Percolating underneath the physical demands of radiation and chemo therapy a recurrent question keeps bubbling up: what value am I to the world I occupy? When I’m feeling so sick from chemotherapy that I can hardly move myself to the office, when my leg muscles have shrunk so much I can’t ride my bike, when my strength has fallen off so much I can barely help my wife lift a fern to its hanging chain on the patio, when I’m sitting, resting, not producing anything of substance – do I still have value? Even the hearing in my right ear has faded!
What do I do with the self-image I’ve cultivated through 40 years of serious cycling of a lean, mean cycling machine? (I’ll pause while you laugh.) When my lycra shorts gap on my thinning thighs, what does that say about me? Shoot, even my underwear threatens to fall off! When I can’t speak very well, and thus, have difficulty preaching – which defined the backbone of my whole career – what does that say about ME? I no longer have a functioning right trapezius muscle, so I shrug asymmetrically. I don’t have functioning saliva glands, so food tastes like mud mixed with metal, as one cancer patient I met described it. What’s going to be left? The trapezius loss is permanent. They tell me the hearing will return, but right now, and for a few more months, I will not have “life as normal.” In fact, I know I’m heading toward the proverbial “new normal.”
Oh, how blithely I’ve said it over the years, “You have value beyond what you do! Your worth isn’t rooted in your accomplishments, or lack thereof. You’re loved above and beyond your list of credentials, beautiful beyond the appearance of your body, valuable beyond what you contribute to the company!” I still believe that, but now I discover that I’m a little thin on the skill to live out that wisdom.
Interesting. All those things I’ve listed have been taken away, but I’m still here. Those things I listed, then, are not the “original me.”
Well what happens to “me” when cancer treatments shoot a hole in my life? When my capacity to preach, counsel, teach, and visit gets restricted? What happens to “me” when I can’t sing, nor hear well the music played by others? What happens to me when I’m dependent upon my wife, when creativity lags, and Lord knows, any aesthetic appeal I’ve ever had sort of melts away? What’s left?
Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled, “Our Greatest Gift,” in which he reflects deeply on the reality of his mortality. Early, he makes the statement, “[this time] calls me to detach myself from the scaffolding of daily life and to discover if anything there can stand on its own when the traditional support systems have been pulled away.”
It is time for a reframing, to ask some serious questions about what “scaffolding” I’ve erected around myself. Scaffolding helps keep buildings maintained, but they also obscure the view. Now that so much of my “scaffolding” has come down, what new thing can I see? Perhaps it might be the “new normal.”