We’ve got a lot of recovering to do, don’t we?
We’re trying to move toward healthier and more whole lives in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic; unveilings of entrenched racism, growing income inequality, and inadequacies in our healthcare systems; political unrest which is both consequence and cause of deepening divisions among us; and the coopting of many churches by ideologies which marginalize Jesus and his unconditionally loving, justice-demanding, and mercy-showing good news.
The journey of recovery will be difficult, and recovery doesn’t mean a return to whatever kind of normal we had before; it’s not attainable, and, besides, it wasn’t good enough, not for all of us.
Over the last seven and a half years, I’ve been learning some things about recovery and health. I’ve been living with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow and blood. Treatment, with its challenging side-effects, is ongoing. I’ve also had open-heart surgery to repair a long-standing issue with my mitral valve; it was several months after surgery before I regained the strength and stamina I’d had before.
Cancer and its treatment were major factors in my leaving the pastorate in 2015, about two months shy of my 58th birthday, as well as in my giving up university teaching in 2019. There have been gains and gifts in these “early retirements” for which I’m grateful, but there have also been losses and regrets which I lament. I work now as a “free-lancer,” writing, speaking, consulting, and offering spiritual guidance. It’s good work but dealing with illness and its diminishments wasn’t how I imagined these years would unfold.
More than anything else, my sense of self has undergone—and continues to undergo—change, some of it painful, as my ego gets both decentered and deflated. The decentering and deflating are right and good, because they make room for a truer and healthier self. Even so, I usually resist the changes before I welcome them.
My experiences have taught me some things about recovery, none of them—no surprise–original to me. Among them:
We need to be patient and compassionate with one another, qualities which are in short supply just now. Physical illness, especially a life-threatening illness like Covid-19, affects the whole person—body, mind, emotions, and spirit—and those who care for those who are ill.
The immediate awareness of death is destabilizing to most people. Denial and minimization, refusing to accept a confirmed diagnosis or thinking that a nonmedical intervention will be enough, are common, as are anxiety, fear, and anger. The pandemic has unleashed a swirl of emotions that are not easily or quickly resolved.
We need to reinvest in the common good; none of us can long flourish unless all of us do. Such reinvestment requires creative and courageous leaders who will challenge our default idolatries of exaggerated individualism and defensive tribalism. Whether we want to be or not, we’re dependent and interdependent. Everyone’s health is intertwined with everyone else’s, which means that healthcare disparities affect us all, especially, of course, those who don’t have access to adequate care.
I rely on the expertise and care of doctors, P.A.s, nurses, technicians, and pharmaceutical researchers to provide treatments which keep me alive. Because Multiple Myeloma compromises my immune system and diminishes the effectiveness of vaccines, I count on strangers to wear masks in crowded public places.
We need to restore trust. I have flowing in my body medications that work in ways I cannot understand. To take them is an act of trust in science. I drive to the cancer center on roads and across bridges I didn’t build. I trust that they are safe. I eat food grown, harvested, processed, transported, stocked, and marketed by people whose names I mostly do not know. Eating is an act of trust. Every day, we exercise a mostly unacknowledged level of trust in one another.
Trust, though, is breaking-down in many arenas, hastened and worsened by leaders and influences who benefit from pitting us against one another. They play fast and loose with facts. Truth gets lost in a haze of gaslighting. Trust cannot increase in the face of a declining commitment to truth. A tool for rebuilding trust is speaking the truth in love, however costly such speaking may prove to be.
We need to acknowledge that wholeness and health aren’t the same as freedom from all brokenness. Sometimes, we can be cured; sometimes, though, we are healed without being cured. We can be restored to feelings of meaning, purpose, and hope, despite ongoing struggles and limitations.
We can grow and become more whole through the challenges we face. Such growth isn’t automatic or easy, but it’s possible if we’re centered in an awareness that love has leverage over fear, grounded in confidence that loss can be a doorway into newness, and surrounded by people who accept us as we are and encourage our becoming who we are meant to be.