Why do I feel ashamed?

“If you have your health you have everything.”

I have heard this refrain many times in my life, especially from Italian American relatives. Maybe it is an Italian American sentiment, but I suspect many people feel this way. How else can we explain a culture that is consumed with living better, longer, and more independently. Is not living with vim and vigor a prized and admired achievement? Are not many of us willing to put commitment, time and money into achieving our health goals through exercise, better nutritional choices, active recreational activities (baking, bowling and backgammon not qualifying), as well as keeping up with all recommended preventive health measures?

Good health is no doubt a great blessing, but it is also become a badge of honor to proudly display. “God bless you” is an expression that I find myself using when I meet old people who want to brag on their longevity and good health. This is odd. It makes more sense to pronounce God’s blessing on folks who sneeze. They might need a blessing to ward off sickness. Longevity with vibrant healthy living is certainly a gift from God but it is not a reward!

So how does this relate to cancer and shame?

Many cancer patients and those suffering from chronic illness struggle with a sense of stigma, guilt, or shame. Why should this be? Since diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer in 2014 and now dealing with metastatic cancer since December 2018, I had come to understand this feeling.

Two weeks ago I did not get a good scan report. I had been feeling relatively good, not vim-and-vigor good, but good enough to be positive as I waited for the report’s findings. My husband and I were therefore blindsided by the news (some liver tumor progression). The FNP was kindly trying to comfort me before the oncologist came in to discuss a new treatment option but I just wanted her to leave so I could comfort David, knowing he was distressed by the news.

“David I’m so sorry for you,” was, oddly, the first thing I said to him.

He kindly responded, “You shouldn’t feel sorry for me. I feel so badly for you.”

What was my apology about? After some self-examination I realized that I irrationally believed I had let him down and was the cause of his angst and worry. I also was reluctant to tell friends who were praying for me. Again, I felt like I was letting others down; that somehow, I did this to myself or that I was defected and not able to do my part in this battle against cancer. But worst of all I was dealing with the erroneous belief that God did not want to bless me in a way we were all hoping for because I was somehow unfit. I felt ashamed.

With the media applauding the strong and energetic

Shame and Shaming

Shame, according to Webster, is a ‘painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.’ It is an intensely difficult emotion. ‘Shaming’ is also a noun and is the act of subjecting someone to shame. And there is plenty of shaming in children’s and adults’ lives. Shaming arises from what we esteem in our culture: media-good looks, fit bodies, youth, material acquisitions, achievements, and correct opinions.

Yes, shaming is ubiquitous in parenting, marriages, health visits, social media, teaching, and among kids on playgrounds, middle and high schools.

In his early twenties, my husband taught science in a junior high school in North Carolina. Junior high is ground zero for shaming. No one is exempt. David humorously recalls one day when a student became upset with him.

“You are nothing but a big-nosed, baby teacher!” she shouted, storming out of his classroom.

That evening, David looked in a mirror, carefully examining his face.

“Darn, she is right! I do have a big nose.”

Dave and Dona debutant 1977 edited
Me with ‘big-nose, baby teacher’ in 1977. Story and photo used with complete permission from my husband.  Yikes! On closer inspection, my nose could use a tweak (vanity, vanity!)

David is forever grateful this shaming occurred when he was 22 and not 12; allowing him enough maturity to process the revelation (kinda). But he admits that from that fateful day he has been forever conscious of his proboscis.

Personally, I like his nose. I was a bit bothered by the label, ‘baby-teacher.’ What was that about?

Getting back to cancer

I know that cancers start because of a mistake in copying DNA when normal cells are dividing and growing. Mainly, these mistakes just happen by chance. I remind myself of this over and over. And yet, doubt creeps in.

We have heard it said and perhaps said it ourselves, “He was diagnosed with cancer, but he was a smoker. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she was not doing breast exams on herself (that was me), or she ate a ton of junk food.”  I could go on with the ‘buts’ and ‘victim shaming’.  Fear and shame are intermingled with cancer.  Without necessarily meaning to, we feel subtly critical of those stricken with cancer and comfort ourselves against the fear of cancer by looking at our wellness as doing it right.  Then a cell mutates during replication and somehow finds a way to continue to replicate……..and we feel the sting of shame.

The shaming of Christ

“If you have your health you have everything” is shortsighted. We can have our health, live wonderfully well until 105 and not have everything. Everything includes the eternity we are destined for. 105 or 1005 years old is paltry in comparison. Our bodies and/or minds will someday fail us so now is the time to take stock of the purpose of human life as God-imagers, drawing our self esteem and  identity from being beloved children of God.   And most of all we are to take comfort and relief from trusting in the Christ who not only died for sins but also for our shame regardless of what cancer or culture tells us or what we tell ourselves because of shame from things we have done.

In fact, Jesus endured shaming himself.

Hebrews 12:2

We fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

To quote John Piper:

“Shame was stripping away every earthly support that Jesus had: his friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture. His glorious dignity gave way to the utterly undignified, degrading reflexes of grunting and groaning and screeching.”

And so, I work to move on, praying Psalm 25:1-3b:

In you, LORD my God, I put my trust. I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies (my self-image, the stigma of cancer, American perfectionism, Satan the accuser, or any worldly thing!) triumph over me. No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.

Name Your Tumor

Being known by name is significant and a comfort in the midst of difficulty.

Naming tumors is a real thing. And I don’t mean naming the specific type of cancer. No, these are pet names. Arnold, Terminator 1, Terminator 2, and disliked politicians are common tags assigned by cancer patients. Most people report that naming their tumor is an empowering exercise allowing them to wrestle back a little control from a bully.

Unfortunately for me, I would need a baby naming book in order to find names for all the little tumors that are floating around. Fortunately, I’m not attracted to the name-your-tumor game but I’m not judging those who are. Whatever helps cancer patients not feel so helpless is probably a good thing.

But I’m intrigued by the need to name a thing or person.  Assigning names, being referred to by names, labeling objects by names, Hello_my_name_is_sticker.svgand finding meaning in names fosters connection and intimacy to each other, our environment, and, apparently, our diseases. The importance of naming is found in both Testaments. Being named, having a name carries spiritual significance. God revealed his name to Moses.  Jesus was named Immanuel, ‘God with us.”  Both Peter and Paul were renamed by Jesus.

When I was first married, I complained to my husband that I wanted to hear my name spoken by him more often. Hearing my name by my beloved made me feel special to him and more connected. It capped off the special relationship we shared. No doubt he was initially perplexed by this marital complaint but happy to accommodate.

The following verses in the gospel of John at Christ’s resurrection are exceedingly meaningful and tender to me (emphasis mine):

John 20:15-16
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means ‘Teacher’).

Imagine her relief, her love, her comfort to hear her name spoken by the Lord at such a time.  It’s an image that carries me through this harrowing medical ordeal. Imagining the Lord of the universe saying,

Dona, I’m here with you.”
Dona, I’ve got this, don’t be afraid.”
Dona, you will be with me forever.”

I don’t feel a need to name a tumor or tumors to feel more empowered or in control. He knows and calls me by my name. That is enough. That is everything.

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.

Intimate News

I made an unusual request of my oncology team. I told them that when I returned the following week to hear the results of the radiologist report and the status of cancer progression, I wanted them to tell David first. I would be in the waiting room to hear from him. He Patient to doctorwould sit with me and go over the results.  We might pray together, then we would go the clinic room together to have the results further explained by the team and have our questions answered.

Weird, cowardly, childish, weak, faithless, avoidant, dramatic, insensitive to my husband by putting him in this position? All those descriptors passed through my mind as the day approached. On the actual day, I decided to forget the elaborate scheme and face up to the news without preamble. But my husband gave me a word picture that took away the shame.

“Dona, you are going to have to eat the whole sandwich (the radiologist’s report) at some point but how you want it presented – open-faced, garnished, toasted – is completely up to you. You’re the one going through this. Do it the way that makes it most tolerable.”

And my team completely understood, or at least acted like they did.  As my lead doctor said,

“Dona is the one with cancer, not me.  We do it her way.”

Intimacy

So, what was going on, aside from fear? It is intimacy and trust – intimate knowledge coming through my most trusted person. I wanted news from the person whose life would be most affected by this personal and significant information and from the person who knows me better and loves me more than any other.

An example from a long-ago happy event:
Who was the first person I told when i discovered I was pregnant? Life changing information that only made sense to share with the person most invested in our lives together. And whose lives would change dramatically as a result? Mine and his.
Again, intimate personal information shared within the most intimate of relationships. It’s really (in my mind) not so different from news about a disease notorious for causing pain, disability and death. I wanted to hear it from my husband no matter what it was.
But fortunately, intimacy doesn’t stop there.

Intimacy with God

David’s intimate relationship with God was ultimately what I was counting on in anticipation of hearing news related to my survival. If the scan and test results were disappointing, then I trusted David to tell me the facts along with the crucial caveats and realistic encouragements that would calm my fears and reorient me once again to the hope I profess in Jesus in all and every circumstance of life. I imagined praying together in those moments – intimacy with God would always and forever be at the heart of my life’s purpose and hope, even in life’s major disappointments.

The obvious

What if there was no husband or one that was willing to participate in my plan? Or what if there wasn’t a substitute like a trusted pastor or friend who could lead me to “the shepherd of my soul”?  Would I have fallen apart? Fallen into a pit of despair of which I couldn’t climb out?

I don’t imagine so. And here’s why:  Betsy Ten Boom who died at Ravensbrück for her participation in hiding Dutch Jews during WW2 said,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

I cling to that with gratitude.

Thankful Postscript
My test results were encouraging: “Skeletal cancer stable, metastatic liver disease showed marked improvement.”

Of course, this begs the question, would I write this same post if the news was not good? I hope so, I pray so. Again,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”


 





 

 

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

 

The Man ‘With Nobody’ but Cancer

“At least you have somebody,” said the man leaving the cancer consultation room.

waitingWe were waiting our turn. This was one of several high anxiety medical appointments. We would be told the extent of the metastasis. Our daughter had offered to come with us and we gratefully accepted. To tap down the tension she was telling us the most recent knucklehead antic of one of our grandsons. We were laughing.

Shamefully, I didn’t notice the gentleman until those arresting words broke through the self-absorption and family comradery. I was speechless, literally. I said nothing to him. He walked by without receiving any personal acknowledgement. My husband and daughter felt it too; guilt for not offering some encouragement. David later told me that he thought of chasing the man down and saying something. But what was there to say?

“Sorry, man, that you don’t have a family or friend to be with you in a time like this?”

It was all so awkward, but my guilt was slightly assuaged by the justification that I was caught by surprise. But why surprised? Perhaps it was the surprise of a man’s spontaneous vulnerability to complete strangers. Or maybe it was the surprise of being shaken out of my consuming suffering to realize that I was part of a suffering humanity – no more or less special than anyone else; certainly not in the eyes of God.

Suffering is suffering for several reasons but one of its most devastating attributes is loneliness. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me;” the memorialized words of our Savior God who too experienced the human condition of loneliness as he hung on the cross suffering an agonized death of pain, shame and abandonment.

loneliness-quote-by-mother-teresaHardly shocking are the numerous studies showing loneliness as adverse to physical health. More than depression or anxiety, loneliness predicts a lower mortality rate. People live longer who don’t report chronic feelings of loneliness. Consider the Roseto Effect; a 50-year study of the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community of Italian immigrants who lived sedentary lifestyles, were overweight, had high alcohol consumption, smoked stogies (whatever those are) and were exposed to toxic particles through their work at the quarries. Bottom line: they lived way longer than the average person in the US during the 1950’s. Being a descendent of Italian immigrants I was happily prepared to read that it was genetics that brought their good fortune of longevity. However, family members of the Roseto residents who lived in neighboring towns were not beneficiaries of the same great health. So, what was it? As it turned out no one in Roseto owned a TV and nightly group dinners were a common occurrence. Researchers, after controlling for about everything, concluded that these folks were dodging the bullets of loneliness’s bad health effects because they did use technology to entertain themselves in isolation. They just had each other and consequently lived longer for it.

Loneliness is awful on many levels. And just to be clear I’m talking about a distressful emotional condition; people that feel lonely, not people who live alone. Background: I was the only child of a career military father and a working mom. Loneliness was the constant background noise of my existence, but I compensated by developing people skills. Actually, I perfected very sophisticated kid skills. “Hey, you want to play with me at my house? My mom has candy in big dishes all through the house. (She really did. I didn’t care about candy, but I knew greedy, candy-starved children did.)

I told myself that I would never marry anyone in the military service, thus putting my kids through the never-establishing-roots-anywhere-lonely-existence that I had. But falling in love breaks a lot of promises made to one’s self.

I’m grateful for family and close friends. And I’m grateful for each of my adopted church families. Over the decades as an adult I have lived in ten communities spread over 11 time zones. In each I have enjoyed and loved the commitment each little band of Jesus followers had for me and me to them before I had to geographically move on.

“Family” is one of the most used metaphors in the New Testament for describing the church; a perk that has never been missed on this only child as she traipsed around the world. As David, my daughter and I sat waiting to learn the extent of my metastasis my adopted family sat in the wings, praying for us, bringing food, visiting, comforting, and laughing with us as appropriate.

I hope, I pray that the gentleman ‘with nobody’ but cancer will find his family. I pray that an adopted family, a church, will find him. It is our scared responsibility, as the church, to love our neighbor as we want to be loved. This challenges me, within my own little church, to make sure when someone is facing a health crisis to ask,

“Who is going with you to your appointment? How about me?”

“At least you will have somebody.”

The Horse is Out of the Barn

Shucks, the horse just got out of the barn…..

On March 15, 2014horse-leaving-barn, I posted a blog titled, “Fear of Dying.” It described my anxiety while undergoing a CT scan to determine whether my breast cancer had metastasized. It had not. My worst fear was not realized. The “horse was still in the barn,” to use my surgeon’s phrase.

 

That was then, this is now. Shortly before Christmas 2018 we discovered that the breast cancer of 2014 had metastasized to bone and liver. This begins a new journey. The horse is out of the barn, cannot be returned (it is not curable), but can be chased around the pasture (it is treatable). I have been started on a promising new drug that was not available in 2014. My doctors are encouraging me, I’m feeling God’s peace. That does not mean I don’t have a fear of death or more accurately a fear of dying. But I’m learned that my worst fear, then or now, is not metastatic cancer. I’m learning what I only got a glimpse of in March 2014, that my worst fear – to be abandoned by God – can never be realized.

Here is an insert from that post almost 5 years ago; a time when the horse was still in the barn. It holds true today with that darn horse out of the barn.

“I can’t say with confidence that the fear of dying will never find its way back to me again or that the way out of it will be to always quote scripture but there is a scripture verse I am taking to the bank of heaven. It’s a verse that doesn’t depend on me to muster up a no-fear-of-dying feeling in order for it to be operative.”

In Romans 8 verses 37-39 of the New Testament the Apostle Paul writes,

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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.

Images and Infusions pointing to spiritual truths

An Image of hope in crisis:

My story:  Half way through chemotherapy I found myself in an acute medical state that would require a rapid response team in the hospital to revive me and three days in the hospital to stabilize me.  Monitoring and intravenous products were needed: antibiotics, hydrating fluids and 3 units of whole blood.

My husband’s story:  “When I brought you into the hospital because of a shocking 104 degree temperature, you were conscious, lucid and chatty.  But while the intake nurse took your vitals you suddenly became unresponsive.  The rapid response team was paged over the hospital PA and within a minute a seeming chaos of a dozen or more people gathered around you.  It was like one of those ER movie scenes where the door closes in the face of the panicked family member who is left in the lobby alone and fearing the worst.  Within those lonely powerless moments, I had a God given image: Christ was in the corner of the room with His arm stretched out over you and all those attending to you.  It was reassuring.”

“Lo, I am always with you even to the ends of the age.”  Matthew 28:20b

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Hebrews 13:5b

“Even if it were possible a mother could forget her nursing child, I will never forget you.”    Isaiah 49:15b

An image of restoration:

Back to my story:  Later in the hospital room as I looked up at the IV pole with a unit bag of blood hooked in its place I thought of all the people who gave their blood for future needy unknown recipients. I was grateful.  Much later, I realized that the blessing of my medical emergency was those 3 units of whole blood.  I had not realized how bad I felt during the past two months of chemo.  That whole blood was a ‘miracle’ of rejuvenation.  I could now face the remaining two months of infusions.  And predictable to someone who thinks “Christian-ly”, my thoughts went to the One who gave His blood that we might have life. The New Testament makes it clear that like a blood donor, Christ’s blood was willingly given for life. In some transcendent and mysterious way that death and giving of blood was meant to secure forgiveness, life and hope.   Christ’s ‘blood shed for me’ was always a reality but it was not quite the obscure reality it once was for the ‘new fortified’ (3 units worth) Dona.

David needed an image for comfort in crisis; I got an image for restoration.  They both were God-given, but our knowledge of the promises of God in scripture provided the brush strokes for these pictures.

It’s not always a crisis that proves the reality of God’s love and presence.  But often an intense emotional experience can give us biblical insight into a reality that is bigger than ourselves.  Cosmic truths reach deep into our personal stories and transform them.

What about you?   Could you go back and revisit a crisis or ‘intense period’ in your life?  What biblical metaphor, image or teaching does the crisis highlight that makes the God of the universe relevant to your finite human dilemma?  And, if appropriate, could you share it in the comment section of this post?

Next week’s post will be someone else’s article, an excerpt from J.Todd Billings’ forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, copied with permission).  His cancer story will challenge us with the truth of God’s “engrafting.”  It is a seriously moving and insightful story.