Giving Ourselves the Gift of Patience
I’ve been dealing with a nasty case of Shingles for nearly a month, now. It has been a persistently painful experience. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to remind myself during the outbreak phase that these things "take as long as they take." Healing is a long, slow process, requiring large amounts of time and patience.
Chronically ill patients like me don't often get to use the language of "healing;" for us, recovery is measured in tiny increments. "Success" looks like whatever goals the rehab team established as our "functional baseline," our particular blend of ability/disability, the limitations that we'd managed to surmount before the current episode of acute infection or illness came along and knocked the stuffing out of us (again).
I find that I am particularly salty about having contracted Shingles. I'm pretty sure that my indignation is justified. First of all, I'm too young to be in the "risk category" for the disease.
Second, I've been fully vaccinated, and my two doses of Shingrix in 2022 were supposed to prevent 90% of all cases (disclaimer: the pharmaceutical company says they only tested their data with healthy volunteers; they admittedly have no clue what the efficacy rates are for immunocompromised patients).
Third, I live in a place that has cold, snowy weather for six months of the year: after enduring another seemingly endless Calgary winter, I had anticipated spending June in my garden, not in my bed!
Fourth, the neuropathic pain of the Shingles virus has targeted my lumbar spine and flank, and these firey hot fingers of pain have been constant, throbbing, and intense. I already live with severe chronic pain; adding a new quality/intensity of pain to this already miserable mess of a spine just seems fundamentally unfair.
Fifth, getting blindsided by an unexpected illness is always upsetting. I am used to scheduling multiple medical appointments, treatments, and follow-ups on a weekly basis, but the ability to plan ahead allows me to balance my energy level with the medical load so that I can give myself enough "margin" to recover between biopsies, infusions, and procedures. My informal pacing program is a significant component of my successful medical management. Having a new diagnosis land on me "out of the blue" disrupts my carefully calibrated medical schedule and adds stress to other areas of our family schedule. Chronic issues become acute illnesses, the dominoes begin to fall, and chaos quickly ensues.
Sixth, antiviral medications make me feel like a zombie. Bleck. I'm a pukey, dizzy, brain-foggy, forgetful, utterly worn-out mess of a woman, these days. I am the epitome of exhaustion, a shadow of my previously perky and authentically optimistic self.
I just want to hurry up and feel better, already ... which is exactly why I need a generous serving of patience (but the sooner, the better!)
Patience is a gift that we can learn to cultivate, day by day, and situation by situation. Patience is a lot like a spiritual muscle, and it either grows or atrophies, depending on whether we use it regularly, or not.
Our daily interactions certainly give us all ample opportunities to practice extending patience to our friends and neighbours, coworkers and colleagues, family members and strangers (especially the people with questionable driving habits!)
Still, patience can be a hard gift to extend - perhaps particularly so when we need to give this spiritual gift to ourselves.
For example, when our bodies don’t work the way we want them to, how do we respond?
When our work feels overwhelming, or when we feel time-pressured and pulled in a dozen different directions, does our internal monologue reveal kind comments or harsh judgments?
When we feel discouraged about the state of our soul, our family, our community or our congregation, our country, or even the future of our planet during this time of ecological crisis, what is our attitude toward ourselves and toward others?
Where are the places in our lives that need a generous serving of love and compassion, kindness and humility, gentleness and patience?
These are spiritual gifts that God offers to all of us, freely and generously. Once we receive these beautiful gifts from God, we can also choose to give those gifts to ourselves.
Colossians 3:12 is a verse from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It says, “therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
Just like I dressed my body in physical clothing that was suitable for the weather in my local area this morning, I can also choose to get dressed in the spiritual clothing that my circumstances require of me, today and every day. We can choose to put on gentleness instead of acting aggressively; we can wear kindness instead of criticism, too. Humility can replace pridefulness in our capsule wardrobe, and everyone looks gorgeous when pairing patience and compassion - those spiritual qualities look good on literally every body, at every age.
As a disabled person who lives with multiple illnesses and constant chronic pain, my body simply isn't able to complete all the tasks I would like it to. In my mind, I'm still a teenager with endless energy and supple joints; I sometimes forget how easily my osteopenic bones can crack and crumble, or how demanding my Crohn's diseased bowel can become after just half-a-blessed-bowl of cereal in the middle of a morning meeting.
It takes the just-a-little-too-long furtive stare, followed by the subsequent too-embarrassed-to-meet-my-eye scrutiny of a stranger in the grocery store checkout line to remind me of the prominent pink surgical scar that runs from the top of my right ear all the way down to the base of my neck, these days; it's the scar that the ENT surgical team carved into my flesh last October.
A couple of family members initially suggested that it was unsightly, that I should try to cover it up with cosmetics, but I wear it as a badge of honour, now. My scar has become part of my body, and it isn't unsightly to me; in fact, I think that it is beautiful!
That scar is a tangible reminder of the cancer that threatened my life last year, and of the surgeon who painstakingly peeled apart every last layer of the tumour, which was wound around my facial nerve and had grown into my face, neck, lymph nodes, and the major blood vessles, including my carotid artery. The ENT surgeons removed every last bit of that gnarly tumour, and I am thankful for the knowledge and skill demonstrated by every member of my surgical team.
Yes, my mouth droops on one side, my post-surgical ears don't quite match, and I have a "defect" where my right parotid gland and the soft tissue of my neck used to be; yes, there is permanent nerve damage and facial weakness, and it is a persistently odd feeling to walk around with a partially numb face, scalp, and an ear that feels like a hunk of dead cabbage; still, I am grateful for every single "deficit" and I practice patience whenever strangers stare at my scar.
I know that I am beautiful, and that beauty is not DESPITE my physical imperfections and scars, but in large part, BECAUSE of them.
I had to learn how to forgive my body for "letting me down." My cancer diagnosis felt like a betrayal or a failure - as if my immune system just wasn't up for the task of protecting itself - myself - from the daily onslaught of malignant cells, bacteria, fungi, viruses, toxins, and other threats.
I had to learn how to give myself the gift of patience, how to extend gentleness and kindness to my own unique and uniquely vulnerable body.
It wasn't a quick or easy process, but it was definitely a valuable one. Once I figured out how to be patient with myself, then showing patience to nosy neighbours, clueless relatives, and staring strangers got a lot easier, too. Patience requires regular practice. That's the secret!