After my second retirement in 2014, I had to work through the question “Who am I when I’m not what I used to do?” In other words, who am I when I am no longer the Director of Spiritual Formation – a ministry leader, a boss, a curriculum planner, a teacher, etc. I had to let go of 40 years of finding my value in those roles and find my value in the eyes of God. It was quite a journey.
Now I need to work through a new question: “Who am I when my body fails me? The person who could work as hard as was needed for as long as it took now needs to rest after shopping trips or between housekeeping chores. The person who couldn’t wait to rake the yard and clean up the flower beds now looks out the window and shudders. The person who was pretty much in charge of her body is a slave to numbers that are out of control: blood pressure, triglycerides, blood sugar, thyroid – all of which seem to have banded together in rebellion. What will this round of “letting go” be like? Who will I be when the process is finished?
Those are the questions with which we will wrestle in this series of blogs, Who am I when my Body Fails me? This may be more of a maze than a linear journey, but it should be fascinating nevertheless.
I recently heard a psychologist who works in an Alzheimer unit tell the story of a woman who visited her husband, Joe, daily. Every time she came, she asked him,”Do you know who I am?” And he would shake his head and say, “No.” Observing this ritual, the doctor pulled the wife aside and suggested that she no longer ask that question. Being queried, he said, was causing anxiety for her husband. When she visited next, the wife came in, sat by the bed, and undaunted, asked, “Do you know who I am?” Joe looked at her for a long moment and replied, “I don’t know who you are, but I know I love you.”
This lovely story may give us a clue to who we are “when our body fails us.” Everything Joe had been before Alzheimer’s was melting away, including his memory of relationships. At least that’s what his wife thought. But the essence of Joe was unquenched; he could still offer and receive love, intimacy, and connection. So it seems we are still who we were even when we can’t understand it.
Life is, I think, all about honing down to our essence. When we distill water, the pure is discovered and the junk and contaminants are left behind. So it is with our lives. To use another metaphor, after the refiner’s fire does its work, only the core of our being remains. Perhaps that core or flame is the breath of God in us.
Long ago I heard an explanation of crossing from life to life – a process we label death. Genesis 2 tells us that God “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” God continues to breathe life into us throughout our lives. God breathes in. We breathe out. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. At the moment of death, God breathes into us, but we don’t exhale; instead we go on breathing in another kingdom.
Dallas Willard spoke often about the process of crossing into eternity. He said:
“Your moment of passage from this earth will be one of great joy . . . . We begin to live in heaven now. That is why those who begin to keep his Word will not experience death. [You will] continue to exist as the people you are in the presence of God. Many people will not realize they died until later [when] they recognize that something is different” (From Eternal Living, edited by Gary Moon, pp. 34-35).
Perhaps the process of letting go and relinquishing when our body fails us is necessary so that we carry only our essence into the presence of God.