4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.

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Power and Tears: Part 2

Reflections on the story in John 11 (read previous post for context)

Why did Jesus cry over the death of Lazarus if he knew he was going to use his power to change the natural order( resurrect Lazarus from death) and restore joy to his friends?tears 2

Simply – He cried because his friends were crying.  He became fully present with their suffering. He was not thinking of their future (what he was going to do for them in the next few minutes) nor was he thinking of his own future which was soon to take a dark painful course.

Nor did He feel a need to defend his actions when Mary, the sisterJesus cried of courseaccused of him of insensitivity or procrastination. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vs. 11). Absent in Jesus was any need to defend his actions even in the midst of laments that if he had come sooner the dire situation would be different. He stayed present.  His friends were grieving and that sadness affected Jesus with empathetic sadness.

Empathy – We may be born with the capacity to empathize but nurture plays a profound role.  We must be taught and modeled the experience of feeling another person’s pain. When people lack empathy we, in the mental health profession, assume, a childhood of abuse and/or neglect or a disorder. We assume that they were never the recipients of empathy nor had it modeled for them by the significant relationships in their lives. We recognize that something is off.

A story of parenting small children:  I was at a playground with my grandsons observing small children and their parents. One man’s daughter fell and cried loudly. The father gently examined her and lovingly reassured her of his presence and his sympathy for her pain.  Another parent noticed the situation and looked on. The child with her tried to reengage her in what he was doing – building a sand castle. I heard the following:  “I will look at what you are doing in a moment but right now I feel sad about that little girl who got hurt so I want to look at her.  Let’s look at her together for a few seconds… (Pause)  She seems comforted; so now show me what you were doing.”

If that intentional modeling continues to be that mother’s practice, the child will catch it and develop capacity for empathy.

But what about those who have been deprived of empathy at vulnerable stages of development? There is hope.  God’s gift of community – godly loving spaces for transformation interfacing with malleable brains is one such place of hope. Brains can be rewired over time through strong emotional connections to develop empathy. The church with all its warts and imperfections is still the functional body of Christ.  It provides opportunities for loving interactions with others that include  listening with empathy  to people’s messed up stories.  According to Curt Thompson, author of Anatomy of the Soul, it is within this context that people who have been formerly deprived of loving attachments begin to sense what an attachment to God feels like thereby understanding God’s grace for them and for others.

Andy (a man in his early 40’s) was a child that had to raise himself.  Without going into detail, anybody hearing his story would label his childhood as harsh and neglectful. Attachments to stable caregivers were absent; normally the harbinger of a distrustful adult. However, there were times when he took advantage of caring interactions. He described living for a brief time in a neighborhood where buses destined for Vacation Bible School and church services would pick up children who wanted to go.  He was one of them. There was a kind neighbor who noticed his loneliness and neglect.  Andy began to sense there was a God who loved.  “I would hear stories in church and something exploded in me about God and it was beautiful.”  However later,  Andy would go down a path as a teenager and young adult that would lead to drug addiction and a stint in jail.

Andy told me, “When released from jail, I did not know what to do with my life. Eventually, I took a woman’s advice and enrolled in a Christian program called ‘Teen Challenge’ (a ministry dedicated to the transformation of young people with substance abuse.) Through their accountability and structured program of prayer, chapel, work, prayer, chapel, prayer, fellowship, counseling, I found myself wanting to know as much as I could about God.”

Andy attended a bible college for a period and did mission work in Asia.  Today he serves others through an urban ministry.  A man full of empathy and warmth, Andy humbly says, “Sometimes being a Christian is the best thing, sometimes it is the hardest thing, but it is the only thing for me.”

Jesus cried. Of course he did.  This powerful empathic being carried empathy where no man or woman has ever taken it – to a cross of suffering for us. Many before and after him have spoken “truth to power”; but He and only He spoke “God’s power into God’s Love.”

Post script:  Tears are filled with the presence of stress chemicals and hormones.

Post script: Tears are a functional way of getting cortisol and other stress hormones from inside us to outside us.  Have you ever wondered why you have felt slightly better after having a good cry? God blesses tears on this side of heaven but there will come a time when he will wipe every one of them away. Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.”

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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.

One Journey – Two People: Part 2

An eleven-hour car drive from Buffalo to Hampton Roads, Virginia prompted the question I had been meaning to ask my husband. (Read previous post for context.)

“Hey David, here is what I have noticed in the last several years… You were once contentwalking about your life and now, not so much … Am I off or on track and do you care to talk about it?”

“You may be right, up to a point, Dona.  I’m still mostly content and believe I have lived a ‘completed’ life and could go to the Creator without regrets.  But recently some insecurities have surfaced.  In fact, it is part of the reason I have asked you to blog about late middle age baby boomer insecurity. I was hoping that you could do a little research and then enlighten me to what may be going on.”

Therapeutic communication:

Before I did any research I wanted to hear more of what David thought might be going on. So, I continued with a communication phrase that I have instructed many couples to practice.

“Is there more about this that you can tell me about…..” (There is always more that aids in clarification).

“Is there more” and continuing to ask, “Is there more?” until you finally hear,

“No, I think I have said all that I was feeling or thinking about the matter.”

This type of persistence in dialogue is one of the kindest and most courageous self-disciplines you can practice when having meaningful communication with someone. Kindest, because there is always more that someone has to say, and you, the listener, are giving them the time, mental space, and patience  to reflect and be heard.  It aids in the speaker’s own self-clarification and provides insight as room and time is given for them to think out loud and even to rethink and revise what they originally thought in order to get closer to their core belief.

courage
COURAGE

It is also a courageous self-discipline because you are placing yourself in a position of vulnerability – hearing more than your “thin skin-ness” is typically able to handle without getting hurt and making it about you. My experience with this grownup communication tool is that if a person can trust the process without reacting to the content with the typical self-justifying filters and insecurities then something happens that leads to emotional connection and intimacy that would have typically been buried in a sea of defending, accusation and misunderstanding.

Back to David’s narrative:

“Maybe your cancer diagnosis and treatment leaves me feeling my life is not complete because I wouldn’t want to die and leave you in a lurch.  Of course I have no control of that.  That is in God’s hands.  Could be that as I get older I’m just feeling more irrelevant and further away from making things happen in a way that a younger generation can and does?  Maybe it’s more akin to the loss of an “insider status.”

(To be honest this is not exactly how David described his unease on that 11-hour car ride.  When I showed him this post he edited his quote; he rewrote the quote; he left it, came back and revised it again as he struggled to concisely define his feelings.)

More therapeutic stuff:

Putting pen to paper brings the mental clarity that so often alludes us when we just talk.

I have found in my mental health practice that this process of writing down thoughts and feelings is therapeutic. Putting pen to paper brings the mental clarity that so often alludes us when we just talk.  When we write our thoughts down we are placing boundaries built writing hardby our language’s syntax and grammar.  Writing down our thoughts forces our brain to reign in free-floating anxious thoughts. It happened that way with David; giving him more to time to get to the heart of what was bothering him and it gave me the needed content to know what to research.

By this point my digressions have likely made you forget what David wanted me to research (i.e. Baby-boomer insecurity).  As it turned out, my initial research would bring me to articles that were more about our baby boomer power than about the obvious – we are old and we are feeling it in our bones, our gut, and our culture and in our soul, and we are quite self-absorbed about it.  The articles I read leaned to reassurances.  They encouraged us to resist self-doubt and summoned statistics that made us sound pretty darn relevant as consumers, social media connectors, political and health care industry influencers. Oh hum… who cares about all that and apparently not David after further communication.  The John Mayer song, “Get Off this Train,” pointedly gets to the heart of the matter.  We are getting old and no pep talk or consumer statistics are fooling us.  So, where is my navel-gazing husband (his words) to go from here?

Sorry, dear readers, as it turns out I have more to say in this blog before I fulfill my original “One Journey-Two People” series.  My next post “One Journey – Two People: Part III” I’ll try to get to the heart of the matter that was teased out of David’s angst.

Humor Makes the Serious more Serious

A pastor once told David that humor within a sermon makes the serious more serious. In other words it creates the emotional highs and lows that helps us remember the point of the sermon as well as create receptiveness that inspires change or endurance in doing well.

I have wondered as others have  whether Jesus had a sense of humor and said funny things. (Googling ‘Did Jesus have a sense of humor?’ yielded 10.6 million hits.)  As it turns out, many scholars think so.  Jesus’ use of hyperbole to make a point, the colorful descriptions in his parables, and the fact that he liked hanging out with “sketchy” people at dinner parties probably spoke to a winsome and intelligent humor as well as an appreciation for the delightful in some folks, especially the little ones.  And, we all know that Jesus would have laughed at the crazy viral YouTube, titled, “Charlie bit me.”  YouTube link here if you are one of the only three English speaking people in the world who have not seen this.  (Dave’s note:  Actually there is an Indian and Arabic remix.)

As an aside, my time over the last decade with Palestinian Bible Society staff in the West Bank and Gaza has taught me to expect a lot of laughing, hilarity, antics and teasing (without the booze) when they get together socially; in spite of being a group that has endured much hardship and tragedy.

My personal favorite “funny” from Jesus

log-in-eyeAbout two thirds through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he uses a ridiculous image to drive home his point about hyper criticalness.  David was reading Matthew 5-7 out loud to me the other day.  I laughed out-loud when David read Jesus’ famous ” get the log out of your own eye before trying to get the speck out of your brother’s eye” within the Sermon  (Matthew 7:1-5).  Scholars of Biblical studies and culture think I responded like Jesus’ Galilean listeners and it would have been by design.  Think about it for a minute. Jesus just told people to stop hating, lusting, divorcing, swearing and revenging. He tells his audience that they not only have to love their neighbor but also their enemy and do it with their actions. And He tells them that they should give to the needy but not  let anyone know about it, quit acting so religious, quit storing up wealth on earth, quit worrying and replace worrying with trust – all things we need to hear but when you pile them up all together they can seem a little overwhelming. Just when people were probably finding themselves emotionally and mentally flooded (a psych term) Jesus injected humor.  I like to think that Jesus thought something to the effect of, “hmm, let me break this up with a witty image that will last centuries and prepare these folks to hear even more challenges before I finish off ‘The Sermon’ that will inaugurate a new understanding of God’s ethical standard of living within the Kingdom of God. I know they will laugh but it will  only enhance the point that I have little patience with hypocritical judgmental-ism..

Jesus was no stand-up comic  but he used humor to drive home some tough sobering points that had barbs.

Some interesting facts about laughing from the Mayo Clinic.

In the short term:

Laughter doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body:

  • Stimulates many organs.Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.
  • Activates and relieves your stress response.A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.
  • Soothes tension.Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.

In the long term
Laughter isn’t just a quick pick-me-up, though. It’s also good for you over the long haul. Laughter may:

  • Improve your immune system.Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity. In contrast, positive thoughts actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.
  • Relieve pain.Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers. Laughter may also break the pain-spasm cycle common to some muscle disorders.
  • Increase personal satisfaction.Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people.
  • Improve your mood.Many people experience depression, sometimes due to chronic illnesses. Laughter can help lessen your depression and anxiety and make you feel happier.

Spiritual application:

Laugh a lot.  Look for things to laugh about.  Be appropriate and sweet about it so watch out for superior sarcasm and passive aggressive teasing. Laughing with others increases our affection and emotional connection with them.  Above all, take yourself less seriously while taking God, very seriously – then you will be emotionally and spiritually ready to read the Sermon on the Mount. It’s no light read but then again we can handle it if we” first get the log out of our own eye.”

 

The Waiting Room

I have a friend who was quoting an elderly relative to me once. The relative lived in a nursing home. The quote went something like this: “Sometimes I imagine that while I am living here I am in one of heaven’s waiting rooms.” I think we would all have to admit that she had to be one of the most positive and optimistic women we have ever heard. There are a lot of ways that this post could thematically be approached based on that one comment but I want to talk about waiting rooms.

The nature of waiting rooms
I usually do not mind waiting rooms if I am not hurry to be somewhere else after the appointment. Being a people watcher and communicator waiting rooms afford me many possibilities of entertainment. Admitting however that cell phones have changed the human interaction potential in waiting rooms, I still find the scene unusual enough to be interesting. I imagine myself sitting like an obedient dog with tail wagging and tongue hanging out hoping some human will pay attention to me and rub me behind my ear. I don’t just start talking to anyone. I look around, size up the mood of the waiting room crowd and wait for an opening and then off to the races I go. It is amazing what you can learn from people’s stories or opinions. And if you know me, you know that I am not short of my own.

The Phlebotomy waiting room
Last week I walked into the Phlebotomy waiting room to have blood drawn. It was crowded. Every seat was taken but there was one left for me. I sized up the mood. It was grim and motivated me to send up a quick prayer on behalf of my fellow cancer patients who needed what I needed – encouragement – before seeing their oncologist, surgeon, or oncology radiologist. All ages were represented but everyone looked old. You know how not smiling or talking makes the lines around our mouth droop down so we either look sad or mad? Well, if you did not know that – you know it now. If you are over 50 and don’t want to look 70 then smile more often. It makes everyone look younger. I ought to know. I have had deep laugh lines since realizing I wasn’t going to be young forever. My children and even my husband would say at times, “What are you mad about?” This was not fair as my only fault was that I was not smiling and not smiling apparently made me look like I was mad when I was just feeling and looking neutral, or so I thought. I have defended myself enough that I no longer get those comments.

Well, anyway, back to the scene in the phlebotomy waiting room where I was among the most isolated looking and silent group of individuals I had seen yet in a waiting room since my cancer diagnosis. 15 minutes into my silent wait something changed and it happened so quickly and dramatically that I had to ask a woman later on in the day who had been there whether she noticed what I noticed. She didn’t hesitate to agree that something odd was at work. Here is what happened: A woman walked into the waiting room and the man next to me noticed that there was nowhere for her to sit. He got up out of his seat and said for her to sit down in his seat. She was several feet from him so the interaction was heard and witnessed by all of us. She said, “That is alright, I have been traveling in a car to get here for two hours and don’t mind standing”. This older gentleman was having none of it. He insisted and she capitulated. The moment she sat down, the gentleman’s name was called to have his blood drawn. And it was at that moment that the entire waiting room burst into laughter. Why? I am not sure. Maybe these folks and I included were unsuspectingly waiting for an uplifting moment to bring us out of ourselves. The sweet irony of this man’s good deed seemed to earn him a surprising reward or a dispensation of grace- He no longer had to wait. He was called and in!  Ok, that was cool enough for this sad looking group but it wasn’t the end of the story. As soon as the laughter died out, strangers started talking to each other. I mean everyone was talking except for one cell phone engrossed person. People were talking to those next to them and to those across from them and the conversations were animated and prolonged. The buzz in the room solicited a comment from the receptionist: “Hey, is there a party going on in there?” she yelled from a room close by. I remained detached for a short while as I tried to understand this phenomena objectively. Questions of psychological and spiritual nature were being raised but before long I, too, wanted to be a part of these human connections.

What to make of the waiting room transformation
“And God said, Let us make humanity in our image. God made man and then announced that it was not good for man to be alone, so he made a helper suited to the man and he made them male and female; both made in the image of God.” God, Himself, is community, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and apparently does not want us to be alone. We are wired to belong to each other. A spark of the Holy Spirit is what I believed happened in that waiting room. Isolation gave way to community and we were all better off for it. Encouraged, uplifted and hopeful is what we experienced and all of that without one of us having yet to see or hear from our doctors. God bless our doctors and what they do but at that moment we didn’t need them.

Forgetting Cancer

For 6 months my invasive breast cancer was always before me. First, there was the diagnosis and the anxiety of waiting for various test results.  Then there was the mastectomy with the pain of the surgery and the discomfort of the lymph node drains.  Four months of chemo beset me with nausea, fatigue, and a compromised autoimmune system that at one point landed me in the hospital for three days.

Grim Realities Helped Me Forget Cancer

But when chemo was over I got a 3-week reprieve before radiation therapy. I was feeling pretty well; almost normal aside from the fact that I was missing a breast and had to decide each day which wig or scarf to wear to cover my hairless palette.  So I used the break to visit elderly parents in another state. David, my husband, had to return to Alaska for over a week to keep his business going so I was on my own as I scrambled frantically to “fix” my parents’ needs before I left to go back to Buffalo for radiation.    A combination of guilt, sadness and frustration with my limitations in fixing their limitations would begin the process of cancer-forgetfulness.

My parents, being house bound, watch a lot of TV……CNN, Dr. Phil, Judge Judy.   I normally keep up with news through radio and the web.  I was not used to seeing the CNN images of conflict, terror and extreme hardship from around the world.  As I tried to process the suffering of the Gaza and Israeli conflict, the ISIS reign of terror, and Ebola crisis in West Africa I was unconsciously strengthening the process of cancer-forgetfulness.  Even watching Dr. Phil and Judge Judy every weekday with my folks provided distractions from my current health despite of my temptation to be critical of media exploitation of these human messes.

Now all this might sound a bit grim.  There I was dealing with cancer treatment yet distracting myself with morbidity and tragedy. But I could not allow my situation to keep my head in the sand about the tremendous suffering happening in this world.  If I did I was at risk.  My situation with its potential for corrosive self-absorption would end up robbing me of empathy for others. Now, I am not speaking to those who suffer severe pain or those in late stages of a terminal illness.   Nor am I writing about those in the midst of anguished grief for the recent loss of a loved one. What I am addressing is the threat of self-absorption that can come from dealing with a serious health challenge, robbing of an identity other than the illness, itself.

Taking time to think helped me to forget cancer

There was  something else that was going on that aided my cancer-forgetfulness for those weeks; something upbeat and something I will need to continue whether I am  busy with obligations or not.  I took time to think in the midst of parent care.  Each morning before I hit the ground running I would find a quiet place in the home of my gracious hosts to read, pray, write and think. My thoughts were being reoriented to life’s meaning and purpose. The essential Christian doctrines of faith I held had to be thought through deeply if I was going to find the peace I was looking for.  God, Jesus, sin, human nature, salvation, the world and God’s plan for the world, hope, faith, love, and service to others were the grist for the mill of my soul’s peace. It always came down to, “Do I really believe what I believe?” and if so, “What’s the big sweat?”  God is in control and I can trust Him.   And eventually gratitude found its way into my thinking as I thought of family and friends that spanned the world who were not just blessing my life but blessing the lives of so many others.

(Tim Keller talks about this in his book, “Walking with God in Pain and Suffering”).

Being in awe of the sacrificial service of others helped me forget cancer

AsIDP CHILDREN IN NARUS_cropped I spent time thinking something else happened. I would read or hear stories about people who were doing extraordinary acts of service because of their compulsion to serve Christ.  Some of these people I knew through my Juneau church’s partnership with ministries abroad.   Pastor Saphano, the Sudanese pastor of a poor struggling church in southern Sudan, who manages to house and feed over 250 orphans and refugee children from the civil war.   Hannah who currently pastors a church in Amman, Jordan for Syrian and Iraqi refugees but once was the pastor of the Baptist church in Gaza.  He continues his ministry in Gaza (see an interview with Hanna here) by providing aid to hundreds of Gazans as well as most recently opening his home in Gaza to 100 frightened refugees of the Israeli/Hamas conflict.  David and I have stayed in that home and it is hard to imagine 100 people staying there. There are thousands of people like them who are servicing in lands of great conflict and suffering with sacrifice and love.  When I take the time to reflect on such things I begin to forget cancer.

Thinking more, not less, helped me forget cancer

I read or heard once that perhaps God commanded a day of rest (Sabbath) in the Ten Commandments because he knew that if humans were left to themselves they would never stop in their frenetic work to eke out an existence in order to think through the big questions of life. Taking time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life will bring many back around to Him with a growing awareness of how life is meant to be understood and experienced.  This reflection cannot always be done perfectly, that is for sure, but nonetheless, this type of reflection builds an appreciation that this life is not all there is.  It is a reminder of the promise that He is with us through the tough and good stuff whether we feel it or not.

I am back in Buffalo now.  I’ll be reminded of my cancer every week day morning for the next 6 ½ weeks of radiation therapy.  But I can still practice the discipline of thinking about the big picture; making sure I find the time to remember who God is and who I am supposed to be with cancer or without.

 

 

 

 

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’).

 

The Rumble of Panic beneath Everything

Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch
Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch

The counselor in me has always had a vulnerable side when the professional hat is not worn.

I’ve been an interested and emphatic listener of others’ stories since my twenties when the Jesus story first made its impact (coincidentally or consequentially, I’m not sure).  But I’ve not always been able to be a dispassionate empathetic listener. This vulnerability presents itself when I move from empathy to over-identification. The self-centered and self-protective side of my psyche hijacks the genuinely compassionate side and the fearfulness of “this sounds too close to home and could happen to me or a loved one” takes over and I am sorry I ever listened to that person’s story. I don’t know why but this does not happen when I am “clinical Dona” which is a good thing or I would have been admitted to a psych ward after my first year of practice.

I just spent three days in the hospital after getting an acute infection driven bya low white blood cell count due to chemotherapy.  I spent 24 hours in the ICU and two and a half days on a regular floor. In both situations I was in better health than the patients around me and because of this I had conversations with worried and distressed family members that I would meet in the hall or waiting room. I heard stories of protracted and acute suffering and misery in a very short period of time. The empathetic listener had not turned off while I was hospitalized.text for rumble_rev

But there were times during my hospital stay that I wanted it to turn off; like when the descriptions of misery were too raw and graphic. At that point cancer would interrupt the counselor – butt her out with one quick unexpected slam – reminding her that there could be much more misery in store down the road of cancer treatment.  So, after a while compassionate listening would give way to cowardly recoiling and shutdown. I would walk back to my room with more Dona-sadness than with Jack-sadness or Terri-sadness.  Not pretty or admirable.  Thankfully this overly anxious display of self-pity did not last long and did not keep me from praying for these folks and their distressed families.

My guess is that most of you readers are not going to be too hard on me.  In most of us there is that nagging feeling and suppressed thought that suffering and loss are not that far from any of us regardless of the many precautions we take to stay them off. They blindside even the most cautious and genetically hearty of us.

In the introduction of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller quotes Ernest Becker:

 “I think that taking life seriously means something like this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation…… of the rumble of panic underneath everything.  Otherwise it is false.”

So how are we to live with peace, purpose, joy, love, and hope in light of this rumble of panic?  How are we to recognize a caring, loving God who is for us when at any time the shoe can drop or has already dropped?  I am a novice in this world of suffering but let me offer a couple of thoughts.

David my husband says that in times of crisis we are what we have been trained to be. My experience in watching others who have walked various kinds and degrees of suffering, ranging from tragic losses to debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses, is that getting through it required leaning on spiritual resources previously learned or acquired.  I am not going to be so presumptuous as to imply that only those who rely on spiritual resources weather their tragedies well.  I have read or heard  inspiring stories of people who have weathered great hardship without apparently leaning on God.

But my experience in working in the US and the Middle East as well as meeting people from all over the world is that when push comes to shove it is spiritual resources that provide comfort and strength in times of critical helplessness; not perfectly or always heroically, but nonetheless “a leaning on” that brings comfort.  I heard similar disclosures last week in the hospital’s halls and waiting rooms.

So, what are these spiritual resources that I hear about from the sufferer?

  • Praying
  • Complaining to a God who is both there and not too thin skinned to take it.
  • Drawing on scripture for comfort
  •  Developing a Biblical awareness of the myriad of sufferings addressed in the biblical text with its various antidotes.
  • Receiving the practical and sacrificial helps and prayers of the church and friends that show the compassionate face of Christ, and finally,
  • Acknowledging that something supernatural is at work; ideally, a healing but certainly a feeling of the Holy Spirit’s presence. THEY ARE NOT ALONE.

I, too, have been relying on the above resources; not perfectly or even consistently . In a previous post called, Chipmunk Cheeks, I mentioned the futility of expecting God to give me the grace for my grim or fearful imaginings. He has not promised to do that. He has promised to be with me in the present and give grace for that present. If I lay hold of that truth once again I will be able to be fully present with those who tell me their woeful stories of pain and grief.  Only then can I be numbered as one of the spiritual resources on which they can rely. “Oh God let it be true about me.”