my sofa nook
Who am I? And who are you? As I sit or lie in my sofa nook with a chronic illness which limits my activities and cuts me off from a busy world, I often ponder what it’s all about. What is the meaning, the purpose of a life such as mine? In a busy world that judges us all by what we achieve, that counts the number of trophies we can place on the shelves of our minds at the end of each day, my sense of self-identity can so easily slip away.
It’s very tempting for those of us with chronic health issues to compare our lives with the healthy lives of those around us. Unfortunately, when we do this, we all too often come away with the feeling that we are “lessened,” that our stories are curtailed, incomplete, deficient. With so little to show for our lives, it’s easy to wonder who we really are.
After his resurrection, Jesus warns his disciple Peter that a time will come when he will no longer be in control of his life. Peter’s response is immediate. He points to another disciple and asks, “and what about him?” Jesus tells him rather sharply that that is really none of his business. Don’t compare your life and your destiny with his, Jesus tells him. Just “follow me.” Just live out your own story, and let him live out his. A challenging directive. To Peter…to me…and to all of us.
Henri Nouwen in his little book Discernment tells of a friend who discovered in his 50’s that he had cancer. He had been a very active man, and he had always defined himself by all the good things that he was able to accomplish. Who was he now with his body crippled with cancer and exhausted from all the treatments? Nouwen and his cancer-ridden friend puzzled together over this.
As we might expect from Nouwen, he offered his friend some profound insights. He suggested that he should see that his vocation as a human was to be fulfilled not in his activities and accomplishments but rather in his ACCEPTANCE of his situation. In his WAITING to discover what God was about in his life. In his deep AWARENESS that God, not his activity, was the center of his life, and that God is always the one at work to define our lives and to help us determine just who we are.
To live out such a vocation is truly a challenge. I would so much rather define myself by what I accomplish. I want my activities to be the center and focus of my tiny universe. I want to control my possibilities. I want to see who I am in the row of daily trophies sitting on my mind’s shelf.
A character in Anthony Doerr’s short story “Mkondo” tells a lost soul who’s searching for his life, “the only way to find something is to lose it first.” Along with countless others who live with a chronic illness, I have lost many of the trimmings that I once relied upon to define my life. But I do believe that in my losing I have also been finding. It’s a slow finding, to be sure, and it’s a finding filled with many questions and many doubts. But it’s a finding, nonetheless. The finding of a growing stillness within. The finding of a deepened attentiveness to the layers of life around me and within me. The finding more of God’s life burning within my own, even in those moments when I feel so unsure of who I am.
A challenge, yes. But when all is said and done, perhaps this is the challenge not just for those of us who live with “chronic.” Perhaps this is the challenge for the healthy as well as the not-so-healthy. To let go of old self-definitions. To learn the way of acceptance, the way of waiting, the way of awareness.
Who am I? And who are you? And what’s it really all about? We’ll probably never, in this lifetime, know the full answer to all the mysteries of our lives, but perhaps we may come closer to knowing who we really are as we lose more of our “trophy” selves and find ways to live into patterns of a quiet openness to our innermost selves and to the God who lives and breathes through all our doings. Through all our not-doings as well.