The New 60?

Last week I read a thoughtful, insightful on-line article by Sharon Hodde Miller entitled, ‘Why pastors should preach on body image.’ As it turns out I am not the only one commenting or blogging about this article. By and large the comments have been supportbrinkleyive but for some it hit a raw nerve with angry criticism towards the author and the church. The following thoughts expressed in this blog and the ones in the article tend to be slanted towards the younger generation.  But there is something for us oldsters to take home as well.  After all, aging creates its own image issues. We are certainly not helped by the recent People magazine cover photo of Christie Brinkley at 60 years old.

From what I can ascertain the angry comments about Miller’s article come from women who have struggled with eating disorders and feel the article is judgmental and damaging. Furthermore, they have been hurt by a church whom they believe has misunderstood the complexities and difficulties of an eating disorder. The perception that they are meant to fix themselves haunts them and adds to an already in place self-loathing.

Even though eating disorders are mentioned in the article (please read this article – very provocative) my sense is that Miller addressed primarily the preoccupation and obsession to improve ones physical appearance to the exclusion of interests worthy of our nature as God image-bearers. By the way, this is not just a female issue.  As the article points out more and more young men are succumbing to the pressures of body perfection.

Personal Background:

Our culture has done a good job of selling us a self-worth based on others acceptance of us. If you were born female that acceptance was conveyed to you by a media culture that said that appearance was your only ticket for that acceptance.

Thirty-three years ago when I was pregnant with my first child I heard a pastor describe our culture’s message in this way, “If you are a boy you will hear the message that there are three ways to have self-worth: good looks, athleticism or intelligence. If you are born female the message will be: good looks, good looks or good looks.”  This was true for me growing up and I figured my child, if a girl would be fed the same message.  Right after my daughter was born a friend asked me if I would like a signature bible verse carved on a wood plaque as a baby gift. I chose the following verse and still have the plaque as a reminder of an important truth. It comes from the next to last verse of Proverbs: “Beauty is vain (fleeting) and charm is deceitful but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.”  I honestly believe I had the verse written more for myself than for my baby girl.

I read that verse now and try to understand it from the most recent assault on my body. I’m missing a breast.  I am not really sure I want breast reconstruction in spite of the fact that recent research shows an increase of self-esteem and positive mood for women who choose to do so. Then again I’m 63 years old.  If I was 33 or 43 I might know for sure that I wanted a body that conformed with the bodies of my gender. But then I go online and see younger women modeling their one breasted selves in bathing suits called monokinis; exposing the surgical side of their mastectomies.  I’m amazed at their confidence; but I am still sitting on the fence about the whole thing. Is my ambivalence reflecting something amiss in my body image? Again, I am not sure. After all if you know me, you know I am certainly not against wearing makeup, especially lipstick (read blog post: ‘The Upside (I mean it) of being Bald’).

Theological considerations:

Body perfection is a natural longing. I believe that as human beings we naturally yearn for perfection and beauty.  Maybe it comes from an innate primal look-back to the perfection we had as sinless God-image bearers or perhaps it’s a subconscious looking forward to a time when all things will be made right through the promise of a new created order with God’s beauty and perfection being the mirror reflecting our perfected selves.  Many of you have heard the following before but I think it’s relevant to the issue: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man (and woman) which cannot be filled by a created thing, but only God, the Creator, made known through Jesus” (Blaise Pascal, 17th century Christian philosopher and writer). We walk around yearning for something to fulfill us; something beautiful, awesome and perfect.   We are wired to be filled with Him, the only all perfect One.  If we chose to go it alone then we are at risk to seek perfection and fulfillment in ways that deliver for a while (maybe) and then let us down with their lack of permanence.  I agree with Miller’s main point.  We are in need of pastors and anyone else who has a platform to tell us the truth about ourselves.  The truth is that the relentless pursuit of perfection in ourselves is futile and speaks of something broken in us and our world. We need to be reminded often that we are loved and of immense value to the one who made us, died for us, forgives us for our many imperfections(imperfect bodies is not one of them) and promises to return and set everything anew with beauty, glory and perfection.  Meanwhile I will let my far from perfect body be a reminder of a needful medical procedure that saves lives and of a self-worth that is really God’s worth being allowed to overshadow me with his message of love and acceptance.

Some asides:

I am so sympathetic with those who have eating disorders. I have treated people with this condition in my practice and I know their struggle and pain. Seeking help and keeping hope lend to healing and restoration. There is always hope.

For the rest of us let us be mindful of being drawn in by a culture that gives us no breaks.  On one hand we are castigated for being overweight and putting a burden on our health and our health care system and at the same time castigated for being too thin and self-obsessed about our bodies (hopefully my blog posting isn’t adding fuel to that fire).  And don’t forget that we are also being fed a steady diet of images meant to cause us to emulate or at least envy the beautiful so we can feed a greedy appearance industry.  Be aware and forewarned that our culture gives us mixed and contradictory messages.

Watch out for comparisons when it comes to caring about physical appearances.  “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man (or woman)… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).  In a different way, feelings of inferiority in comparison to others about appearance diminish us and them in our eyes thus interfering with our ability to get to really know and love them.

I’ll stop with one practical suggestion.

Try breaking the stranglehold of damaging comparisons by intentionally looking for attractive qualities in a person that are not appearance-based.  Look for something about their character, their personality, how they treat someone else, how willing they are  to be helpful, friendly, listening, accommodating, generous, their parenting style, cooking, whatever!  Look intentionally for anything, make a mental note about it and tell that person, or tell someone else about your positive observation about that person.  This is not superficial and inauthentic.  The Lord knows we need help to think less of ourselves and more of others.  It doesn’t come easy but let’s not give up.  I suspect that if we do this regularly we really will break the stranglehold. Our positive view of others and healthier views of ourselves will become second nature, our thoughts deepened and our lives enriched.

 

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Steroid Side Effects: New BFF’s’

‘Tis’ the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and have her nonsense respected.’     – Charles Lamb, 17th century poet and essayist

 

The last couple of infusions have required a total of 10 steroid pills to be taken during the 18 hours before the infusion. This only happens the day before the infusion and David is so thankful.  Here’s why.

After the first episode of steroid glut David asked if he could give me a signal while I was in the clinic that would indicate that I needed to take my enthusiasm and gregariousness down a notch. The signal would be a wink. I was all for this.  I certainly didn’t want to add embarrassment to him or myself due to a steroid over-exuberance. I agreed to the signal and thought that we had worked out something very appropriate.

Then came the day of my second infusion.  My system was flooded with steroids.  Yippee!  I knew I was walking the knife edge between friendly and inappropriate but I was having way too much fun yucking it up with everybody…….and I mean everybody.  Pity the stranger who just happened to look my way as I wanted them to become my new best friend.  I knew if I looked at David’s face it would be winking away so I made a conscious decision to not look at him.  What did he know?

Perhaps you are curious what my opening liners were to try to engage my new best friends?

“Hi there (lady sitting in waiting room), you have a really nice tan. I mean it; a really pretty tan.  But are you supposed to?  Aren’t we instructed to avoid the sun while on chemo?  Tip: start with a complement but end with a friendly helpful admonition or criticism.

Our conversation ended up being shorter than I would have liked.

Next attempt to make new best friends.

“Hi, I remember you guys from two weeks ago. You are the friendly volunteers who carry around the goody cart.”  (So far so good).

Then David said hi, too, but called one of them by the wrong name, or so I thought. Apparently steroids make one’s thoughts the rule of the land. I drew attention to the fact that David had called the woman by her wrong name. We argued about that in front of the volunteers.  I tried to enlist the volunteers to take my side.  They said they were instructed not to get in the middle of family disagreements.

The goodie cart rolled away sooner than I would have liked.

The infusion center at the cancer institute is huge with 36 infusion chairs or beds.  I decided I would visit all 35 of my chemo brothers and sisters.  I told David I was going to the bathroom and would take my IV pole with me and wouldn’t need his help getting there. I wandered the aisles to see if there was anybody I recognized from my previous visits.  Bingo! I quickly engaged a friendly and talkative 80 year old something patient that I had met the previous week.  Cruising and talking was great.  Eventually David and my infusion nurse found me and semi-dragged me back to my cubicle.

Friendly 80-year-old and I could have talked longer. She was probably on steroids too.

Back home and coming down from steroid exuberance I began to think about the awkward side of friendliness amongst strangers.  I searched the Net to read what not to say to people while seated next to them on a plane, clinic, or any other waiting area.  Here are some ‘pick-up or hi-ya’ questions I hope to avoid asking at my next infusion:

“What do you do about rectal itch?”

“Does this look malignant to you?”

“Want to see something really weird?”

All steroid frolics aside:

A little bit of steroids are great.  We all know of their anti-inflammability benefits.  A one-time mega dose of steroids is one thing but I hope that those of you that must take steroids long-term and experience the adverse side-effects read this blog post for what it is.

There is good research touting the health benefits of connecting with strangers “appropriately” (benefits for you and benefits for them). We just need to be willing to take a risk.  It is both spiritual (God created community), emotional/mental and organic. New human connections boost oxytocin and serotonin, which are biochemicals that build our immune system, improve mood and bond us with others.

So, I’ll see you out there making new best friends.  And don’t forget to smile (see blog post entitled, ‘Duchennes Smiles Only, Please’).

 

Uprisings of grief and anger in the Middle East

As many of you who read this blog know, David and I have been volunteers with the Palestinian Bible Society (PBS) since 2004.  Since 2007 we have spent two months a year in Jerusalem working for PBS. This year was an unexpected exception as I was diagnosed with cancer shortly before we were due to travel to the Middle East to assist the staff in the good work of peace and love that they do in the name of Christ.  One of the greatest disappointments of the diagnosis and treatment is not being able to be with people we love, doing a work of shared purpose and commitment.  Of course some may think our trip cancellation is a hidden blessing, given the recent tragedies which have sparked the uprisings of tension, rage and fear.   But as many of you would agree, when your loved ones are in crisis there is no other place you’d rather be than with them.   That is how we feel about our friends of PBS. Please take the time to read the following communication to supporters of PBS (prayer for peace in Jerusalem) forwarded by the director, Nashat Fellemon.  I think you will agree with us that the voice of reason, love and hope that is the vision and hallmark of the Bible Society is what is desperately needed in times like this.

_____________________________________________________

Dear Dave and Dona:

Thanks for your email, I hope you and Donna are well. We miss you guys here and we pray that the hand of the Lord be with you for healing and for full recovery.

I am attaching a PBS_Prayer Call Alert we did during the weekend, this expresses the heart of PBS in this conflict and a call for peace and prayer for this troubled land.

I feel that what happened to the 4 teens was terrible, the brutal killing of 3 Israelis and in retaliation 1 Palestinian  has caused tension in the land that I have never witnessed before. It’s sad to see that the walls are only getting higher in the hearts of the people and hatred and animosity is the common language in the streets. We pray may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth.

We pray every morning for the Muslims during this month of Ramadan and also for the situation, we will be praying for you too this morning.

Peace,

Nashat

Credit Deficit Despondency

There can be something about being on the receiving end of much kindness that is unsettling.

All of us have heard something to the effect of, “I am more comfortable giving to people than I am receiving from people.”  It is a good, nice, healthy (mostly) sentiment.  After all, Paul quotes Jesus as saying, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’  (Acts 20:35)

Ah, but within the full context of the verse lies the rub:  “In everything I did, showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Christ himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’”

credit_croppedSo, at this point in time I am ‘the weak.’  Moreover, I suspect that my hard work to help the weak when I was healthy had some dubious motivations.

I heard a pastor once say in a sermon that human beings ultimately want three things: credit, control and choice. But our lives are not guaranteed any one of these. In fact when we think we can master, manage or possess any one of the three we are living an illusion.

During this time of cancer treatment I understand and accept my lack of control and choice.   But I was surprised to realize how strong that desire for credit was operating within me.

I’m aware that I am not contributing that much to others at this point in my life and I don’t like it. I never thought before that serving others was for any kind if credit but of late I am beginning to wonder. The way that has been exposed in me was not in ways I would have imagined. Let me explain.  There are not too many days that have gone by since my cancer diagnosis that I have not received a card, email, text, gift ,flowers, an inspirational book or some other token of love. In the beginning each outpouring of encouragement was met with joy and appreciation. My self-worth and self-esteem were not only intact but also bolstered by the kindnesses shown to me by others. But as time and the protracted treatment process marched on something began to change.  It only became apparent recently and I didn’t like what I was seeing.  I had descended into something I will call “credit deficit despondency.”   At the beginning of this treatment journey the memory of my service to others was still fresh as it had not been very long ago that I was that person who enjoyed and drew a lot of purpose and satisfaction from busily assisting others. I sensed God’s call on my life and I felt equipped to do what he had called me to do. I felt special in what I was doing.  Along came cancer.  I was not prepared for the long treatment and its many compromises and preoccupations.

The days, weeks and months were now dimming the memory of my time as a useful service-oriented person.  But still the faithful encouragement of others was coming my way.  How unbelievable that people were not bored with me and my progress because I was certainly bored with myself.  Credit deficits were mounting.

Emotional application:

I realized that on some level I didn’t want unconditional love.  I wanted love based on contribution and performance.  I had been spoon fed this since a baby.  Haven’t we all? It is the way of our culture.  We say we want unconditional love but really we want to be loved for a reason.  And we believe we deserve it. We’ve earned the credits for it to happen. We either have some gift, talent, virtue, service, sacrifice, personality or special something that earns us the affection and love of those who mean something to us.   And we control it.  Of course this is not a fully conscious understanding of ourselves or certainly it wasn’t of me until I was put in a position of not being able to do much to effect any kind of positive change. It began as a slow creep accompanying the snail mail of cards painstakingly picked out, handwritten, addressed, stamped and sent out. Ouch! The credit deficit was mounting.  I could not control it and I had no choice in it.

So, what was I to do about this? It didn’t feel good or right.  After all my many years as a Christian I had to go back to Christianity 101 – the basics.   I am a sinner who received God’s grace (undeserved mercy and love through his death on the cross to secure my forgiveness now and forever). I had and have no good deed credits to offer him that influences his unconditional offer of love and forgiveness.  I have the promise of being with him now and forever.

The psalmist says that, “God’s loving kindnesses are new each morning.” Unconditionally, they are offered to us. Christ is not interested in credit surplus or deficit. He’s interested in us “getting Him.”  He knows “we are but dust” but he loves us and offers Himself unconditionally. When we get that – more personally when I get it – my heart breaks.  The worthless attempts to validate myself empty out and then there is room to be “built up and rooted in Christ’s love” and “to be still and know that He is God.”  And somehow I am changed by that in a good way. I can receive and I can give. And His love is never impressed one way or the other and that is good news.

So, back to Acts 20:36 and the bottom line:  I have freedom to be weak whether emotionally, physically or spiritually.  When I am strong I have freedom to work hard to help the weak (as so many of you have done for me in recent months)…..not for credit but for the simple reason that God loves the weak and it feels good to help when we can.  That is truly good news.