Grappling with Life’s Numb Moments

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Hiding from the numbness: Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. SJG photo

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. — Albert Einstein

Over the course of my treatment, my chemotherapy drugs have caused what is known as “peripheral neuropathy.” In short, my hands and feet are numb. My size-ten feet tingle when I walk, which sounds a little like a line from a Broadway musical, but it’s far less entertaining. When the neuropathy first kicked in, I kept dropping things (most memorably a full glass of milk all over the kitchen floor) because my sense of touch had changed with the deadening of the nerves in my hands. I learned to laugh while I cleaned up the messes, and my wife learned to never just hand me a drink without asking, “you got it?”

All in all, I guess it’s a pretty small price to pay for the unrelenting work these killer-chemicals are doing to beat the disease into remission, so I’m not really complaining. But nevertheless this numbness is a strange and constant reminder of the whole kit and caboodle—disease and treatment rolled into one unique experience.

Mostly I ignore the neuropathy since there’s no point in battling it. But there have been moments when I have been tempted to give in to this numbness in my extremities and let it take over the rest of my life. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to just give up and give in, even when I know that it’s not true. Such was the case one day not long ago when I was at church. There I sat, feeling like I’d really rather be home, watching the Cardinals game, putting my tingling feet up on the ottoman and allowing my peripheral neuropathy to ooze in from the edges and take over the rest of my body and soul. I was numb all over—inside and out—and wasn’t in the mood to feel much of anything. At that moment I was almost ready to surrender, to throw in the towel and become a victim to the disease. And “victim” was a word I had sworn to myself I would never use when describing myself and my battle with this disease.

So it’s a good thing that my faith, however fragile it can be from time to time, doesn’t rely on how I feel. For my faith, I believe, takes me further and deeper and closer to the truth than any feelings I might have on any given day. So instead of walking out of the church, I settled into my pew to see what God might have to say to me on that fine autumn day. The reading (from Wisdom, chapter 9) grabbed me like an old mother cat grabs a newborn kitten—seemingly roughly but actually gently by the scruff of the neck. I sat up straighter and paid closer attention.

“Who can know God’s counsel,” it began, “or who can conceive what the Lord intends?” I swallowed hard. Who knows, indeed? The lector continued: “For the corruptible body burdens the soul…”

Even as the words about my corruptible body were spoken (for surely, I thought, these words were meant for me alone), I felt the lightening of my burden. At that instant, I recognized my “condition” for what it was—God’s will and intention for me, as least for now. As I accepted (and even rejoiced) in that, I felt the numbness lift itself from my soul and mind, even as it stayed on the tips of my fingers and the balls of my feet. The miracle that took place at that moment was all inside me.

Dizzying numbness: Missouri Botanical Garden "Glow," St. Louis. SJG photo

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t then and am not now surrendering to the disease; rather, I am surrendering to God and learning what it means to trust and accept his will for my life. I don’t yet know how this disease and its treatment fit into the plans God has for me and my life. The disease is well on its way into “remission,” which is still a somewhat scary word because it doesn’t quite mean the same thing as “cured.” But I’ll take it.

Our faith in God doesn’t deliver us from the evil of physical disease, nor from the violence and hatred engrained in the world around us. As people of faith we are not immune from anything that might happen to us as human beings living on planet Earth. But God does ask us to accept his intention for our lives and run the remainder of the race with it. God asks us not to be numb to his meaning and presence in our lives. He asks us not to be numb to those around us.

For our lives, I once heard explained at a funeral service, cannot and will not be measured by the dates of our birth and death but rather by the “dash between,” that small line of punctuation etched between those two dates that signifies all we are, all we love, all we have accomplished, and all we have given God in return.

That I (or any of us, for that matter) am here at all – living, walking around, making music, and loving friends and family — is a wonder beyond words. That I am known by God, who has a will and an intention for my life, is a miracle beyond my understanding and a grace I can only accept with humility and awe. And I will not be numb to that miracle. I cannot be.

Up Next: Finding God at the Center

I will be giving a retreat based on my book this summer from July 14 – 16 at the Marianist Retreat and Conference Center just outside St. Louis. “Embraced by God” will be a weekend retreat exploring the spirituality of living with cancer and other chronic diseases. For more information, visit: http://mretreat.org

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