Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Brokenness and Healing

Three incidents have come to mind over and over again the last couple of years.

In the first, a young man broke his elbow skateboarding.  A painful injury, that took quite a lot of time to heal.  Because there are several important tendons that run through and around the bone articulation in the elbow, and those tendons were completely unused during the many weeks that the bones were healing, months of difficult, painful physical therapy would be required in order to regain full use of the elbow and completely eliminate the residual pain from the injury.  After a few weeks of therapy, the young man insisted to his parents that it was too painful and he couldn't do it, and they relented.  Because he was unwilling to endure the exhausting pain and hard work for a few months, he will instead spend his entire life with moderate pain and a partially unusable arm:  his elbow can only be extended about 45*.  He can never straighten his arm, lift large or heavy objects, and both his work and recreation options will be severely limited for the rest of his life.

The second incident happened to my brother-in-law.  He was in the habit of coming to our house for a few hours most Sunday afternoons for years.  When, one afternoon, he reacted quite sharply to our toddler accidentally hitting him in the lower gut while playing (in retrospect, rather out of character for him--he loves children and was particularly fond of the one who was playing games with him that day), Doug took him to task for being harsh with our young son.  He confided that he had been having some swelling and sensitivity, and so the unintentional hit had caused him more pain than usual--he was reacting to the pain, not the child.  Doug asked if everything was alright, and he said that a friend who was a doctor had given him some medication to deal with it, and that he'd be fine.  For a year, the problem kept getting worse, and he mostly kept saying he was fine--he had medication, he was dealing with it.  Finally, when his mom was driving him home after a family get together one evening, she saw how much pain he was in, went in to mom mode and told him in no uncertain terms that he would be staying with her that night and that she was taking him to the doctor.  He was rapidly diagnosed with testicular cancer, that had spread into his gut and lungs. It would require invasive surgery and chemotherapy to eradicate.  He had lived with cancer for more than a year before seeing a doctor, allowing the illness to quietly take over larger and larger parts of his body and cause him more and more pain, before finally combatting it with the proper treatments and medications.

The third incident was when my little Keilana got a horrible flu that left her fevery, headachy and vomiting.  She was miserable.  It wasn't her fault, she hadn't caused herself the problem.  For the first day or two, however, she refused to do any of the things that would help her get better:  it was difficult to get her to drink much, as she was absolutely convinced that she would only throw it up and she hates throwing up;  her bed was too hot, but she didn't want the fan on because she claimed not to be able to tolerate the moving air; the couch was too cold, but she didn't want a blanket, convinced they were all scratchy;  no matter how much I insisted that the medicine I had would make her feel better, she insisted that it was too gross to swallow.  And so, for the first couple of days, she merely wallowed in her misery.  What's more, though her brother and sister tried to stay out of her hair, they were very small and therefore sometimes noisy or too close. Even when they tried to help her, because of their smallness and limitations, she was convinced that they were being selfish and annoying:  she was focused nearly entirely on her pain, and so she couldn't see anyone else's actions through any prism but how it increased or decreased her own pain.  And since she was committed to being miserable, she saw most of it as increasing her pain.  Finally, after a Priesthood blessing from her dad and a family friend, we started to see some improvement and--lo and behold--suddenly medicine and blankets and even her brother and sister were all wonderful boons to her. 

LDS doctrine states very clearly that "all spirit is matter"--there is no such thing as immaterial matter, it is simply that spirit is more fine and more pure, and so we cannot see it with our "natural" eyes.  And so, I think that there is a closer parallel to how our bodies strengthen and grow and heal, and how our spirits do so, than we often think.  Just as a body needs exercise and healthy foods to stay strong and sharp, I believe that a spirit just as literally needs scripture study and prayer and service to grow strong and healthy.  And just as a body needs rest and medicines and (sometimes painful) rehabilitation when it is sick or injured, a spirit needs similar spiritual remedies when it has been weakened or wounded.

There are times when we break because we make unwise decisions, and parts of or spirit become pained and weak from injury and underuse.  During such times, we need to commit ourselves to rehabilitation--repentance--even though the work of repairing our injured spirits can sometimes seem more painful than than the injury itself.  Sometimes, we refuse to do the work, convince ourselves that its too hard and not worth it, and instead resign ourselves to living with a constant dull ache and a limited range of spiritual motion.  We try to convince ourselves that we're fine with that, but that constant ache tugs at us, the limitations wear on us, and we usually end up eventually lashing out at others because of our internalized frustrations.

Sometimes, there is no big, obvious injury, but rather a small indication that something is amiss: a little over-sensitivity here, a bit of nagging anger there, a little, almost unnoticeable pain that seems like it will probably just go away if we just try to ignore and power through it.  So instead of addressing the source of the problem, we go on about our lives as though everything is just fine, perhaps treating superficial symptoms here and there with short-lived painkillers that simply momentarily mask the pain. Then one day, suddenly it seems, the pain has taken over our lives and we're unable to make it through one more day.  In retrospect, after we start to heal, we realize it was a gradual crescendo:  spiritual wounds, especially if they seem small at first, can be so easy to ignore, to rationalize away. What could've been a simple, if somewhat uncomfortable, challenge to address suddenly requires extensive, often painful remedies just to be relatively healthy again.  Its that small, perhaps unintentional slight that we take too personally and then allow to grow into a hot resentment; the selfish, thoughtless act that we rationalize rather than take responsibility for; or the forgiveness we convince ourselves we've extended, when really we simply removed the offending party from our life.  Such little, petty sins can quickly turn into soul-destroying cancers if we refuse to take responsibility for them and heal our whole hearts through the Atonement.

And then there are those times when, through no fault of our own, we have become terribly hurt, when others have indeed committed grievous offenses against us, been cruel and vindictive or simply been consistently thoughtless and selfish.  During those times, we can seek out the tender mercy of the Lord, to help us to genuinely forgive--help us to genuinely want to forgive--to ask for his Spirit to help us see more clearly the ways in which his love for us is manifest, so that the slights or disapproval of others might sting less.  When we are confident of His love and our standing before Him, the criticisms and unkindnesses of others will fade.  If we don't do that, if we instead focus more intently on the hurt and anger that we feel, we are likely to see the actions of others--others who do love us and, though imperfect, don't set out to cause us any pain--through the prism of the selfish or cruel intentions of those who caused the initial hurt.  We will become intently aware more of pain than of love, and consequently be more likely to be hurt again, to take offense where none was intended, to assume the worst about the intentions of others rather than the best.  We can very quickly become unable to see anything except through the prism of our pain, and thus become selfish, even though our initial intentions were anything but selfish.  Like my miserably sick 7-year-old, we can easily come to see even those who just want to help--in their own limited, imperfect, perhaps immature way--as wanting to make us miserable, or at least as indifferent to our pain, which can be just as hurtful from people whom we love.

In such times, we can certainly ask the Lord to soften their hearts, that they might see our hurt and understand things from our perspective, that they might feel more patience and compassion and greater love for us.  But we definitely should ask the Lord to soften our hearts, that we might see the best in them, that we might more clearly remember the kindnesses that they have showed us in the past, that we might more gratefully realize the good qualities they possess, that we might have more patience and compassion for them.  I am firmly convinced that the vast majority of human suffering is caused not by malice, but by emotional myopia--our inability or unwillingness to see beyond our own emotions, beyond how things affect me.  That is the nature of the fallen man that we all must contend with within ourselves.

But the height of charity, the very essence of Christlike love, is to be in pain--terrible, overwhelming pain and exhaustion--and still be able to reach out compassionately and offer love to another who suffers.  After all, as Christ lay bleeding, in unimaginable agony, in the Garden of Gesthemane, he thought of us--those who had caused him this most terrible of all anguish--and expressed his love and hope for us, and pled with the Father to forgive us.

"O to grace how greater a debtor daily I'm constrained to be."  My hope is that I will daily grow more mindful of that truth, and move toward a greater compassion for those who trespass against me.  May I better learn to assume the best of those around me is my prayer.  After all that has been done for me, it is the least I can give in return.


Becky said...

This reads like a conference talk. Perhaps you should be writing inspirational books.

Rebecca Susan said...

I've sincerely thought about it, as you aren't the frost individual to suggest that. I've been working on narrowing down a focus, carving out the time, and finding a skilled editor.

Thank you.