Lately my husband and I have been nearly overwhelmed with health issues, some new and some longstanding. As I waded through these months (in very heavy boots), I learned some answers to the question this series asks: Who am I when my body fails me?
One thing I have seen in sharp relief is that our false narratives (the stories we tell ourselves and each other about life) visit very often when we are ill. My strongest false narratives are: “you must spend your time productively” and “you must take care of yourself – no asking for help.” These have been passed down in my family along with Dutch genes for many generations.
These inbred “rules” informed my mother’s decision at the end of WWII to go to seminary soon after she saw the photo of a cross with my chaplain father’s name on it planted in a military cemetery in France. Putting aside all grief (supposedly), she moved herself and me (at 3 years of age) across the country so she could “take his place” by becoming a missionary. For several months she struggled, until the president of the seminary called my grandfather to tell him to come and get her; she was having a “nervous breakdown.” Her two false narratives (“be productive”and “don’t ask for help”) caused havoc in our lives then and through the next six decades.
So, who am I when my body fails me? I am someone who needs to change narratives quickly! Being physically or emotionally ill requires new narratives: “do only what you can” and “ask for help.” These were very hard to accept and practice when I have dutifully obeyed their opposites for many years.
Adjusting to the “do only what you can” Narrative
The first change I had to make was to try to gracefully accept being sidelined. I have practiced the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude for many years. However, I decided when I would stop the activity and just “be.” Now, I had no choice. If I didn’t feel well enough to read or even watch TV, I just sat still and looked out the window. Or I took a nap, several naps on some days. I wrestled daily with “not being productive.” I established new routines. I lowered my expectations. Always a planner, I learned to make every second count when I felt okay, but to let it all go when I didn’t. I had to learn to forgive my “laziness” at the same time I was learning to accept my limitations. This struggle is called detachment, letting go of life-thwarting narratives and learning new ones. This, I think is one of the blessings of dealing with “a body that is failing.”
Asking for Help
Asking for help was harder. As news of our new situation (both people in our family “down” at the same time) got out, many people offer to help. I usually tried to find a way to do it all by myself first. However, pain is very instructive – and insistent. When you can’t tolerate the pain, you have to find another way. So when my sister offered to help clean out a very messy garden, I finally said yes. The garden looks beautiful, and we had a great time of conversation and laughter.
When my grandson’s help with mowing the lawn was offered, I said yes, and my son and I had a lovely conversation while Nathaniel mowed the lawn.
When my nephew offered to truck three large bags full of weeds to the dumpster in our park, my first reaction was, “That’s okay, I can do it myself.” Actually I could NOT do it myself. I could barely haul them out of the garden. So I said, “That would be wonderful.” And we chatted for a while he was here.
When it was time to buy mulch, I asked for help loading the heavy bags and then putting it in the trunk. (This “ask” was a miracle of sorts; I always prided myself on being the old lady who could handle physical tasks.) A nice young man with the title of “loader” was happy to help. I learned that he lives in South Haven and his best friend owns a bike shop so he has front row seats for parades.
I began to learn that surprising and interesting things can happen when I allow people to help. Now when people ask about helping, I anticipate the serendipity that will come with the help instead of bristling at the thought that I need help.
Who am I when my body fails me? Someone who is much less driven and much more accepting of my own powerlessness. It’s looking like a fair trade right now.
image of scripture passage by the http://www.tesorifamilyfoundation.org