Who am I when my body fails me?” This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are weak or in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience? A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in 2016. It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time. Individual posts in the series have been revised and will be re-posted on Tuesdays and Saturdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer, and quotes or questions for reflection have been added.
Geriatrician Joanne Lynn frequently asks two questions of the audiences of health experts that she speaks to: “How many of you expect to die?” and in every audience some people do not raise their hands. Then she asks, “Would you prefer to be old when it happens?” Again not all the hands are raised. Human beings prefer living in denial about almost everything: addiction, climate change, the danges of texting and driving, and racism. But the thing we deny the most, I think, is our own mortality, even as people all around us pass through the milestone of death.
However, it becomes much more difficult to ignore thoughts about dying when our bodies fail us – no matter what age we are. Phillip Simmons was dying of ALS when he wrote the book Learning to Fall, The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. In the introduction, he jokes that “life is, after all, a terminal condition” He goes on to say that “knowing my days are numbered has meant the chance to look at all of life’s questions. What I have learned from asking them is that a fuller consciousness of my own mortality has been my best guide to being more fully alive.”
In one chapter of the book he describes the mud season that descends on New Hampshire just before spring. The geological realities of that state have left a “meager soil, laid like a thick sponge on an unyielding granite bed. With the March thaw that sponge sops full.” It is the season of mud. He goes on to say, “We fear this time of year not so much for where it is taking us – the spring bloom and summer roar – but for what have have to go through to get there.”
He then uses the mud season as a metaphor for the realities of life. “We all have our personal mud seasons . . . . We need the mud for what grows from it. Every mud season is a kind of death, with resurrection lying on the other side. . . As I enter my various mud seasons, I’ve learned to ask: What death is this? Or what is within me that needs to die? and out of this death, what resurrection will come.”
When our bodies fail us we have the opportunity to prepare for the concept of death. We also can learn to appreciate life. And to look forward to the resurrection that follows. Simmons teaches us to do that:
“The example of Jesus, and the experience of mud season, also reminds me of a harsher truth: to be reborn we first must die. The way to Jerusalem likes through mud. Dying, like mud can take many forms, but every death in the sense I mean, is a letting go. We let go of amabition, of pride, of ego. We let go of relationships, of perfect health, of loved ones who go before us to their own deaths. We let go of insisting that the world can be a certain way. Letting go of any of these things can seem the failure of every design, loss of every cherished hope. But in letting them go, we may also let go fear, let go our white-knuckled grip on a life that never seems to meet our expectations, let go our anguished hold on smaller selves our spirits have outgrown. We may feel that we have let go of life itself, only to find ourselves in a new one, freer, roomier, more joyful than we could have imagined.”
Who am I when my body fails me? Someone who is learning to face death instead of deny it. I, for one, am grateful that the realities of illnesses or disabiities usher us in to an opportunity to face our own death’s squarely. I am glad for the chance to “let go” and find a new life that is “freer, roomier, and more joyful” that I could have imagined.
MULLING IT OVER: Simmons says that “every mud season is a kind of death, with resurrection lying on the other side.” Are you in a “mud season”? What are you learning from it? What are you letting go because of it? He also reminds us that consciousness of our own mortality is a guide to being fully alive. Have you experienced that? How can you become more conscious of your mortality?
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 136
PRAYER: “I know I am not the first one to feel pain and to suffer, O God, but while it is happening to me, I feel as if I am. I look to You for comfort, strength, and a final day when You will set all things right through Jesus Christ. Amen” (Eugene Peterson in Praying with the Psalms, November 8).
THOUGHT: “Pain works for us an eternal hope. We all have had the experience that is only in the days of affliction that our true interests are furthered: (Oswald Chambers in Hope is a Holy Promise).
2020 Update: For years I have watched my husband’s slow but sure decline in health. For months I have watched him dying. I saw him slog through the mud season. I saw him fight against the limitations of his body and mind. And then I saw him gradually yield and let go of all the things Simmons mentioned. I wish I had been able to let go sooner, but eventually I learned that his path was the right one. His death this week was unexpected; he had been feeling better under Hospice care. But when it was time, we both benefited from his preparation for death and the reality of the resurrection that followed.