There is nothing like experiencing a health crisis, either your own or a loved one’s, to bring some needed perspective to your life. My husband Bill has been managing pain, numbness, and loss of function in his neck, shoulders and arms for months. Various members in my extended family deal with medical issues on an ongoing basis. And I have had my own nagging ailments in the past few months, although comparatively minor.
On Monday, Bill finally had spinal surgery to ameliorate his condition. As he was lying in post-surgery recovery at St Mary’s Hospital in Athens, three other friends of ours were lying in various Metro Atlanta hospitals, recovering from their own surgeries. And another dear friend has been at Eastside Medical Center here in Snellville for over a month, having finally received the correct diagnosis and grappling with the reality he must face: esophageal cancer. I pondered about what their family members were thinking and feeling at that moment, as we all separately and yet somehow collectively experienced our own anxieties and concerns. As I prayed and hoped for them all, I felt a sense of shared awareness.
The last three days have been spent balancing care for Bill at home while he continues his recovery and healing, with also running my private practice and the clients who need me. Having chronic insomnia, I woke up at 3 a.m. this morning, and was unable to return to my slumber. At 3:30, I decided to get up and go have a relaxing cup of tea, in the hopes of becoming sleepy again and grab a couple more hours of sleep before I started seeing clients later in the morning. I entered my closet to find a pair of yoga pants to wear, exchanging them for my summer shorts as the weather starts to cool. But finding the pants, I became aware of my overly full closet, bursting at the seams with too many clothing items. So many around the world, including many in the area where I live, work and play, have so little, while I have so much. I have waaaaay more than I need. As I gazed at these possessions, I suddenly felt greedy and selfish. Wow. In the wee hours, more perspective. Thinking these thoughts, I headed downstairs to make my tea.
And then not 15 minutes later, I caught myself on the iPad (!) doing some online shopping. I just MUST have a new pair of booties for fall! To be fair to myself, over the summer I was diagnosed with a foot problems, which is exacerbated by high heels and shoes with poor arch support. Therefore, many of last year’s shoes will be unwearable for me. But really, Lois! Could your timing be any worse? What happened to your more humble thoughts from a few minutes ago as you faced the fallout of your own consumerism?
I’m not always this shallow. My church, Westminster Presbyterian in Snellville, is a very mission-minded church. As an elder, I served as co-chair for three years on our Mission and Evangelism Ministry. Compared to many of the much larger churches in the area, we have a relatively small congregation with a corresponding smaller budget. Yet we manage to make a difference in the local community and even around the globe. We have helped support missionaries overseas. We send members from our congregation to Honduras every summer, where they work with indigenous people suffering a level of poverty we can’t imagine. Westminster provides food, funds, and volunteers to the Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministries, where Laura Drake, her staff and volunteers work tirelessly to help the less fortunate in our county. Our church partners with Family Promise, an organization that helps homeless families get back on their feet, providing them with a homelike shelter within church doors. We operate Calvin Cove, a day center for senior adults with Alzheimer’s and other memory-related illnesses. And one Sunday every fall, instead of worship in the sanctuary, Westminster members go out into the community and practice “Send Sunday”, where we provide various acts of service, from cleanup projects, to collecting food, to singing for shut-ins at several area assisted living facilities.
Growing up, I was raised by parents who strongly believed in giving back to the community, performing many church and community volunteer efforts. Influenced by them, I started doing volunteer work myself at a young age. Many years later, I am now in a “helping profession.” So you’d think with this background, I would be less focused on what I have, and more focused on what I can give and how I can help. And yet, I easily stumble into the trap of wanting to insulate myself from the darker realities of the world, and falling prey to the desires of my heart, which include acquiring lots of pretty stuff.
What causes me to be so inconsistent, so hypocritical, even? Of course, as a therapist, I already know the answer to that: we human beings are a complex and fickle bunch. We can all be alternately generous and kind and then selfish and petty. It’s simply a part of being human. As people with autonomy and free will, and the ability to detach and differentiate, we sometimes take the high road, and we sometimes choose the low road.
How do I reconcile these two parts of myself? Obviously, through prayer and confession. And certainly acts of mission and service. But also, with my family: being there and caring for them when sad, ill, or incapacitated. With others I care about: visiting them in the hospital, sending them messages or cards of encouragement, or providing food or a service they need. Through my work, which is actually my life’s calling: I help people who are dealing with emotional trauma, grief, stress, and broken relationships and let them know that they are not alone, that someone cares about them and will listen to them. And by expressing through my words, as I do here, to others out there like me: we all struggle with these things, and we are all in this together. So while writing this in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, I hope that at least one person will read this, and nod their head and smile with understanding and shared meaning.