I had a phone call last week to set up my first appointment with a new spiritual director. We're already well acquainted; she taught the second year of my spiritual direction formation class. She knows all about what's been happening to me since I've been ill.
Near the end of our phone call she suggested that I have been courageous and inspirational in her view and in others'. Some readers/friends have said the same. Those two words: Courageous. Inspirational.
I told her in all sincerity that I did not have the slightest idea what she was talking about.
And I didn't.
It looks different from the outside. That I know. I've been on the outside so many times. I've watched other people suffer -- undergo chemotherapy, divorce, bury a spouse or a child. I have had the thought. He's so inspiring. She's so brave. Strong. Faithful
But what did I know? All those things and more may well have been true of the people to whom I ascribed them. Still, I suspect that I was also engaging in projection. What I was projecting into his grief and her cancer and their broken marriage was my own fear.
I didn't want to be them. I believed I couldn't survive it. As I looked at this or that person who was surviving, I felt like they had to be endowed with something I didn't have, a superpower for overcoming adversity. Now, I know for a fact that I possess nothing of the sort, so I hesitate when someone calls me brave. But I've still been projecting, because I don't know what someone else is thinking or feeling when they call me brave. I may have done or said something of that sort from my fear, but that doesn't mean you're afraid.
I took the question with me when I went to meet with my director. She is very wise and discerning, and I wanted to know what God might be saying to me about these foreign-sounding words, courageous, inspiring.
Here's what I knew before I walked through the door for my appointment: I knew that, for the most part, my seeming courage wasn't virtue, because it wasn't a choice. I simply haven't felt afraid. I don't know why. I explained it to my daughter this way: "I think God is hiding from me how deep the bottom of this well really was. I can imagine getting to the top and looking down and thinking, 'Wow. That is far to fall.'" But for now, I don't see it, at least not most of the time.
That I knew. There was still a lot I didn't know. What my director said was as helpful as it was surprising. She said, "Your toenails are painted." She said, "I don't know who painted them [a friend who, when I said I didn't know how I would reach to cut my toenails, drove to her house for clippers and nail polish], and I don't care. You could be laying on the couch in the fetal position, but your toenails are painted. Red."
Then I understood a little bit, because there is one choice I have made. I've chosen to say, Yes. Yes to gifts of expensive blenders and meals and visits and potted plants that I know I'm going to kill, yes to red painted toenails. Yes, God help me, to myositis.
On a shelf in my spiritual director's home, just across from where I sat, is a beautiful wood-painted icon of the Annunciation. As the angel comes to Mary, looking quite earnest, Mary looks frankly horrified. She seems to be saying, "You want me to do what?" I have spent a fair amount of time in prayer these past several months suggesting to God that, while I'd like to trust His good will, I rather question His sound judgment. This is the plan?
And so it is. Not that I believe for an instant that God wills our suffering. I do believe that God uses it all. He's using this.
I want Him to. Please! If I have to spend weeks and months like this, without any physical strength, helpless and dependent, dear Lord in heaven, use it!
Not that I was given a choice about the myositis. It came without advanced announcement or invitation. Honestly, I can imagine having been given a choice and saying yes to this. I'm not dying. The sickness is contained within my body, not in the body of someone else I love. Granted, many, many people, from my husband and children outward in widening ripples are sacrificing a great deal to take care of me right now. It would have been difficult -- probably impossible -- for me willingly to have assented to that. Yet it has come, and to it, I have said, with as much sincerity as I can muster, Yes. I receive you.
Whatever is in this, I don't want to miss it. I know there are treasures to be uncovered amidst the rubble of this mess. Some I have already glimpsed, like this new experience of gratitude. Some I may not realize the value of for years to come. Some I may recognize only when the Kingdom comes. But to all of it, my will and my heart say, Okay, Lord. If we're going to do this thing, let's do it.
So my toenails are red and my walker is wound in purple ribbons like a parade float and I look for what's funny and share it whenever I can. If that's somehow courageous or inspiring, it's all grace. I don't know how to do this any other way.