“We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.”
I took notice when I came across these words in a poem by Mary Oliver, to read that someone had so concisely and creatively captured the tension I live with: a struggle between distress about my illness and joy in any number of things I become aware of when I relax my hold on my rights and open my eyes to my wealth. I think it’s a tension common to all, between fighting and accepting what life hands us. The truth is, sometimes I wonder why God doesn’t just FIX me. That would put Him in the glory spotlight wouldn’t it? But in the words of Wendell Berry, “Reality is large, and our minds are small” (The Burden of the Gospels). So I choose to live in the large reality of my life. I find it’s so much easier that way, to let Jesus, my wise and faithful companion, sort out all the loose ends I often struggle with, the questions that seem unanswerable, or unanswered. I’m learning that rather than use my small mind to shrink reality in attempts to figure things out, it‘s much more relaxing, and fun, to let the One who knows the big picture sort things out. It’s also much more likely that in doing so I will recognize moments of grace, and the ‘pleasant inns’ He provides. To be honest, it’s difficult and at times even boring to continually write, as I suspect it is to read, about my declining health and to try and articulate details about my body’s deterioration. So I’ve chosen to use C.S. Lewis’s words as a spring board for this springtime, almost Easter, update:
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home. (The Problem of Pain)
The most recent inn on my journey was a vacation in the Caribbean. You’d think two weeks surrounded by sea, surf, and sun would be an obvious ‘pleasant inn’ and an exceptional time of refreshment. The snorkelling was indeed a delicious distraction from life in Winnipeg, but the knowledge that I could’ve come home even more refreshed than I did led me to a Lenten lesson. I know that the Caribbean ‘inn’ would have been all it was meant to be for me if I’d been more deliberate in adopting the wisdom of Epictetus while I was there: “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” But God is gracious, and despite my poor attitude there were many moments of joy because He showed Himself to me time and again in countless and often surprising ways: “The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything” (Julian of Norwich). As my physical deterioration persists, so does fear of the unknown, and God has graciously given me another ‘inn’ recently that is providing philosophical refreshment; a book by Samuel Wells called Be not Afraid, Facing Fear with Faith. Early in the book Wells relates a short anecdote about waiting in a buffet line, noticing the struggles of the young woman in front of him who’s just learned that her crutches will be a life-long necessity, and asking her, “How on earth do you manage with the crutches and all the inconvenience?” She answers Wells, “You get used to it.” As my mobility becomes increasingly tenuous, it was heartening to read these words that echoed the thoughts I expressed 3 years ago: “I’m learning to partner with my pain and have discovered that one really does ‘adjust’ to perpetual pain. It has simply become a part of daily life that I’ve grown accustomed to.”
Half a year later, I referred to this adjustment as a coping mechanism that I think God in his mercy has hard-wired into my body. That having been said, I am still hoping that my chronic neuropathic pain, musculoskeletal pain and paraesthesia, will soon respond to the meds I’ve been taking. I have my annual appointment with Dr. Vesoughi in May. The MS clinic protocol is to have patients complete a questionnaire at every visit. I detest this questionnaire because most of the questions have little to do with my progressive relapsing condition, pertaining to time between, and duration of, relapses. And the rest of the questions involve grading individually, on a scale of one to ten, my ability to perform any number of daily functions and then grading the pain and difficulty I experience in doing so. It was a relief last year to discover an answer near the end of the questionnaire that encapsulated well the self-diagnostic answer that I will opt for in May: “Everything is now harder to do.”
It requires considerable concentration, but I am still able to run. Although it’s been several months since I’ve fallen while running, in the Cayman the girls watched as I took an innocuous but embarrassing tumble while standing right next to Len.
In his chapter on healing, Wells presents a lucid explanation connecting healing and salvation, and closes the chapter with these astute lines: “So the question, does God heal? can only be asked alongside the question, does God save? And these are the answers. Does God heal me? Sometimes. Does God save me? Always. Always. Always.”
The blessings of Easter to you!
Colleen Peters is married to Len, and is a mother of two girls and twin boys. She taught at Winnipeg’s Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute before beginning to raise a family, and as her children grew she returned to teaching on a part-time basis. Neurological anomalies surfaced in 2004, and she was eventually diagnosed with Progressive Relapsing Multiple Sclerosis, the condition with which she continues to live.