Here is the second of three posts in which I respond, out of my own experience with serious illness, to a few themes in Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful book, When Breath Becomes Air. I ended the first with this resolve: The only way to live is to live.
In tension with that kind of resolve is Kalanithi’s claim that “Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day” (196).
Before being diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, I had burned energy like a gas-guzzling car. I’d never had a coherent and sensible “energy policy”: I used what I had and trusted that more would always be easy to come by.
These days, I face occasional energy shortages, and I’m having to develop an understanding of renewable and sustainable energy. I’m learning—and I’m such a slow learner– to be a wiser steward of this limited resource.
After all, it isn’t infinitely replenishable; there are limits to every one’s energy and to our capacities to generate more. To be human is to be limited. Of course, none of us wants to accept false limits which are too narrow for the scope of our lives. There are real limits, though, which have a great deal to teach us about the contours and possibilities of life. An ongoing prayer of mine is: “Help me to honor my limits as boundaries within which I may live freely, gladly, and responsibly and to embrace vulnerability as an expression of strength rather than its opposite.”
Until my experience with cancer, I knew only one mode of “self-care”: the “command and control” mode I learned from a variety of sources, typified by my football coaches: set high goals for physical (or emotional or spiritual) conditioning and train hard. From nearly every direction, I heard this familiar order: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” To take care of myself was to be tough on myself.
I’ve known next to nothing about how to care for myself when toughness is self-destructive, when strength disappears, when it’s necessary to back-off from the next higher goal, and when it’s impossible to do anything other than surrender. I’m having to learn about compassion for myself when I am weak, when I can’t, and when I don’t know.
I’ve especially needed to learn about rest, not forced rest which utter exhaustion necessitates, but chosen rest which renews and restores energy for living while dying. In words that cause me to imagine the restorative peace of idle hours beside a mountain stream, Jesus invites us to his gift of chosen rest: “Come to me all you labor and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.”