One of the standard pastoral care questions I have often posed to persons who are dealing with a life challenging situation is: “What are you learning through this experience?” Over the past several weeks I have been asking myself this question as I’ve spent time on the other side of the pastoral care equation.
Without going into all the details I’ll share a little background:As a promise to my wife I followed through on a standard health screening for “someone of my age” in the middle of March. While the initial outcome seemed positive, a week later I was summoned to my physician’s office to discuss a problem with my results. In consultation with a pathologist, and the other members of his practice, he was recommending surgery as an intervention to what he termed an “early detection” of a potentially serious problem. When I explained how inconvenient this would be to some short-term plans I had on my calendar, and asked if we might postpone this surgery until the Fall, he said, “I’m not willing to gamble with your life.” A subsequent visit with the surgeon backed up this same analysis and need for action, so surgery was scheduled for about a month out. I’m happy to report that the surgery (a colon resection) took place on May 4th without any complications and I am continuing to recover, having received the great follow up news that the post-surgery pathology indicated no additional concerns!
So, this leads me back to my question and the true subject of this post: What am I learning through this experience? It’s such an easy question to ask as a pastoral care giver, but now I understand why persons often need some time to formulate their response.
As I have reflected on my own response to the question, what I am learning falls into two general categories: 1) What I am learning about myself, and 2) What I have learned about and from others. I’ll start with the second category, as it has been the easier discovery of the two.
What have I learned about and from others?
- People in the healthcare field are generally very compassionate and kind. I will forever be grateful to the endoscopy team, surgery team, post-op team, floor nurses, care partners, lab staff, food service and cleaning personnel who offered me assistance and their expertise throughout this ordeal. To a person I was treated with respect, dignity and genuine care. Personalities differ, but those who are in this industry, most especially the nurses in my own recent experience, are in it because of a sense of call. We are blessed to have such a competent health care system in our country and local community.
- Prayer makes a difference. As persons discovered my story (which, admittedly I initially kept pretty close to the vest) the most common and helpful response was “I will be praying for you.” And I know they (you) did. Those prayers were especially felt as I entered the operating room and endured my first night post-op. I knew I was not alone, but was being and had been presented before the Lord in intercession.
- We all need a community. My family and I continue to be on the receiving end of various gestures of kindness and care giving. In addition to my family, whose visits and calls were the best medicine of all, my primary community is the First Baptist Church of Columbus. I was hesitant to share too much too soon with the church I pastor because I didn’t want my issues to take over center stage in our faith community. That may sound strange to some, but for a guy who often occupies center stage, but never sought to, take me at my word – I had to fight a strong internal voice that said “don’t tell anyone, just keep it yourself.” But along the way the Lord continually revealed to me that I needed to let the church be the church. With wise counsel from a few trusted leaders I found a way to navigate sharing my news while at the same time setting some personal boundaries when it came to privacy and preference. I have been humbly touched by the outpouring of concern, as well as the practical and respectful support I have been extended during this time.
What I am learning about myself:
- It’s OK to ask for help. Like many of my gender, and most in my DNA stream, I do not often ask for help. It’s not that I don’t appreciate help, or even understand that I need it, I just have a hard time asking. But getting to the other side of this experience has required help. So I have learned it’s OK to ask for and accept help. And I have learned that when you do ask, people are willing, ready and able to help.
- Why not me? This has been my thinking since first being called into the doctor’s office. I have lived a very blessed life, and I have the good fortune to be dealing with my health problem in a first world situation. But there is nothing that should exempt me from the fate of flunking a colonoscopy. I keep a saying posted above my desk at home that reads: “Each day over 50 is a gift. I choose to live this day in celebration of that gift.” I posted that saying on my 50th birthday, an acknowledgement that two siblings did not live much past their number 52. That saying takes on new meaning today.
- I’m not in control. I think we all live to some extent with the illusion of control – some of us more than others. When you are one who plans, thinks ahead, understands details and doesn’t like to be surprised; well, you might just have some control issues! But I was not in control of my situation over the past days. I was not in control of the news, the timing, the process, or the outcome. Efforts at control flirt awfully close with worry. I’ve learned that as I set aside worry, over things I could not control, I was freed to trust in God that “all will be well”. In fact, that was the phrase that came to me as I prayed: “All will be well, and all will be well.” And, I believe it will be, and it has been, and it would be no matter what the outcome. Why? Because in the end God is the One who is in control and faith is our acknowledgement of that truth.
A friend reminded me, upon hearing my initial health news, that “life is what happens when you’ve made other plans.” So true. My initial response to the doctor’s news on the day of that office consult was, “I can’t afford this interruption. I have too many other plans.” As it has turned out I could, and can, afford the interruption and it has given me an opportunity to learn.
These are some of the “things I am learning” . . . . I am sure there will be more. Now, let me ask you, “What are you learning from whatever experience it is that has come your way?”