Life is a Struggle
The other day I spoke with a woman who, for the last six months, has been on light duty at her job. When she first stopped working at a position that required almost constant data entry into a computer, her elbows were so inflamed with tendinitis she had to cradle her tea cup in both hands in order to lift it to her lips so she could take a sip. Although her forearm muscles have strengthened and the discomfort has lessened, she still can’t type on a keyboard. Using a mouse brings her stabbing pain. Voice-activated technology is so cumbersome, is it pretty much useless to her. She said she hadn’t realized how much we depend on the computer these days.
It’s not just typing or scrolling that’s problematic for her, though. Her entire life has been affected. She can’t cook. Dressing herself takes longer than it used to. Her exercise routine is limited, so her muscles are atrophying. Once she was active and independent, competent and strong. Now she feels vulnerable. Because she depends on others for simple things like cleaning and cooking and lifting groceries, her sense of meaning and purpose, her very identity, have been compromised.
This is not the end of her story, however. We choose when to being and end the tales we tell. Not even death has to be the final moment in a memoir. We talk, for instance, of an afterlife, of a oneness with nature. We speak of the depth of wisdom that touches those who stay behind to live on in this world.
Finding Simplicity in the Midst of Disability
The woman I met does not see her pain and weakness as an ending. In some ways, it is a beginning. For instance, she now has time to read books. To really read them. Scrolling through web pages, skimming online articles, perusing Facebook posts is significantly different from entering into the world a novel, or savoring the language and innuendo of a poem, or pausing to ponder the underlying meaning of a phrase or an image woven with words.
Now that this woman has what she has come to understand is a disability, her life is simpler. She no longer feels a pressure to produce, to quickly complete one task after another, seamlessly, without error, so she can feel good about herself or make the institution she works for wealthy. Instead, she can relax. In her current position of watching others and counting their behaviors, which can be tedious and mind-numbing, she has space to ponder meaning, beauty, and kindness; to notice shifts of sunlight on a wall or the loneliness of an invisible janitor.
She uses this new-found time to think. Who is she if she isn’t her profession? If she’s not doing something meaningful — and she does not find much meaning in counting — why is she alive? What is life’s purpose, anyway? Her worth is not bound up in her career, of course. Intellectually, she knows that. Yet she is still trying to figure out what our worth comes from.
in this way, her disability has brought her a kind of wealth. Though the change was not of her own choosing, nonetheless, she is grateful for the physical limitations that pushed her into stillness and simplicity.
Coping with Illness and Facing Death
This story of gratitude for a new-found peace is familiar to me. In the hospital where I work as a chaplain, I meet patients who create similar tales of meaning and purpose in the face of debilitating illness and disability.
One person I spoke with recently has been sick for a few months. Because of a genetic heart defect, this woman in her late forties can no longer walk more than about hundred feet before she needs to rest. She can’t even sit up for long before exhaustion sweeps over her. Finally, she had to accept that she could no longer work at a job.
This has been hard on her family, because they depended on her income. A mother of young children, she can no longer take a gentle stroll with them through the neighborhood or cook and clean for them. Like the woman with chronic tendinitis, she feels adrift, uncertain who she is and what value she has. How does she define motherhood now that she can’t drive her young ones to soccer or sit with them as they do their homework?
Her way of being a wife is changed, as well. What does intimacy look like when you’re always tired? How well can you listen to someone else when your mind is numb from fatigue? When you feel guilty for burdening your spouse, how do you keep from getting angry to cover up your own pain? Her default coping strategy was to control everything and everyone around her. Now she can control nothing. She struggles to manage the anxiety that arises in her own gut.
Healing in the Midst of Illness
By moving through her fears of death, she has found a deeper, more accepting faith. She tries to be consistent with prayers and silence so she can be strong in spirit, if not in body. Yet some days, such as when she thinks of leaving her family behind if she should die soon, she cries.
Even so, she is coming to accept her body that brought her to this place of pain and discomfort and uncertainty. She wishes she had been more consistent with her medication or gone to the doctor when she first started feeling tired, but she cannot change the past. All she can do is be with what exists right now. She can accept the situation and do the best she can with what she has.
Out of that acceptance has come gratitude. Sure, she wishes God hadn’t needed such a big 2 x 4 to get her attention, but she is now awake. She sees the fear and anxiety that spurred her constant busyness, that fed her need to control her children and manage her husband. Not that it ever worked very well, but she sure wore herself out trying.
Now, she must let all that go. She must simplify her life and trust others to manage themselves. She must learn to surrender.
Finding Gratitude in the Midst of Illness and Imperfection
This makes her feel nervous, and she does snap at her family sometimes when the frustration overwhelms her, but she is learning to quiet herself, to sit with discomfort, to find ways to let go. She feels humbled. She even feels grateful. As she embraces a simpler life, she is discovering moments of joy.
Thanksgiving is about gratitude. An imperfect holiday, for it celebrates a moment in history fraught with tension, betrayal, and abuse, Thanksgiving nonetheless offers us an opportunity to focus on life’s simple pleasures: good food, friendship, and generosity of spirit. Those of us with tables at which to sit, with mashed potatoes and maybe turkey to eat, have much to be grateful for.
On this holiday, we may even slow down a bit. We gather in kitchens and dining rooms, play board games or watch football or talk politics in front of a flickering fire. It is as if we might return to a time when cell phones and computers didn’t distract us with constant beeps and flashes. Thanksgiving hearkens back to a time when people cooked food from scratch and talked to one another over dinner, and some of us believed the myth that American families were all like a Norman Rockwell painting.
When We Can’t Slow Down
Of course, not all of us can slow down, even on a holiday. Perhaps we are financially strapped and need to work. Maybe our families are nasty and brutish, so we’re always on guard, or maybe we’re so stuck in our addictions to alcohol, Facebook, and texting, to perfection, or to the management of others, that we can’t relax. Some of us may feel so pushed by the corporations for which we work, treated more like machines than human beings, that we no longer know how to play.
In the good, old days, back before my children were born, when telephones were attached to the wall, when we bought our food at coops where we volunteered our labor for reduced prices, when we could trade and barter to make ends meet, and when no one had to pay an internet company for access to electronic information, because the internet didn’t exist, life was uncomplicated. It was cheaper, too, so we didn’t have to work long hours at grueling jobs just to survive.
Now it seems my life is packed with tasks and goals that I leave unfinished or ignored, and I never have enough time to spend with family. A slower era seems appealing to me now.
A Return to Simplicity
Not that life was perfect then. Poverty, injustice, intolerance all existed in those days, too. Yet I was grateful for the simplicity of the life I was blessed to live. Would I be as grateful for it now? Perhaps I would miss finding answers at the click of a mouse.
Regardless of what I would be grateful for or not, electronic technology is hardly going away, so how do I find reclaim such stillness in spite of the reckless pace of our world? How do I slow down before sickness or death force me to stop?
To return to that kind of simplicity, perhaps I could consider what is really important in my life. What values do I hold? How do they inform what I choose to do or to let go of? After all, what do I really want to accomplish? How much money must I make? Can I live on less, and thus free up more time? If not, and a job becomes the main thrust of my life, what else will I relinquish so I have time to dream and laugh and share bread with friends?
Gratitude as Thanksgiving Approaches
I realize that my ability to even ask these questions is a kind of privilege. Instead of scrambling to survive, I have a home, a family, food to eat, and time to think about these words and write them down. For that, I am grateful.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I think about those who have no family nor friends. Or maybe they have family, but they’re all drunks and abusers. Who wants to share a meal with people whose fear and projected rage have turned them into villains?
Then there are those who hate their job, yet feel powerless to quit. If, when these workers arrive home, their children complain and their spouse berates them, giving them no place to rest, recover, or heal, what joy will they find in Thanksgiving? If everywhere we turn, we feel assaulted, what can we be grateful for? Sometimes gratitude and simplicity seem like luxuries for rich people.
Yet even the rich suffer. They become sick, loved ones die. When you have a lot to lose, you often feel more afraid than when you have nothing. Addiction and abuse are just as common among the wealthy as among any other group of people. No matter how much money we have, life can be miserable.
Gratitude in the Face of Misery
Yet it can also be joyful. If we feel burdened by financial stress, low self-esteem, crushing responsibility, loneliness, fear, resentment, or guilt, gratitude will be a little harder to find. Sometimes, we must heal the hurts, release our anger, and forgive the past before we can be grateful for what we do have. When we learn to appreciate the strong, the fruitful, and the beautiful amid the ugliness, Thanksgiving makes more sense.
Yesterday, I was talking with one of the nurses about the weather, and about how beautiful the weekend was supposed to be, with clear skies and soft breezes and the mild warmth of a fall day. It turns out, that she will be in the hospital this weekend, working. But she said she didn’t mind. Just being able to look out the windows and see the soft clouds wafting across a blue sky helps make her feel happy. For that little bit of beauty, she is grateful.
In a previous column, I shared the story of a man who taught people how to take joy from looking at the sky. Assuming we have eyes with which to see, and assuming we are not locked in cellars or cavernous prisons, we can appreciate the moon or stars, the clouds, the expanse of blue, even the white-grey of a day of rain. If we cannot see, perhaps we will find beauty in touch and sound. If we cannot hear, then we may depend on fragrances and so enjoy the world that way.
Being Grateful for Breath
If nothing else, we always have our breath. Thich Nhat Hanh taught us to find serenity and gratitude in the flowing of air into and out of our lungs.
Yet if we rush at hectic speed, it’s hard to remember to stop and look or feel or listen or breathe. In the end, life is pretty simple. We are born, and we die, and all the monuments we have built will fade in time. What a blessing to be alive in the world at all, to be able to take in the majesty of creation. Can we not be grateful just for that?
If not, then we need healing. We need the loving touch of another’s kindness, the acceptance of our foibles. Perhaps we need someone to hold us accountable, someone who believes in our capacity to become a fully human person. Sometimes we just need someone to listen. At other times, we need our hands held as we learn to walk again, or we need our spirits held as we learn to feel again. It’s so easy to press through life, to wander around the edges, not really seeing or being or knowing who and where we are. We just push on without thinking, but we don’t have to.
Slowness, Simplicity, and Gratitude
Some days I cannot contain the gratitude I feel for living in a universe where a sun can make life possible, where shadows dance, and the leaves of the lemon balm releases its fragrance when pressed, and where geese call out as they fly past, and where mist shrouds the fields. These are simple pleasures, and I am so glad they exist. Even in the midst of chaos, uncertainty, and tasks I will never accomplish, I can feel moments of peace simply by looking at the wind rustling the leaves of the kiwi vine in my back yard.
When I slow my pace and look around, I feel a rush of gratitude. Sometimes it even feels as if something like a god is touching my heart and filling my soul. Then I know that no matter what I will face in the next moment, or the next hour, even if I feel harassed and oppressed or burdened by worry, I will be all right. I would rather not end up with tendinitis or heart failure, and if I can guard against that by slowing down and listening to the things of this world, then I will try to do so.
Life is far simpler than I sometimes think, and I am immensely grateful that it is so.
In faith and fondness,
Lithograph by John Schutler, printed by Currier and Ives, 1867. In the public domain. From wikimedia.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens