Personal Reflections on Injury, Illness, Grace and Change

June 9, 2009 - 7:51 pm 20 Comments

Each of us lives our lives on the edge of the unknown; a span of uncertainty
that stretches from being on the brink of glowing opportunities and shining
accomplishments, all the way to the sudden, unexpected razor-like crisis
where your reality is becomes an instant slice of acute pain, paralyzing fear,
profound feelings of sorrow and loss. All it takes is an instant of change, and
our lives are dramatically, sometimes permanently altered. So it is then, that
we live each day and hour on the edge of the unknown… Within a capacity or
living in a paradox where we are able to experience the positive outcomes of
decisions, even accidents, or become prone to life’s extremes; Simply, we are
open and vulnerable to the full range of life’s possibilities.

How does this fortunate or awful truth affect us? What can it mean or how is it
to be understood by a person of reason and faith?

The Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, who was well acquainted with
both the experience of human joy and various stages of human suffering,
stated that all faith begins in possibility. We can take it from him that our
sense of an abiding, supportive, and relational faith brings to our peak and to
our valley experiences, the many possibilities for heightening or deepening
our understanding of ourselves and God, and that God, can be variously
defined as strength, courage, fortitude, perseverance, or hope- and these
ideals can be seen as trustworthy companions- no matter what befalls us…

Please note: I said that God, or the virtues, ideals and qualities that are
ascribed to a source or a power that lies within and beyond ourselves, would
accompany us, but that force, or that presence would not necessarily rescue,
protect, exempt, or prevent us from any of life’s opportunities and challenges.
In my universe, and in my set of definitions, my idea of a God is not all
powerful; much has been given to the capacities of human reason, the full
range of free will, and our acceptance of our personal responsibilities for
choices and outcomes.

Knowing this as a deep truth, or at least acknowledging the possibilities of this
spiritual friendship, marks the great difference for me between just being able
to cope with life, and having a trustworthy faith that accompanies me while
going through the experiences of my life.

From a more spiritual or wider philosophical outlook, as it relates to injury and
illness, grace and change, the central concern for being or remaining healthy
and whole is not so much focused on achieving or accomplishing a certain,
desired physical goal. The more medical and mechanical outcomes of repair
and curing, are important, of course, but philosophically and religiously
speaking, health and healing are spiritual concepts and function best as
working ideals that are primarily centered on maintaining our balance,
harmony, our sense of peace, dignity, and vitality during all the changes,
episodes, and experiences life gives us. To remain whole, then, is not to be
merely to be free of injury and illness over the years, but wholeness asks us to
use our personal faith, understanding, wisdom, and courage when illness or
injury happens to us and to seek out ways that these experiences can teach
or bless us…

That is… reveal to us more about ourselves, about a larger reality and the
needs of others, and how our health challenges can change us!

Physician, oncologist and advocate for wholeness, Jean Shinola Bowen, makes
this observation in her book on illness and transformation, Close to the Bone.
She writes:
“Our physical symptoms can serve as sentinels; as gatekeepers and
eventually as ushers and greeters for our inner urges, our dreams, what we
want to manifest or bring into being…. Every condition of the body or of the
emotions has a message locked within Its energies for us. It is called having
“somatic significance.” We can learn to trust our bodies because they are
seeking homeostasis- balance, poise, equilibrium, harmony. … Whatever
disgraces you, causes pain, despair, or that discounts yourself worth is to be
met with strength- with loyalty to self, and to others, and it is to be met with
courage and with love. “

Be they classified as mental, emotional, physical illnesses, they can act as a
voice for that part of our lives that is being ignored, or devalued. It can be
what we most fear, or what we want to avoid. So it compels us to listen; to
observe, and then to respond knowingly to the lessons our injuries, illnesses,
and life situations provide for us.

Throughout our lives, each of us has had a variety of health challenges…
Injuries, illnesses, and experiences of crisis that have subsequently shaped
our lives… While I had serious illnesses and injuries both before and after, I
will share a significant one with you now…

One day, when I was a householder back in Massachusetts, I set out to do
routine yard work. This included mowing the lawn, a chore I have done at
least 100’s of times since my teenage years without incident.

But that day, it became dramatically different.

As I went about the task of mowing an incline that was between the garden
rows, I suddenly, without warning, fell backward, tripping over a loose railroad
tie and as I fell, the momentum of the lawnmower kept it coming… and
somehow my foot slipped under the whirling blade and cut it seriously… In
both shock and with natural pain blocks setting in, I somehow got up, hobbled
to my kitchen, managed to call 911… And then collapsed! In a few days, after
the shock of my injury wore off, and I was lying painfully in the hospital, where
I was introduced to a 6 week ordeal of pain and disability and uncertainty.
When one hears words from the doctor like necrosis, let’s say that it doesn’t
build optimism!

Suddenly, this injury changed me and now as I look back, it has become a
turning point in my life. Early on, I was confronted with fear-filled questions
such as: What will I do? Will I be able to walk again? How will I go on?
Without being graphic, the lasting effects are thankfully minimal… Since then, I
have a hard time finding shoes that fit or that are comfortable… At the time, I
tried to use my humor as best as I could…

There was a Daniel Day Lewis movie called “My Left Foot” so I realized that
my film career wasn’t going to happen, and I knew that I had to give up my
dream of becoming a Patriots place kicker… And since I was already in my
40”s, I just had to let go of my thoughts of being a ballet dancer…

In fact, what I had to learn was to be realistic about my future, and to be
grateful that I could still climb a step ladder, and I did not have to earn my
living by being “on my toes!”

However, what I was given was the rare insightful opportunity to lie there; to
think about my life, to learn to deal with the pain, the uncertainty about
walking, and to work on my understanding of my life and its goals, and try to
turn a personal crisis into a blessing in disguise.

I fully realize that, at first glance, many of us would balk at the notion that any
physical or emotional suffering holds a valuable life lesson or a ripening of the
soul within it. Yet, when we perceive that challenge differently- with the inner
eyes and a heart of wisdom and the truth of a visceral knowing, we come to
understanding the original definition of suffering, as an awakening of one’s
soul to its true Self; learning to live and move through your life without your
ego being foremost, placing a higher priority on peace, and gratitude than on
accomplishment and striving.

Originally, suffering meant to be in a state of body, mind, or heart that permits,
that allows or that does not resist all the challenges of our human experience-
to be long suffering, then, was to be patient, discerning, and compassionate
towards our personal experiences and the various outcomes of one’s life. We
are to look at ourselves without judgment, and with empathetic eyes… so that
would see whatever good was to be found in any life situation. If one is
experiencing a crisis of body, mind, heart or spirit, we are to suffer with it-
That, by the way is the original definition of compassion…

To walk with, to be with, to befriend and to humbly allow its wisdom and
insights to deepen, ripen, and transform us.

This shift into greater awareness can, as a result, help us to find a grace in
our wounds, and a blessing from our suffering, even if, for most of us, it is
found consciously only in hindsight. For me, it was the need to enter into a
pilgrimage and a life journey for 10 years- letting go of preconceived ways,
and definitively shifting the way I would live my life.

Jungian author, Robert A. Johnson, writing in his book, “Owning Your
Shadow”, makes this observation: “This invitation to suffer really is an
invitation to reach into our depths, so that we can become whole.”

While it has been widely accepted that at birth, or early in life, the formative
experience of illness, trauma, or hardship can act as a vocational call across
the world religious faith traditions, (and we can cite recorded experiences that
range widely from the Amazon Shamans, to Medieval mystics, from Hindu adepts,
to modern explorers in altered states of conscious studies) the other
most significant occasion in one’s life, is our
mid-life crisis/opportunity (Chinese character) is when the soul is once again
contacted in such a certain way that ego defenses are permeated, and when
the possibilities for meaningful chaos become present, and the capacity for
transformation ripens and now can take place. When this in-breaking is
accompanied by an illness, as Jung puts it, “our gods become our diseases”,
and that body/mind/spirit condition or connection then begs or implores us to
find an inner sustaining sense of wholeness, which can come through an
ongoing search for meaning, purpose and resolution in our lives. …

So I ask you, looking back, or if you are now between 30 and 60, the new
mid-life range, (if we will live to at least 90,) that the challenges
you have received, or living out now, will not only shape the rest of your life,
your relationships, your careers, etc., but these experiences, illnesses, and
challenges will instruct you how to make sense of your life, find its deeper
purpose, and teach you how best to understand it, or to share it with others…
In my initial research, I have commonly found that illness, injury, or incidents
often accompanies a dramatic emotional shift, a relational breakdown or
ending, a significant death, or the loss of one’s usefulness or status in the
greater outside world. Most of those events were true for me then, and now…
However, the most lasting impression or life transforming insight for me during
this injury was my renewed appreciation and respect for the human body as
God’s gift, and all the simple marvels and mysteries of living in it, and deciding
to be far more cooperative with my body as my vehicle for movement, zest,
and life.

Illness or injury is a great cure for bodily arrogance, and for taking one’s health
for granted. While lying there bandaged up in a jackknife position, fearing
even the weight of a small pillow or even the excellent attention of the staff
nurses who might brush by, I developed a much greater empathy with people
who have suffered far worse conditions such as being burned, the wounds of
war, or losing a limb. The courage and fortitude of people living with these
profound, lifelong struggles is incredibly admirable!

When I recalled how automatically and confidently I used to move, without
much thought or effort. From the day of this bodily insult and injury, the simple
movement or activity of standing or taking a small step was denied to me by
the excruciating pain that would accompany it.

So, among the lessons it taught me were never to complain about having to
stand in line again! Then there is the ongoing struggle for one’s independence
and dignity when people who are infirmed are then routinely denied simple
access to doorways, stairs, cars, etc. It was something that I never thought
about previously- Oh, how my awareness sharpened, and how my politeness
improved!

Because the ability to walk was almost taken away from me, I will never, ever
consider taking a handicapped parking space, nor will I lessen my personal
appreciation for the courage and fortitude of those whose disabilities makes
simple routines a lifelong struggle.

As your minister, I am very encouraged to hear that accessibility to our
buildings has become a more widely acknowledged priority for the coming
year, as it is an issue whose time has certainly come; accessibility is an
outreach that is rooted in justice, and it is displayed through our desire to be
welcoming, and to greet others with caring and compassion. This next year,
let us work on this together! So be It…

Delivered on 6/11/2009

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