I love gardening, but I usually find myself starting to loose the battle against weeds by early May, and by July my garden is overrun simply because I don't have the energy or stamina to get out there and fight them, especially as temperatures climb and I wilt, just like my unwatered flowers, in the heat. I don't know that this year will be any different, but I can dream of a beautiful rose garden, can't I?
So with high hopes of a different outcome this year, I set out to do my gardening thing this morning while those weeds are still young and tender and the air is cool. Things went along well for the first few minutes, until suddenly I felt this irritating sensation in my hand every time I moved it or tried to grasp something.
The pain wasn't debilitating, just "there" enough to keep me from being able to pull weeds properly or make much headway in my battle. At first I tried to ignore it and keep pushing through, but the more I tried to go on with my work in spite of the pain, the more "stabbing" the sensation grew. What was wrong? Nothing obvious, so I tried different ways of grasping those weeds without using my thumb and discovered that an opposable digit really is necessary for weeding!
On very close inspection I discovered the tiniest of thorns, just barely visible, poking out of the pad of my thumb. It looked so small that it seemed I should be able to simply brush or even blow it away without consequence. But the more I tried to get rid of it, the deeper I drove it into my own flesh and the more irritated my hand became.
I went for the tweezers but just couldn't get a good grasp on it. By very nature of it's minuet size, that thorn became more problematic to remove than a big splinter would have been. That speck on my thumb ultimately put a halt to my gardening for the rest of the day.
After favoring this hand all day long I've finally realized that I will probably have to wait for it to fester before I can work that irritating little thorn out of there. How could something so seemingly insignificant cause me to have to change my plans not only in gardening but in several other normal, daily tasks today too? The whole experience has left me reflecting on what it is like to live with the progression of little, daily, ongoing losses in chronic illness.
Yes, of course a thorn so tiny that it can't be grasp with tweezers may seem trite in relation to significant health issues! But might not some of the same general principles apply?
Before I first got sick, I set out with a goal, my college degree ahead of me. That first week when everyone else on campus was sick too, I didn't give my illness much more thought than I did that first irritating little thorn poke this morning. But as my fellow-students began returning to class and my fevers and nausea and memory lapses and debilitating fatigue dragged on for weeks on end, I began to see this was not something I could just keep pushing through and went home to sleep through three weeks of Christmas vacation.
Unlike my gardening today, I actually tried to return to the task at hand as I attempted a second semester at school. Within 36 hours back in the dorm I was as sick as I had ever been prior to those weeks of mom's home-cooked meals and pampering. This began my "grasping at straws" (or should I say, "grasping at thorns"?) stage of the journey, months of desperately seeking medical answers and trying every "sure cure" that was offered to me. Just like trying to remove the thorn caused greater irritation to my thumb, many of the things I tried in hopes of regaining my health actually exacerbated the situation and caused further decline.
A diagnosis finally came in the midst of that grasping stage. Just as finding that tiny thorn in my thumb answered some questions about why I was experiencing the pain I felt, I was relieved to have a name for my illness as well. But that relief was short-lived as I moved from grasping to festering with boiling anger as the realities of such a diagnosis sank in. I was not only fighting my illness but the heart-infection of bitterness as I raged against a broken body, broken dreams, and the loss of my any illusions I had of being in control.
I had to fester for a long time before I could reach the acceptance stage. Here I realized I was going to need to alter my life significantly around my "thorn" and learn to live with it for as long as it took to work it’s way out (in this case, maybe the rest of my lifetime). I had to develop a new definition of "normal" daily life, accepting that this form of "normal" could vary dramatically from day to day or sometimes even from moment to moment. Just as in gardening the simple task of grasping a weed was unexpected hindered by pain shooting through my thumb, my new normal with chronic illness sometimes includes feeling "fine" as I step out the door to get the mail, only to find myself unprepared for the exhausting effort of trying to walk back up the driveway.
When my husband came home from work tonight he immediately noticed three long scratches across the back of my hand, the result of carelessly brushing up against a rose bush this morning. But he didn't notice that little thorn in my thumb until I took the time and seemingly silly effort to point it out to him. Strangely enough, though they look ugly, those scratches don't hurt much, hardly even bother me at all. It's that unseen thorn that causes me to alter the very way I usually do things. Just as in illness, often the obvious struggles are easier to cope with than the unseen conditions that cause others to wonder why I claim to be sick or can be unreliable to fulfilling my commitments when I look so healthy.
In the book of 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, the apostle Paul writes:
7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.- NIV
I don’t know all the reasons why God has allowed my “thorn in the flesh”. Is it to keep me from becoming conceited? Possibly so, for I know illness has certainly humbled me and helped me to realize that God is God and I am not!
Is it a “messenger of Satan” intended to torment me? Only God knows for sure why He allows any kinds of trials in my life, but I am comforted by the book of Job to see that if satan has been allowed to bring any pain into my life, that his influence must be filtered and tempered through Heaven first. He can only touch me as far as God allows and his powers are limited by God's strict parameters. Like Job, I can only see a terribly small sliver of what is actually happening in our world as influenced by the spiritual realms, but I do know that God is the one ultimately in control!
So as for the source of my "thorn" I can say with confidence that I know that God has the power to prevent these trials, but in His great wisdom He has chosen to allow them in my life (be it directly through satan or simply as a natural by-product of this broken, fallen world) for some perfect reason. Because I cannot see the big picture from His perspective, instead I must cling to His promise that His grace is enough and accept that His power can shine most fully through me when I yield my heart to His plans. Therefore, I will boast gladly in my weakness and thank Him for the power that He gives me for every step He enables me to take, every breath He blesses me to draw.
James chapter 1 says,
2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
I don’t know that I can honestly say I “delight” in my weaknesses quite yet, though I am beginning to see that if it was "given" to me, then I can choose to accept it as a "gift" and look for joy even in the midst of struggle and pain. A bit later in that James passage we read,
17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.Even though my physical condition is ever changing, I can cling to my unchanging God! I pray that He will refine and mature me through this process so that others will see Christ’s strength in and through me even if they fail to understand about my thorns.
The theme of the May Christians with Chronic Illness Blog Carnival is "Coping with Loss". What is something you miss since you have had your chronic illness/pain? How have you been able to adjust and accept the fact you can no longer do “it”? What new hobbies or activities have you found you enjoy that somewhat replace what you lost? What has your family missed concerning your illness and how have you found a way to change the way you do things so you can still participate in family activities? Read additional articles from theis Carnival at http://chronicillnesssupport.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/christians-with-chronic-illness-blog-carnival-2
Submit your ideas for the June carnival at ChristiansWithIllnessBlogCarnival.com by June 5 to have your post considered for next month's carnival selections. Next month's topic is anything related to children while living with chronic illness, such as keeping them busy over the summer, the grief of not being able to have kids (or maybe choosing not to due to illness), the stress of keeping up with kids, etc.