April 15, 2013
I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.
—Damien of Molokai to his brother in Belgium, six months after his arrival.
Anyone living with a chronic illness knows the frustration of disclosing your condition, only to be met a recitation of the Litany of the Have-You’s.
“Oh! have you tried X?” Have you tried yoga? Have you tried veganism? Vitamins? Prayer? Meditation? Less stress? More drugs? Fewer drugs? Shaving your head? A daily routine of concentrated staring at a photo of the late, lamented Jimi Hendrix for no less than 42 minutes? (It worked wonders for my third cousin.)
This litany springs from the kindest impulses of the heart of the one who recites it. All this good-hearted soul wants is for you not to be suffering. Please, don’t be sick! Please just be well and whole and happy! Please, just be fixed!
It makes sense, I know, in the brain of the speaker.
But this goodness is not what you hear, when you’re sick. What you hear is a message of further isolation. Because, more than likely, if you’ve lived with a chronic disease, of course you’ve tried this suggestion, whatever it is. If you live with a serious illness, then you’ve tried everything. This condition is yours, and no one knows the uniqueness of your God-created material nature better than you.
What you hear, when you’re sick from this best-intended Litany is another healthy person stepping away from you, chanting as they retreat. “See, here is the magic reason I’m healthy and you’re not! I’m different from you! You could be like me, and be healthy too, if you just try harder. But see how I’m different than you….I’m different than you…..”
When Damien was ordained a priest in the Roman church and sent to Hawai’i, he wrote the quote above to his brother in Belgium about his work on Molokai. He had volunteered for this assignment, to be chaplain and priest to the lepers’ colony, even when the bishop of Hawaii refused to send someone because of the danger. Damien went and lived as one of them: saying prayers, building houses, tending crops and when necessary, building coffins.
Damien didn’t invoke any litany; he broke through the spiritual isolation the people were suffering, and he brought God’s love and care in when they felt abandoned. He was a physical sign of Christ’s light abiding with them, even as the rest of the world seemed darkened.
Think of a time someone helped you feel less isolated in your pain. When have you done the same for someone else?
Fantastic post! I fell in love with Fr. Damien during Lent Madness; there’s something so astoundingly beautiful about his story, to me.
A.A. (and the other 12-Step groups) are actually founded on the very principle you name here: “helping one another feel less isolated in our pain.” Here’s a great quote from one of the A.A. tract pamphlets, “A Member’s-Eye View of Alcoholics Anonymous” (that’s a PDF – and well worth reading, IMO!):
I am personally convinced that the basic search of every human being, from the cradle to the grave, is to find at least one other human being before whom he can stand completely naked, stripped of all pretense or defense, and trust that person not to hurt him, because that other person has stripped himself naked, too. This lifelong search can begin to end with the first A.A. encounter.
So I couldn’t agree more with what you write here. Wonderfully put….
(Sorry – for some reason the link above didn’t take. Here it is again: http://www.aa.org/pdf/products/p-41_amemberseyeviewofaa.pdf )
Yes, you’re right, but what do you say? Bummer, dude! Well, that certainly bites the big one! WTF, do you want to go for a cup of coffee or a beer or a hot fudge sundae?
Would this sound less snarky if I told you that I have a chronic disease (fortunately I’m blessed that it’s in pretty good remission)? My problem with the well meant suggestions is that they’re boring! I won’t bore you with any advice about how I cope, but if you’d like some let me know.
The best thing anyone ever said to me:
First the story — I was about to end it, and really, there is nothing like suicide to make you feel isolated! Of course I was carefully concealing my intentions, increasing my isolation. But I did talk about my pain. A friend told me a story about a friend of his, a Communism-era pastor who for several months was tortured every Monday through Friday and released when the guards went home for the weekend, then arrested again on Monday… On Sundays he would preach from 2nd Corinthians, “[We carry in our bodies] the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies…” So how do you argue with somebody who is being tortured for months? But I am a priest, and so is my friend, and I know this passage. I said, “I already know the answers.”
And he said – and this was the best thing anyone ever said to me – “But they aren’t working for you.”
And then he did the best thing anyone ever did for me. He shut up.
I’m so sorry Martine. I agree chronic illness, if you’ll pardon me , Sucks. I have been a diabetic for almost thirty years and have lived through many of the complications including 4 years as a dialysis patient. I felt so isolated because people didn’t talk to me because they didn’t know what to say. But, bless those people who tried anyway. Maybe they didn’t say the most perfect things but they tried. I knew I was loved and cared for in my parish. Many people who have not had a long term or life threatening illness really truly have no idea about what we cope with everyday. To us it become routine. Truthfully I think if people really knew what we deal with on a regular basis they couldn’t begin to understand it. I am grateful that God has given me grace to keep going. Even with a kidney transplant there are many things I must do everyday to stay well and there is always a fear factor about the new kidney failing. What I do know is that there are people both in and out of the Church who support me. I wouldn’t mind being “bored” by what you do to cope it might give me an idea or two. I am glad that your illness is in pretty good remission and frankly I am impressed by your spirit. Too often we say nothing an no one know unless we tell them I hope you find more supports and more understanding and connection from folks.
Stacy, Thank you for your kind reply. I am very lucky, but of course things do get one down. I basically do what I am supposed to do medically and then deny there is a problem (knowing that there and this is a psychological trick I’m playing on myself). So far, it’s working out pretty well for me and if it stops working, I’ll worry about it then.
By the way, did you ever notice that when something crummy happens to you, someone else has had something even worse happen to them? It’s happened so often it’s funny if you have a weird mindset!
You will be in my thoughts and prayers.
Thanks for the reply Martine. Yes I do notice that people tend to try to “one up” me. They had it first and it was the worst. I am blessed to have a best friend who suufers with a chronic condition different from mine but she understands the feelings. We seem to take turns being able to vent to each other and respect whre we are both at. Sometimes I even call her and say “Just listen” and she lets me vent and that’s the end of the conversation. I am very grateful for her friendship.
I hope you find someone who you can be ral with who just understands.
Meanwhile I wish you peace.