At some point in our lives, all of us will deal with significant or ongoing illness for ourselves and/or in the lives of those we love. Many individuals have the blessing of general good health for most of their lives. Sometimes we take that for granted. For others, dealing with injury or with a medical condition of some kind is a life-long challenge. There is a refining of the soul that seems to happen sometimes when one faces constant physical illness or challenges. I have known many such individuals who had at some point made the choice to live lives of extraordinary grace and strength, with God’s help. Choosing to see the blessings of life and even the blessings of illness or of injury or other medical and physical issues is not easy. Our natural instinct seems to be a very keen awareness of our own suffering and a desire for that suffering to be removed. After all, who doesn’t love to feel wonderful? And yet, we must remember that we have only one life, and the “sick days” or even the on-going health issues are a part of it.
How, then, can we deal with illness? How can we cope with our own suffering or the suffering of someone that we love? How can we make the most of life when illness or injury or a medical condition seems to limit our time, our energy, and our enjoyment of life? In a way, I feel unqualified to answer this question. After all, I have enjoyed general good health for much of my life. And yet, I have had experience with both illness and injury, and I’ve definitely known the heartache of experiencing sorrow and pain with loved ones who were suffering. There are many wonderful books about the theology of suffering or the spiritual, emotional, and practical considerations of dealing with physical challenges. There are many stories of amazing people who have refused to let physical challenges or illness define them. I’ve read many such books, which cover these issues much more comprehensively than I will attempt to do here. All that I can offer is a simple observation, born out of my own recent experience.
I have been dealing with a health situation for some time that has greatly affected my ability to function as a wife and mother and to plan ahead. I never know when I am going to have a bad day. I have recently been very frustrated by the frequency and duration of my health problems and how they affect my family. Last week, I was up very late one night. I didn’t want to try to sleep because I felt so nauseous. This was on a Wednesday night (actually early Thursday morning). Because I was feeling so sick and could not sleep, I had a lot of time to think about how my illness was impacting those I loved. I had missed church due to my illness the previous Sunday, and then I’d been forced to miss church again on that Wednesday night. I had felt okay for most of the morning but started having symptoms around before lunchtime. Often, when that happens, symptoms progress so quickly that I am not able to meet the bus carrying our little boy who has special needs when it comes at 3:00 p.m.; so I have sometimes been forced to call my husband and have him come home from work to meet Logan’s bus. (His bus must be met by an adult). On that Wednesday, symptoms were progressing a little more slowly, so I was able to meet Logan’s bus myself and be downstairs when 3 of Logan’s brothers arrived 30 minutes later.
On that day, I thought that if my symptoms would hold off for a couple of hours, I could get our 5 school-age boys to church for the Wednesday night meal so that they would not miss Children’s Choir or Missions, but I knew that I was in no shape to stay. In addition to feeling awful and knowing it was going to get worse, I didn’t want to be around food since I hadn’t had anything since breakfast and the thought of eating made me sick. So, I made sure the boys got their homework done and then took them to church at around 5 p.m., with my husband, Travis, planning to meet us in the parking lot. I pulled our Suburban around to the back of the building, near the fellowship hall where the meal is served, and then I pulled to the right beside a row of cars in the parking lot to let my boys get out and meet their Dad.
I didn’t expect any difficulty with safely dropping off the boys since I’d called my husband as soon as we arrived. He was on this way out of the building to meet us. In addition, due to homework and needing to wait for our Middle School age son, who arrives home from school much later than his younger brothers, we were almost 30 minutes later arriving for the meal than most people who eat at church on Wednesday night. I thought everyone else would already be in the building. However, as it turned out, I almost got one or more of my boys run over that day, just because of being sick. I had gotten out of the Suburban myself and was supervising the boys as they were getting out of the car on both sides when a sweet lady who had come up behind our car decided she would drive around us. I had five boys ages 7 & 7 (twins), 8 (special needs), 10, & 12 around the car on both sides, was pulled over to the right obviously unloading, and was out of the car trying to get all of the boys safely across the parking lot to the sidewalk, and yet I could not see where all of my boys were right at that moment. If she had waited for one more minute, I would have had all of the boys safely on the sidewalk and Travis would have been there to get them inside, but she must have felt she couldn’t wait. I had pulled really far to the right, but she came around us on the right, with hardly any room between vehicles. Even though I was out of the car trying to make sure all of the boys got safely to Travis and trying to watch the boys on both sides, I was unable to keep my boys safe. If one or more of the boys had come running around the front of our vehicle right into her path, they would have been toast. From the moment that the woman began to pull around my car until the moment when she could have hit one or more of my boys if they had happened to run around the Suburban was just a couple of seconds. It had happened so quickly that I could not get in front of her and was powerless to stop this upsetting and potentially lethal incident, and it was all because of me being sick. The thought of what could have happened completely undid me.
Later that same night, after Travis got home with the boys and they had all gone to bed, at one point my hubby wanted to talk about Spring Break and what our plans would be. He wanted to do a short trip, and I had to tell him that I am not in any shape to do it. After all of these incidents had taken place in just a few days, I was feeling very frustrated. My illness has not just affected me. It affects my family in many ways. It’s even more frustrating since I have already had lots of tests and scans but still don’t have a firm diagnosis. In fact, my Doctor referred to me at last week’s appointment as “a mystery”. So, I had gotten pretty down and had no problem at all thinking about all of the things I dislike about being sick. I had quite a mental list going. I might not have been outwardly griping around my family, but I certainly was feeling frustrated and upset inside.
In this state of mind, a thought occured to me. I should make a list of all of the good things about being sick. I honestly did not expect to get very far. I thought that I would be doing well to come up with 3 or 4 things and that even those reasons might be a bit of a stretch of the imagination. I decided to call this exercise my “Top Ten List of Good Things About Being Sick,” and I began to think things through. My original thinking was that after I’d named 3 or 4 lame reasons that being sick can be good, then I would put down the same phrase for all of the other slots to round out my top ten list, “Sorry. That’s all I’ve got.” At least I was thinking about the subject with a little bit of humor, but I certainly can’t say that I was optimistic. Perhaps what I was really looking for was an excuse to stay in my frustrated mindset and proof that there really was nothing good about being sick. However, a strange thing happened. When I began to think about things that I could be thankful for about being sick (even though my effort was half-hearted at best), suddenly all sorts of reasons began to occur to me. Before I knew it, I had a list of 8 things that can be good about being sick. (Although, honestly, I’ll take wellness any day). I thought for a little while more and could not come up with any additional good things, so I did end my list the way I had planned, with “Sorry. That’s all I’ve got.” I put my list on my facebook status, with my little attempt at humor as my closing statement. Just a few minutes after I posted my list of 8 good things, two more reasons really did come to me. I added them to my status as a comment, surprised that I really had come up with a list of 10 good things about being sick.
For me, the whole exercise was a lesson. Here’s what I learned:
1. It’s okay to acknowledge feelings of frustration and spend a little time analyzing yourself and figuring out what was most upsetting to you and why. (For me, the root of the greatest frustration was definitely not feeling that progress was being made toward getting better and, primarily, the negative impact on my family.)
2. After taking some time to think about what you are feeling, there is one thing that seems to begin to turn things around and change an attitude of frustration, fear, or doubt (that there could be anything good in the situation). The simple cure is very effective. It is thankfulness. Even though I didn’t feel thankful yet when I began making my list of good things, I soon began to see my own illness and even sickness in general through a new lens.
3. When I began to make even the slightest effort to see things differently, it was as though God met me right where I was and opened a window so that I could briefly see the (sometimes) hidden value of things that are hard to experience in the here and now.
4. I surprised myself, but it really was God surprising me all along. He promises to work everything for good in the lives of those who love Him. (Romans 8:28) Could that possibly mean even nasty germs or cancer cells? Could it include tragic injuries or even lifelong medical conditions?
The answer is … yes.
It’s not that those things are good in themselves. After all, when we reach Heaven, illness, injury, pain, and physical limitations will not be there. The truth that we hold on to is He will take even these things and cause them to work together for good. What a promise that is!
Am I a completely reformed grouch? Well, perhaps I am semi-reformed. I can’t say that I will never wish something hard or painful or yucky would just go away. I know that many times in my life, the removal of a trial will be my fervent prayer. But what I do hope to remember is that if I look for reasons to be thankful, I will find them. If I look for the good, it will be revealed. I still won’t understand everything, because God’s ways are higher than my ways. Now, I know I see through a glass darkly; but someday, I will have full understanding. Right now, one of my main questions might be, “Isn’t there some other way I could learn this?’ Then, in Heaven, when I suddenly know even as I am known, I believe that all of my questions will be answered before I can even ask them.
So, here is my list of the top ten good things about being sick. (What was written on that sleepless night is in italics below.) This really is so much more than just a list. For me, it was really an exercise… in thankfulness and trust.
(Note: this is the way I originally wrote the list. I had nothing here, but God was not finished teaching me yet.)
9. Going through any kind of struggle (including being sick) can make one more compassionate.
10. Going through trials helps me grow as a Christian. “…the trying of your faith worketh patience…”
The bad part is that now everyone knows for sure that my patience needs work (as if anyone was fooled in the 1st place).
The funny thing is that when I started typing the list I had only thought of 3 or 4 good things, so it was going to be more of a joke to only go that far and then say, “I’ve got nothing” for the rest. But, when I started out with thankfulness, the other good things just kept coming to me. This thankfulness thing really works! 🙂
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