Last week a well-meaning woman I didn’t know overheard me tell our yoga instructor that I wouldn’t be able to come to class for two months due to upcoming surgery. She was stricken, ashen, and continued the conversation as we walked out of the exercise room. She assured me, “Everything will be fine. Everything will be good.” Really?
Granted, she was trying to reassure me and likely herself that surgery is usually survived. Even open heart surgery is not likely to kill unless the patient is frail or infection sets in. Telling someone something you can’t know for sure is a false assurance, and downplaying the gravity of the situation is not helpful. Neither was my yoga teacher’s reaction, “Oh, now you’re scaring me. But I shouldn’t be making you more nervous, should I?”
We like to think we’re in control, that with exercise and hard work we will live long lives without diminution of strength and vitality. We like to believe the title of the book, “Younger Next Year” and hope we can reverse the aging process on some scale. When someone comes at you with news of a life-threatening illness or major medical challenge such thinking loses potency like an expired bottle of Advil.
It’s the tough news that forces us to face our mortality and that’s a mirror we’d rather avoid. How much better to focus on the people still alive from the 1800’s, and to think our ancestors who were octogenarians ensure good genes and good fortune for us. How much better to look at medical advancements and focus on the hope that the early killers from the last century can be mitigated or eradicated.
When we hear that someone’s mortal body is failing and needs repair, our sense of control is challenged. It’d be great if we had a 100,000 mile or 10 year powertrain warranty and could trade in our bodies when rust corrodes, the struts sag, and the tires are nearly bald. But we don’t get to trade in this body until Christ returns and we get the only-seen-once resurrection version of flesh and bone.
Christians like to use Scripture to sidestep the hard edges of physical suffering. Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11 top the list of appropriate consolations. No, it’s not wrong to quote them, and I don’t mean to deny the truth that God does have a purpose. But when doled out like an enema they don’t allow the person facing surgery or chemo or radiation to feel their distress and acknowledge their humanity.
We’d rather sweep the prospect of suffering under the rug and reassure ourselves this won’t happen to us. We want the person to put on a smile and prove that trusting God will make everyday a sunny one. We’d rather keep up the illogical belief that nothing can get us down when Jesus is our shepherd. We don’t want people to tell us about their fear and anxiety because we don’t want to go there ourselves. But those who’ve walked the way of suffering will explain that only when the fear and anxiety are felt, welcomed, and acknowledged can they be placed in God’s loving hands and released.
When someone shares their hard news, let’s sit with them like Job’s friends before they started blabbering. In distress and nervousness the platitudes will come to mind like honeybees to a yellow T-shirt, but they can sting as well as make honey. When you’re the one sharing the hard news, listen below the words and hear the speaker’s distress. Not easy when you’re shouldering your own, but they’re carrying a burden, too. Maybe someone recently passed away or a friend didn’t fare well with the same illness or they have a terrible fear of death and pain. Maybe they’ve “gone limbic” as a counselor friend would say and are responding out of their hurt rather than easing yours.
Together we can acknowledge we live in frail bodies that are marvelous and wonderful creations even in the throes of inevitable decay. Together we can acknowledge our mortality and dispensability as we acknowledge our uniqueness and desire to life. Together we can cry through the tough news and celebrate each moment. Together we can face the pain rather than evade it and still grab hold of hope.