“Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.”
Yesterday I discussed with my doctor changing the frequency of one of my medications. This involved charting my reactions to the drug, a discussion with the doctor, who telephoned the specialist after appointment. Later in the day, the doctor rang me back with the conclusions of his discussion with the specialist. I had to explain all this to my wife when she came home from work. Today, I must collect a new prescription from the doctor’s surgery and take it to the pharmacist and discuss it with him.
Chronic illness is like that. It is so easy for the illness to become that the main preoccupation of my thinking, and relations with others.
The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel writes, “Thus there is a risk that illness will make of me that deformed creature, a catalogued and professionalised invalid, who thinks of himself as such and contracts in all respects, the habitus of illness. … In so far as I hope, I detach myself from this inner determinism.”
Living well with chronic illness requires making a fundamental choice about who I am. I can choose to be a person with chronic pain, a sick person, a “catalogued and professionalised invalid.” Alternatively, I can choose to be a full human being, not defined by my illness, or any other single characteristic, but seeking a balanced and rich life.
This choice must be made every day. I learn how to live well with my illness from my experience as a Christian disciple. The framework of my life includes the habit of Morning Prayer. Every morning I need to be reminded that “new every morning is the love” whose energy permeates my life. Every morning, I need to be reminded to choose God, to choose life rather than death, to choose to walk a creative path rather than to crawl in sin.
Every morning, I make the choice anew to live in the moment. How destructive it is to dwell in the past, or to worry in the future. “Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.” (Marcel again.)
This way of life is both practical and profoundly spiritual because it is both a more enjoyable and more integrated way for the mind/body/spirit to live.
The second century theologian Irenaeus saw the vision of the glory of God as people really alive (Gloria Dei vivens homo). Living with chronic pain need not reflect a disappointment with the Creator, making a mess of his creation. Living with chronic pain, when the creative path of living fully in the present moment is chosen, can truly glorify God.
“Let yourself go.” In the boys’ school where I worked, I was often part of the team that took groups of boys out into the bush on camps. One of the favourite activities was abseiling. We would find a suitable cliff in the bush, perhaps 10 metres high. The instructor would go to the top of the cliff with the boys. The other staff member and I stayed at the bottom ready to belay the abseilers as they came over the top.
This was a moment of great terror for the new boys. We would hear the instructor telling the lad how to put on his safety ropes and clamps. We would hear him coaxing the boy to walk backwards, “Just keep walking backwards. You can keep walking backwards over the cliff. Don’t worry, the ropes will hold you!” Then just as we could see the person beginning to overhang, we would hear the instructor, “Now just let yourself go!”
There is a moment of free-fall just as you overbalance the cliff and before the ropes slide to hold you. The boys used to describe that moment as sweet terror. I would shoot a video of each one as they came down the cliff to the base. We would show the film that evening. “That’s me!” each would shoot, “That’s when I went over.”
The abseiling became a rite of passage for several years. Each lad would remember a moment of terror followed by an experience of trustworthy ropes and belayers.
Dealing with chronic pain takes courage, too. And a lot of it is about trust, the kind of trust that “lets go”.
There is another kind of trust, which is trusting by hanging on. We think if we grit our teeth and hold on, we will prevail. But that kind of trust, the hanging on tight kind of trust, will ultimately fail. It’s trusting in oneself, in a person’s own ability to hang on. Arrive at a point where we can no longer hang on, and that trust is gone.
I tried to hang on when my chronic pain worsened in 2002. “God wants me in this demanding job,” I told myself, “so if I hang on to God, God will bring me through.” The problem was that I was trusting, not God, but my own ability to hang in there. In the end, my own ability was not enough.
When I remembered that moment of sweet terror in abseiling, I knew what I had to do. I resigned from my job at the end of 2003. That was a messy process. I tried to work from home as a consultant, and began to let go. When I found myself in hospital in 2004, not just once, but three times, I knew things were entirely out of my control. All I could do, and can do now, is sink into the trust. It is a matter of stepping backwards over the edge, into the unknown and the uncertainty, and waiting for the ropes and the clamps to gently take my weight.
There were boys who were not too good at abseiling. They would get started, and then be filled with fear. They grabbed hold of the main rope and tried to haul themselves up. Watching below, you could see they were safe – their rope supports were still in place – but their descent was awkward. They would swing into the face of the cliff, sometimes bruising an elbow. They would spin out of control, and only stop by tangling a foot in the rope. Sometimes they were jerked into a hanging position: given the position of the main clamp between their legs this was an uncomfortable manoeuvre. They still got down, but it was the hard way. The most elegant parts of their descent were still when they let go and let the system of ropes, clamps and pulleys gently bring them down.
I have to say that that still happens to me. I know the principle, but I still come down the hard way, the clumsy way. I begin to worry about finances, or about Centrelink, or about being able to travel far enough for family gatherings, and the moment I worry, my life jerks out of control again. I try to solve things by my own strength, sell some writing, perhaps, to help the income stream, or take a journey and suffer for it after.
‘Letting yourself go’ is not an easy thing to do. But having got to the top of the cliff and stepped over, I now know that it is possible. I need to find people who’ve abseiled themselves and ask for their encouragement. The more I let go, the more graceful my progress will be.