balmy gentle breeze of a Virginia springtime with its blooming azaleas and dogwoods, greening weeping willows, and scented pine and magnolia underscored the laughter of my girls. I was filled with an inexpressible Joy. I remember silently thanking God while at the same time bemoaning that it wasn’t going to be ours for long. A transfer to another location in the country was imminent.

I longed for permanence in beauty and perfection. It was then that I realized for the first time that the aroma of magnolias and the music of a child’s laughter were only clues and hints of glory – not yet fulfilled nor meant to be. He has placed “eternity in our hearts”. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) The permanent, perfect, and pure in love and beauty would my inheritance. I think I can wait. Lord, help me wait.

‘Death Cafes’ and Me

Death Cafes” are springing up in cities throughout the world to address the subject of death and how-to live with death’s inevitably.

Apparently, the movement was started to give people a “safe place” to talk about death without being accused of morbidity. Billed as a philosophical inquiry on mortality, people looking for a grief support group will be disappointed. “Eat cake, drink tea and discuss death”, is the benign motto. The decor includes mugs, teacups and posters with creepy skulls, skeletons, and ravens painted on them. I admit that I’m put off by the skull mugs in the Death Cafes. death mug

But these venues and discussion groups deserve more than half a point. The vast majority of Americans live in the mythical state of immortality. ‘Mythical immortality’ (my term) is the belief that other people die, I don’t. (See, ‘I Like the New Metastatic Me’) When we do think about death it is in the context of avoiding it. Anne Patchett writes:

“The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it is exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality……Despite our best intentions, it (death) is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” 1


Death cafes, though they deal with an inevitability ignored by most, do not capture rightly the travesty of death or the Christian hope of triumph over it.


The point of Death Cafes is to make death less fearful in an age of anxiety. I get it.  But the death mug approach to the subject does not capture the travesty of death. I say travesty because the Bible makes it clear that death is an enemy that is finally destroyed with the coming of the new heavens and earth at the culmination of time. And that is where the Christian hope comes in. The story is not over with our deaths. There is the hope that Christ ushers us into his glorious presence where every tear is wiped away and grand reunions are still to come. So maybe what I could benefit from would be a café whose moniker is “death does not have the last word”. A safe place where my faith tradition is shared with others so that I hear stories about people who have died well within the confidence of being on the threshold of an eternal reality. Granted my death café sounds a bit exclusive as it would possibly not be very attractive to secularists or folks from other faith traditions; but at the end of the day, with facing my own mortality I want to hear a café filled with conversations about hope, faith, courage, love and forgiveness. I want to hear and talk about Jesus. I want to live life in the moment with increasing gratitude. Hearing stories about people who lived well up to the moment of their deaths is my cup of tea and I will happily eat some cake while doing so.

 

  1.  Ann Patchett, “Scared Senseless,” The New York Times Magazine, October 20, 2002.

Does facing incurable cancer scare the hell out of you?

I’ve always been interested in theological discussions and debates concerning the nature of hell among evangelical theologians. I have my “hard and fast” opinions about this serious matter but that won’t be the topic of this post. Sorry, for anyone out there who thought this was going to be a very provocative diatribe from an untrained non-seminarian theologian who admits to having strong opinions that she’s accustomed to changing. If you are interested, a report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) called ‘The Nature of Hell’ outlines the differing opinions in clear and concise language.

Philosophical thoughts about cancer and mortality are frequent speculations. Recently, I looked for studies about what people with incurable cancer thought about hell. My cursory search didn’t turn up much, but I did come across a website for people voicing their thoughts about their diagnosis of terminal cancer. Hell was not a major topic, but one comment written over a year ago was difficult to read and generated a lot of responses from other sufferers. The commenter began with the following, “I have been told that I have 4 months to live and I am so afraid I am going to hell.” The responses were quick, empathic, and supportive. This woman’s heart-wrenching, brutally honest attempt to explain why she was in this frame of mind included her offenses to her family and specifically to her young daughter since her diagnosis. She felt conviction over the mess she had made of her life before diagnosis. But the real source of her anguish was the angry lashing out and jealousy towards healthy family members and friends.

I was moved by two observations. The first observation was the compassion extended by terminally ill responders who were compelled to try to make this woman feel better. Why were these fellow sufferers so compelled to help? Speaking from my own experience, there seems to be enough suffering to the illness as well as the grief of anticipated losses without added dread of future condemnation and alienation. That is unbearable. Like the others I was touched and wanted her to be at peace.

The second observation concerned the content of the responses. They ranged from:

1. On one end, “Forget about it, hell is a human construct that started in the middle ages by the church to secure their control and power over people,” to the other end,

2. A detailed lengthy comprehensive gospel presentation which was actually good if the sufferer could take it all in, to

3. The middle majority, which encouraged the writer to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those she admitted to hurting.

These posts were over a year ago. This woman may not still be alive, and the site did not show her response to the comments her original plea generated. Did she find peace? I hope so. If I had responded a year ago, I like to think I would have written:

“None of us are good enough to meet the holy standard of God. None of us. Thus, God himself in Jesus appeared 2000 years ago with a mission for securing our forgiveness. By simply trusting in his sacrifice by faith we are found perfect and acceptable before a perfect and holy God. Nothing is more liberating for the guilt-ridden. I know this. Then Christ fills our heart with gratitude and out of this grows the humility and courage to trust God to ask forgiveness from those we have offended.”

I hope she took the best of the advice and received the grace through Christ who forgives it all. I can’t imagine that if she sought her family’s forgiveness that she did not receive it from them. If she  did not, well, peace with God trumps all to secure her peace for eternity.
A recently composed hymn, “His Mercy is More,” says it beautifully. It was inspired by a sermon by John Newton, the creator of “Amazing Grace”.

“Our sins are many, but His mercies are more: our sins are great, But His righteousness is greater: we are weak but He is power.”

– John Newton

Guest post from my husband: For Whom the Bell Does Not Toll

Stage 4 cancer patients have another definition for victory

Preamble: I took note of Dona’s post, the Clarity of Ink where she contends that writing forcibly imposes boundaries on thinking and reins in anxious thoughts. So, I began to write about my worries and hopes for my wife who is living so valiantly with Stage 4 cancer. Dona suggested when I was ready I could guest-post on her blog. I’m a bit uncertain making this public. Writing is quite therapeutic, but it is likely only a help to me. Moreover, as I reread this post just before publishing, I realized there is much essential stuff not in it: what it means to trust and pursue God, the necessity of prayer, the hope for miracles, the need for a positive outlook, the understandable disconnection and feeling of helplessness that the lover has for the much loved sufferer. Well, perhaps those are the subject of future posts.

– Dave Eley

The atrium lobby within the Roswell Park Cancer Institute is what all good atriums should be – bright, airy, cavernous (4 stories), full of activity, welcoming – an excellent stab at normalizing the experience of entering an institution with a fearful name. RPCI has the practice of ringing a bell in the atrium each time a patient finishes their treatment regimen. Everyone scuttling through the lobby stops and applauds. The finish of a tough race in the fight against cancer. Victory for a person who has prevailed, with his or her team, over a great challenge.

roswell atruim
Winter concert in the Roswell Park atrium taken while I waited for Dona to finish a CAT scan

By in large, the bell rings for patients that have Stage 1-3 cancers. Dona was Stage 3 in 2014. In the words of Dona’s surgeon, “the horse was still in the barn.” Like others, she enjoyed the huge relief and encouragement that her cancer was quite possibly curable (see Dona’s post, The Bad News Ends Today ). But to survive, she endured a range of harsh treatments. With late-stage non-metastatic cancer, she got the full nine yards: surgery, uncomfortable surgical incision drains, subdermal medication port implant (actually quite a convenience), chemotherapy, hair loss (but she had a half-dozen great wigs), fatigue, infections (one landed her in the ICU), shingles, endless radiation which compromised my health from eating endless donuts while waiting for her in the hospitality suite. Yet, there was always an endpoint; a horizon to labor towards. At some point the bell in the atrium would toll and there would be the ‘victory dance’ of a person who has prevailed, with her team, over a great challenge.

Then there is the group for whom no bell tolls. This is the stage 4 group, or descriptively, people whose cancer has spread to distal organs. The horse is now out of the barn.  We discovered shortly before Christmas 2018 that Dona was now in this group – the ‘new metastatic me’ as she now calls herself.

Although a full array of treatment options can be marshalled to fight the disease, the cancer is not curable.  Simplistically speaking, medically, the treatment is whack-a-mole; like an endless fight against urban insurgency. Battles will be won but these folks must develop a new definition for victory over cancer.

Mission Objectives
Roswell Park’s vision is “to free our world from the fear, pain and loss due to cancer — one act of compassion, one breakthrough discovery, one life-changing therapy at a time — until cancer is gone.”  I love that: big, vivid, energizing, inspiring.  It holistically covers both the process and the objective. But it is the mission and vision of science and human endeavor. It is not complete for the incredible woman who is my wife that is now picking her way through the Stage 4 scree. (See: Nick, the barber, says, “Trust God, then your doctors.


Dona needed a new plan for metastatic cancer
I am a retired military officer. The sailor in me loves well-crafted mission objectives. The man-child in me wants to tamp down anxiety by doing something, ANYTHING.  So, shortly after Dona’s setback we worked together to draw up a plan of 3 parts:

1. Pursue the best possible treatments for the best possible outcomes.

We will stay informed and be our best advocates. But it is a relief that this mission is mostly in the hands of the excellent, caring, encouraging Roswell Park team. There are new therapies today that were not available when Dona was first treated in 2014.  We are grateful.  We are maintaining a positive outlook.

2. Double down on the present. Experience joy where we can find it. 

Ordinary experiences are much more intense now.

Two weeks into a new treatment regimen, Dona developed incredibly painful mouth sores. That, coupled with a low blood cell count and worries about an infection kept her in bed and PJ’s most of the week; working on a blog piece titled, ‘Loneliness.’

Our daughter provided therapy and distraction when she asked me to pick up our two grandsons from school. Dona wanted in. She arrived at school armed with treats. She had purchased two bottles of flavored milk – chocolate and mint green. I told her not to present two different bottles of milk for the kids would argue over one in favor of the other. She said she knew which flavor each preferred. No problem. Once in the car kids began to argue, push and shove over the green milk. I smirked. I love being right. Dona demanded that we immediately return to Wegman’s to exchange the chocolate for another green. Though annoyed, I dutifully pulled into Wegman’s and Dona leaped from the car. The boys and I sat in the car for what seemed like less than a minute before she was back. We were startled at her speed. Each boy now had their own delicious bottle of green mint milk, or what the younger called booger-milk. The older boy, having more academic training, called it, mucous-milk. Much laughter. That was joy for us.
Not always, but sometimes suffering can make the little things, even silliness, seem so much more. At that moment joy was the vivid green of the ‘mucous-milk.’

I love my wife. Strong and courageous, longsuffering without being stoic. Looking for rays from a pale winter sun and finding them.

3. Think deep about eternity.
This, of course, is the endeavor of a lifetime. Much to think about and write here. Tim Keller has the jest it:

“Suffering takes away the loves, joys, and comforts we rely on to give our life meaning. How can we maintain our poise, and even our peace and joy, when that happens? The answer is that we can do that only if we locate our meaning in things that cannot be touched by death.”

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, (Dutton, 2013), p. 36

What then is victory over cancer?

The Apostle Paul writes:

“Then what is written will come true. It says,
“Death has been swallowed up. It has lost the battle.” (Isaiah 25:8)
“Death, where is the victory you thought you had? Death, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14)
The sting of death is sin. And the power of sin is the law. But let us give thanks to God! He gives us the victory because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done.

– I Corinthians 15:54-56

‘Cancer can’t win’ is a frequently used banner for fundraisers. I Googled it. Most of the hits referenced Christian hope in the face of the disease. Many hits reproduced a poem written in the 1970’s by Robert Lynn for a friend. This poem was passed around pre-internet hand-to-hand as the words of an anonymous author and was eventually posted on line by people wanting to comfort friends and family. In the mid-2000’s, Lynn discovered his work had garnered over 160 million hits. It was time for a copyright!

CANCER IS SO LIMITED

Robert L. Lynn

Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it, for the strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells and blood and muscle.

For cancer is so limited—

It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the spirit.
It cannot cancel Resurrection.

Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it, for the strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells and blood and muscle.

© 2007 by Robert L. Lynn
Permission to publish the poem has been requested

 

4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.

Chipmunk Cheeks, redux

Chipmunk Cheeks redux or my most humbling blogging experience

I’ve noticed from viewing my stats on my blog administrator that one of my most viewed posts is “Chipmunk Cheeks”.  I have written over 50-some posts and this one gets the most new hits.

What is so humbling about this? Well, I didn’t write it; someone else did who happened to capture a concept so familiar to many of us that it bore reproducing.  A friend of mine sent me the article after reading a few of my earlier posts that had to do with reactions to my cancer diagnosis. No doubt, she figured from the way I was telling my story that I could use some encouragement. She kindly wanted to share it with me and me in turn with others. Why? Because it was that good.   But those niceties don’t take care of my wounded blogging pride! From now on all my posts will be titled: Chipmunk Cheeks, Part I, Chipmunk Cheeks, Part 2, Chipmunk Cheeks, Part 3, etc… You get the picture.  It will trick folks Googling ‘cute chipmunks’ into reading my insightful posts.

chipmunkApart from the fact that chipmunks are so darn adorable with their puffed-out, nut- bloated cheeks there is a message in this post that is emotionally dead-on for us anxious types. In short this is written for the worriers and the “what if”-ers.  We are folks with incredible imaginations – not particularly creative imaginations unless you count Stephen King as our role model. We are so good at thinking of all the ways things can go wrong – really catastrophically, cosmically wrong. If you are a 6 on the enneagram, like me, then you are fond of justifying the “what if-ing” stuff as the makings of a great troubleshooter. “How can I do my troubleshooting job if I am not fantasizing on all the pitfalls that a trip to Bermuda can entail?,” I say to my husband who just offered to take me on a vacation. (Hurricanes, bringing back bed bugs, killed riding mo-peds on the wrong side of the road.)  When I go off on one of my “but what-if?” jags he likes to say, “Dona, do ever reread any of your blog posts?”  (Read: do you practice what you preach?)  So annoying.  I am a blogger now, and a writer not a reader.


Troubleshooting only works up to a point. After that point, God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.


This is funny up to a point.  The hard core truth is that this habitual way of viewing the big scary world can quickly become faith-numbing insanity. “Dona,” I say to myself, “where is God in all this worry about the future? What are you fretting about? Who do you believe is really in charge?” Me, apparently.  And I can’t know the future and that is driving my control freakishness to a frantic frenzy.  I continue to talk to myself; reminding myself of the Chipmunk Cheeks article.  Gathering all the trouble shooting ammo for all the troublesome future scenarios I can imagine will not enlist God’s grace now for an unknown future.  Grace is operative for me in the present, however it presents itself.  So, dear readers, read the Chipmunk Cheeks post for the first time or reread it.  I am because I need to remind myself of important truths – not just once but many times.  Our brains and our souls are trained by repetition. That is why the Psalms have the frequent refrain of remembering – reminding us who we are and who God is. Troubleshooting only works up to a point. After that point, God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.  And that grace is sufficient to carry us through the day.

 

 

 

 

 

One Journey, Two People: Part 3

My two most recent posts set the stage for a conversation with my husband about his baby boomer angst. Read One Journey, Two People: Part 2 and Part 1 before you judge David’s navel gazing (his words, not mine).

Simply put, he described himself as content a few years back, even to a place where he could “leave this life for the next tomorrow without regret.”  Although far from ready to quit and head for the golf course in his twilight years, a life suddenly interrupted would not be one of ‘I-wish-I-had’s’.  He felt satisfied about his contribution and life’s purpose.  He felt at peace.  An even better description would be shalom; a Hebrew word normally translated as peace but meant to be more – a state where everything is where is should be; a whole and complete existence.  We have all had those fleeting moments when our since of joy or contentment was so complete that we could ‘die this very moment happy.’  To my way of thinking that captures the essence of shalom.

My cancer diagnosis wasn’t the catalyst for Dave’s discontent.  Although often a tremendous strain, providing physical and emotional support to someone you love provides tremendous meaning and purpose.  But he has found himself often flummoxed and pained by not being able to reassure a wife whose fear and angst could be impenetrable at times.  His feeling of inadequacy in being my comforter brought out some deeper stuff.

We both knew that something else was going on.  I agreed to do some research on middle life angst but my findings were not very satisfying to him or me. Previous post explains.

Through this process David has done his own work.  He listed the components of the problem in typical bullet point format.  He felt this angst might be brought on by the following:

  • Loss of influence, insider status or being needed. (This is in part due to his age. Younger people are taking the reins of responsibility and leadership as they should.  Another factor is that at this point in our lives we do not stay in one geographical location long enough to built the connections that can make a difference.)
  • The grand adventure might be over. (Throughout his life David has worked hard to place himself in situations where he could generate stories to tell the grandchrisk-takingildren.  And he does have some great stories that he would love to tell you about.  These opportunities are now mostly in the past.)
  • But still busy. To use a David phrase, “I’m in a rat race in the wrong race.”

David realizes these feelings are not as negative as they might indicate on paper. To his mind, most of the time his world is one of satisfaction and opportunity. He is doing a reasonably good job navigating the transition from the back side of a career peak with its mantle of influence and insider status to one that involves more of a support role. But every so often, and these days more often than he wants, he feels those bullet points as forceful shots across the bow.

Of course, he sees this trap and realizes he must reintegrate himself emotionally into the grand purposes of God.  I say emotionally because he has always put mind and feet to loving God and people.

At this point I have to resist the desire to write something original.  Ego says, “Dazzle David and my readers with my unique insights.”  Common sense says, many wise ones have tread this road before.  If I really want to be helpful then capture their insight.  To quote CS Lewis from Mere Christianity, “Even in literature and art no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will nine times out of ten become original without ever having noticed it.”

So, with that caveat be prepared to hear from a few wise folks who have articulated insights with clarity and spiritual maturity that make sense to David and me.

The Problem:

Tim Keller from his book, “Counterfeit Gods,”

“How can we break our heart’s fixation on doing “some great thing” in order to heal ourselves of our sense of inadequacy in order to give our lives meaning? Only when we see what Jesus, our great suffering servant, has done for us will we finally understand why God’s salvation does not require us to do “some great thing.” We don’t have to do it because Jesus has. Jesus did it all for us and he loves us – that is how we know our existence is justified. When we believe in what he accomplished for us with our minds, and when we are moved by what he did for us in our hearts, it begins to kill off the addiction, the need for success at all costs.

The gospel does not work directly on the emotions or the will. The gospel asks, what is operating in the place of Jesus Christ as your real, functional salvation and Savior? What are you looking to in order to justify yourself? Whatever it is, it is a counterfeit god and to make a change in your life you must identify it and reject it as such.” Tim Keller, page 174 of counterfeit gods.”

The Process

In the book “The Sensation of Being Somebody”, the late Dr. Maurice Wagner, gives a formula for a rock solid self-concept. “God plus me equals a sense of being a somebody.”  He explains that dependence on status, performance and appearance – attributes that many times come out of insecure attachments or over attachments in our childhood – are our default for feeling significant but they end up “biting us in the butt” (Dona’s words).  They are fleeting and unreliable in taking us through life’s challenges and natural aging processes of loss and deficits. They are also dependent on others to justify ourselves as significant. Others, are people like ourselves-imperfect who will eventually die, disappoint or both.

Dr. Wagner gives an explanation for the Trinity that is psychologically unique. From God, the Father we get our sense of belonging as we submit to the Creator of us all; from Jesus Christ we get our sense of acceptance as we embrace the forgiveness he offers and from the Holy Spirit we receive our sense of competence as he leads, teaches, counsels and redirects.  Belonging, Acceptance and Competence are the building blocks of a healthy self-concept and we get them all in relationship with the triune God who is perfect, permanent and predisposed to carry us through all of life’s stages, disappointments and losses into a forever life of ultimate significance and wonder.

So, how do we absorb the above in a tangible way that makes for the closeness with God that we are longing for?  We (David and me) need help to move from intellectual assent and understanding to a heartfelt sense of what truly validates us and makes us feel known and loved by God. Tim Keller tells us what the problem is and what needs to be believed and understood. The late Dr. Wagner tells us the anatomy of true self-worth and significance as found in the trinity.  But, there is another leg to this three legged stool which still needs to be addressed. Part 4 of “One Journey, Two People” is coming next as David and I need to further digest a book by Dr. Curt Thompson called, Anatomy of the Soul.

Living the New Normal

I finished cancer treatment over two weeks ago and have returned to my home in Juneau, Alaska.

I left Alaska in January of this year with a vision of myself as a healthy woman with exciting plans of seeing family and friends on the east coast and then a two month ministry in the Middle East; a routine that has gone uninterrupted for the last 8 years.  On February 26th those plans were profoundly interrupted with a sudden diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer. For those of you who have walked this path or cared for someone who has, you know the common expressions: “Everything changed in a moment’s time.  The rug was suddenly pulled out from under me.  I went from living a life to surviving for a life, and etc…”

David, who likes the country western star Alan Jackson, shared the lyrics from the song Jackson wrote and recorded for Denise, his wife of 33 years, after she had completed her cancer treatment:

Ain’t it funny how one minute your whole life’s looking fine

And a short few words later it all just comes untied?

You can’t believe you’re looking at what was always someone else,

Now it’s staring right there at you, yesterday you couldn’t tell. (1) 

Once the shock was processed then came the emotions: some sadness, some anxiety and some frustration, guilt and worry.

Then the anger starts to surface, lookin’ up, askin’ why

Then you realize He (God) probably wants the best the same as I.

But there were two other emotions that couldn’t be laid to rest.  They would show up in unexpected ways and times.  Gratefulness and humbleness were two friends that would visit uninvited so I began looking for them in unexpected places and, seeing them often, would greet them by name.  Calling a thing by its name whether that thing is a person or abstraction carries its own blessing and power.  Why are we embarrassed when we can’t Grateful humble_revremember someone’s name when we see that person?  It’s because we intuitively know that saying the name out loud will validate that person as significant and valuable in relation to us. “Oh wow, you remembered my name!” Of course I did because you made an impression on me and I gave you enough care and consideration to file your name away.  Unspoken thoughts perhaps, but none the less operating to create meaningful relationship.  Well, it happens much the same way with abstractions.  You name an abstraction in relationship to yourself enough times you will begin to feel its connection and power in your life: love, kindness, endurance, thankfulness, to name a few. The New Testament has a list and refers to them as the fruits of the Spirit.  (Galatians 5: 22-23, Colossians 3:2-17)  If you have read even a few of my previous blog posts you will see these two not-so-now-abstract feelings pop up a lot.

More Alan Jackson:

And the seconds turn to minutes, and minutes wouldn’t last

And the hours, days, and weeks and months, seem endless and too fast

And the blessin’s poured from Heaven, like the rain on that first spring.

But now, there is a new challenge in my life.

The treatment protocol for my particular cancer is complete.  Now there are new thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  I’m learning to live “the new normal.”  I like to compare this state with how I felt when I had my first baby.  Lots of attention from medical staff during pregnancy, delivery, birth and the few days in hospital and then, “voila”, the release into the world with my new human responsibility to figure out how to do this thing of living with baby without the hand holding.

Now, I don’t want to overdo this analogy because in reality there is support after birth and there is support after cancer treatment.  After all, there are the checkups and the knowledge that if anything goes haywire I can pick up the phone and say, “help,” and I will get it.[2]

But since being home I have experienced some trepidation of my future health possibilities, some crankiness and anxiousness reserved for the person who deserves it the least.  (You husbands out there will be happy to know that he doesn’t take it lying down.  He emailed me one of my own past blog posts the other day as a reminder of, hmm… I am not sure but I think it was a clever way to say, “Hey, be nice” or “be true to your blog post”.  Fair enough.)   Now, all of the above reactions are not uncommon for cancer patients and survivors.  There are plenty of studies out there to point to an handholding revincrease of depression in cancer patients after treatment so it does not surprise me that I may be having a few ups and downs since being done with treatment and realizing my cancer care providers are a couple thousand miles away. But, I am now having to learn to live this “new normal” and start fine tuning my radar for gratefulness and humbleness in many different places and circumstances and when finding it, start naming it.  I need these and other “fruits of the spirit” to wash over, overwhelm and subdue the fearful musings and emotions about an unknown future.   The hand holding treatment days may have come to an end for now but the Spirit didn’t go away.  The Holy Spirit is with me reminding me that there is a boatload of gratefulness to be named out loud.

So, I’m going hunting in new territory and I won’t be alone.

 

(1) ‘When I Saw You Leaving’

Writer: Alan Jackson
Copyright: Tri-angels Music, Emi April Music Inc

[2] Help for those of us of the middle class, that is.  It should be like that for everyone but sadly we know it isn’t. And that is not because no one is willing to help. In many places there are those willing to lend a hand.  The problem many times is that the marginalized have a lack of confidence and trust in the system to get what is needed. But then again there are many places in this world where those willing to help are few and far apart. This is all grist for future postings.

 

Forgetting Cancer

For 6 months my invasive breast cancer was always before me. First, there was the diagnosis and the anxiety of waiting for various test results.  Then there was the mastectomy with the pain of the surgery and the discomfort of the lymph node drains.  Four months of chemo beset me with nausea, fatigue, and a compromised autoimmune system that at one point landed me in the hospital for three days.

Grim Realities Helped Me Forget Cancer

But when chemo was over I got a 3-week reprieve before radiation therapy. I was feeling pretty well; almost normal aside from the fact that I was missing a breast and had to decide each day which wig or scarf to wear to cover my hairless palette.  So I used the break to visit elderly parents in another state. David, my husband, had to return to Alaska for over a week to keep his business going so I was on my own as I scrambled frantically to “fix” my parents’ needs before I left to go back to Buffalo for radiation.    A combination of guilt, sadness and frustration with my limitations in fixing their limitations would begin the process of cancer-forgetfulness.

My parents, being house bound, watch a lot of TV……CNN, Dr. Phil, Judge Judy.   I normally keep up with news through radio and the web.  I was not used to seeing the CNN images of conflict, terror and extreme hardship from around the world.  As I tried to process the suffering of the Gaza and Israeli conflict, the ISIS reign of terror, and Ebola crisis in West Africa I was unconsciously strengthening the process of cancer-forgetfulness.  Even watching Dr. Phil and Judge Judy every weekday with my folks provided distractions from my current health despite of my temptation to be critical of media exploitation of these human messes.

Now all this might sound a bit grim.  There I was dealing with cancer treatment yet distracting myself with morbidity and tragedy. But I could not allow my situation to keep my head in the sand about the tremendous suffering happening in this world.  If I did I was at risk.  My situation with its potential for corrosive self-absorption would end up robbing me of empathy for others. Now, I am not speaking to those who suffer severe pain or those in late stages of a terminal illness.   Nor am I writing about those in the midst of anguished grief for the recent loss of a loved one. What I am addressing is the threat of self-absorption that can come from dealing with a serious health challenge, robbing of an identity other than the illness, itself.

Taking time to think helped me to forget cancer

There was  something else that was going on that aided my cancer-forgetfulness for those weeks; something upbeat and something I will need to continue whether I am  busy with obligations or not.  I took time to think in the midst of parent care.  Each morning before I hit the ground running I would find a quiet place in the home of my gracious hosts to read, pray, write and think. My thoughts were being reoriented to life’s meaning and purpose. The essential Christian doctrines of faith I held had to be thought through deeply if I was going to find the peace I was looking for.  God, Jesus, sin, human nature, salvation, the world and God’s plan for the world, hope, faith, love, and service to others were the grist for the mill of my soul’s peace. It always came down to, “Do I really believe what I believe?” and if so, “What’s the big sweat?”  God is in control and I can trust Him.   And eventually gratitude found its way into my thinking as I thought of family and friends that spanned the world who were not just blessing my life but blessing the lives of so many others.

(Tim Keller talks about this in his book, “Walking with God in Pain and Suffering”).

Being in awe of the sacrificial service of others helped me forget cancer

AsIDP CHILDREN IN NARUS_cropped I spent time thinking something else happened. I would read or hear stories about people who were doing extraordinary acts of service because of their compulsion to serve Christ.  Some of these people I knew through my Juneau church’s partnership with ministries abroad.   Pastor Saphano, the Sudanese pastor of a poor struggling church in southern Sudan, who manages to house and feed over 250 orphans and refugee children from the civil war.   Hannah who currently pastors a church in Amman, Jordan for Syrian and Iraqi refugees but once was the pastor of the Baptist church in Gaza.  He continues his ministry in Gaza (see an interview with Hanna here) by providing aid to hundreds of Gazans as well as most recently opening his home in Gaza to 100 frightened refugees of the Israeli/Hamas conflict.  David and I have stayed in that home and it is hard to imagine 100 people staying there. There are thousands of people like them who are servicing in lands of great conflict and suffering with sacrifice and love.  When I take the time to reflect on such things I begin to forget cancer.

Thinking more, not less, helped me forget cancer

I read or heard once that perhaps God commanded a day of rest (Sabbath) in the Ten Commandments because he knew that if humans were left to themselves they would never stop in their frenetic work to eke out an existence in order to think through the big questions of life. Taking time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life will bring many back around to Him with a growing awareness of how life is meant to be understood and experienced.  This reflection cannot always be done perfectly, that is for sure, but nonetheless, this type of reflection builds an appreciation that this life is not all there is.  It is a reminder of the promise that He is with us through the tough and good stuff whether we feel it or not.

I am back in Buffalo now.  I’ll be reminded of my cancer every week day morning for the next 6 ½ weeks of radiation therapy.  But I can still practice the discipline of thinking about the big picture; making sure I find the time to remember who God is and who I am supposed to be with cancer or without.

 

 

 

 

The Rumble of Panic beneath Everything

Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch
Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch

The counselor in me has always had a vulnerable side when the professional hat is not worn.

I’ve been an interested and emphatic listener of others’ stories since my twenties when the Jesus story first made its impact (coincidentally or consequentially, I’m not sure).  But I’ve not always been able to be a dispassionate empathetic listener. This vulnerability presents itself when I move from empathy to over-identification. The self-centered and self-protective side of my psyche hijacks the genuinely compassionate side and the fearfulness of “this sounds too close to home and could happen to me or a loved one” takes over and I am sorry I ever listened to that person’s story. I don’t know why but this does not happen when I am “clinical Dona” which is a good thing or I would have been admitted to a psych ward after my first year of practice.

I just spent three days in the hospital after getting an acute infection driven bya low white blood cell count due to chemotherapy.  I spent 24 hours in the ICU and two and a half days on a regular floor. In both situations I was in better health than the patients around me and because of this I had conversations with worried and distressed family members that I would meet in the hall or waiting room. I heard stories of protracted and acute suffering and misery in a very short period of time. The empathetic listener had not turned off while I was hospitalized.text for rumble_rev

But there were times during my hospital stay that I wanted it to turn off; like when the descriptions of misery were too raw and graphic. At that point cancer would interrupt the counselor – butt her out with one quick unexpected slam – reminding her that there could be much more misery in store down the road of cancer treatment.  So, after a while compassionate listening would give way to cowardly recoiling and shutdown. I would walk back to my room with more Dona-sadness than with Jack-sadness or Terri-sadness.  Not pretty or admirable.  Thankfully this overly anxious display of self-pity did not last long and did not keep me from praying for these folks and their distressed families.

My guess is that most of you readers are not going to be too hard on me.  In most of us there is that nagging feeling and suppressed thought that suffering and loss are not that far from any of us regardless of the many precautions we take to stay them off. They blindside even the most cautious and genetically hearty of us.

In the introduction of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller quotes Ernest Becker:

 “I think that taking life seriously means something like this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation…… of the rumble of panic underneath everything.  Otherwise it is false.”

So how are we to live with peace, purpose, joy, love, and hope in light of this rumble of panic?  How are we to recognize a caring, loving God who is for us when at any time the shoe can drop or has already dropped?  I am a novice in this world of suffering but let me offer a couple of thoughts.

David my husband says that in times of crisis we are what we have been trained to be. My experience in watching others who have walked various kinds and degrees of suffering, ranging from tragic losses to debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses, is that getting through it required leaning on spiritual resources previously learned or acquired.  I am not going to be so presumptuous as to imply that only those who rely on spiritual resources weather their tragedies well.  I have read or heard  inspiring stories of people who have weathered great hardship without apparently leaning on God.

But my experience in working in the US and the Middle East as well as meeting people from all over the world is that when push comes to shove it is spiritual resources that provide comfort and strength in times of critical helplessness; not perfectly or always heroically, but nonetheless “a leaning on” that brings comfort.  I heard similar disclosures last week in the hospital’s halls and waiting rooms.

So, what are these spiritual resources that I hear about from the sufferer?

  • Praying
  • Complaining to a God who is both there and not too thin skinned to take it.
  • Drawing on scripture for comfort
  •  Developing a Biblical awareness of the myriad of sufferings addressed in the biblical text with its various antidotes.
  • Receiving the practical and sacrificial helps and prayers of the church and friends that show the compassionate face of Christ, and finally,
  • Acknowledging that something supernatural is at work; ideally, a healing but certainly a feeling of the Holy Spirit’s presence. THEY ARE NOT ALONE.

I, too, have been relying on the above resources; not perfectly or even consistently . In a previous post called, Chipmunk Cheeks, I mentioned the futility of expecting God to give me the grace for my grim or fearful imaginings. He has not promised to do that. He has promised to be with me in the present and give grace for that present. If I lay hold of that truth once again I will be able to be fully present with those who tell me their woeful stories of pain and grief.  Only then can I be numbered as one of the spiritual resources on which they can rely. “Oh God let it be true about me.”