On Roses and Thorns

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Transplant Day Eighteen
November 29, 2019

There is always more than one way to experience an event, a setback, a difficult season of life. “Look on the bright side,” is a common admonition. Or “count your blessings.” Or “consider the alternative.” And that is just naming a few of the many pieces of advice people have offered me in the past few weeks. Problem is, I am at a time of life when I really don’t want to hear all the “good” advice. I have a retort, expressed out loud or just in my mind, that asks, “Have you walked in my shoes?”

Of course I know the answer to that — no one has walked in my shoes. No one knows how I feel, or how deeply I am languishing. No one understands well enough to give me positive admonitions. The truth is twofold: one) that other people are giving me positive affirmation because they truly care; and two) ultimately I will have to work out my own ways of coping and getting to the point of feeling positive again.

It’s a process, and not an easy one. It takes introspection, being gentle with myself and a good amount of positive self-talk. In a way, I am doing exactly what others are trying to do for me. I am contemplating the same positive advice others have given me. I get into my inner self and I think through positive admonitions and even simple platitudes designed to lift my spirit.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes not so much. It depends upon so many factors, at least for me. How is my pain? Do I feel worried or anxious? Do I feel as if my body is healing? Do I feel cared for? Are my medications playing havoc with me? Do I believe I can live with my limitations and restrictions? How close is my relationship with God? How positive is my outlook on life? How strong is my faith and do I feel hopeful about the future?

I read many years ago one of those simple platitudes designed to help create a positive outlook. 

We can complain because roses have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.

I copied it. I rendered it in calligraphy. I looked up its origin. As I contemplate it in the suffering of this post transplant season, I can’t help but believe that it must have affected me in some positive way because I have remembered it for more than 25 years.

So it’s essentially a choice I have to make — complain about the thorns or enjoy the roses. It’s not a bad life lesson to tuck into my heart and sit with for this difficult season of my life.

Oh, and by the way, most of the time when people offer me positive encouragement, I feel loved and cared for. I feel their compassion and the hope they lift up before me. I am grateful for that and for them.

Itchy! Shaky! Puffy!*

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Transplant Day Sixteen
November 27, 2019

An endearing Physician’s Assistant, Melanie, listened carefully to my symptoms, complaints, concerns and pains, taking very seriously every snippet of information I gave her. She responded with a well thought out remedy for each of my concerns. She was thorough in explaining how we would address every problem and she did so with humor and compassion. Melanie was obviously highly trained and impeccably qualified to treat transplant patients. She had many years of experience and could explain every symptom and prescribe a plan to address it. Her encouragement that the unpleasantness would pass over time was a boost to my courage. Her gift to me was increased patience and a renewal of my hope.

At the end of our session, Melanie offered a summary of the visit, a very descriptive, professional and astute summary. “You’re just having a rough patch right now,” she said, “Itchy, shaky and puffy!”

All of a sudden, I knew her words would be the title of my next blog post. “Itchy, shaky and puffy!” Perfect! Simple descriptive words — not just sterile clinical jargon — but extremely real and true. And that’s what my family and friends want most to know. What are you really feeling?

The truth is that, from the transplant itself, I am recovering well, and now with very little pain. But the effects of my high-powered immunosuppressant medications are playing havoc on my body and all its systems.

Itchy — enough to keep me awake through the night.

Shaky — along with weakness makes it hard to walk and even feed myself.

Puffy — I can’t even describe the pressure in my legs that feels like a balloon about to burst. Two times their normal size is not an exaggeration!

There you have it — a very real, true and human description of how I am faring post transplant. It is pure grace to be able to counter the simple description of my ailments with the simple words of encouragement from the Gospel of Luke:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

— Luke 12:6-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

When all is said and done, I am beginning to believe that I really will emerge from this transplant with a stronger faith and an everlasting hope, having learned how to trust God more fully and know in my heart of God’s healing mercies. Most of all, I want to get past this transplant with words of praise to God on my lips, like the Psalmist, declaring that my mourning has turned to dancing:

Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

— From Psalm 30


* With thanks to Melanie.

What’s Underneath?

A07A5421-F042-40D4-A143-32391BBC79FBToday, a friend’s blog posed a provocative question. It was provocative enough to stop me in my tracks. Likely, I was right in the middle of a tirade of complaints when this question challenged me. This was the question: “If I let go of my complaints, what might be underneath?” *

The question presented a plethora of thoughts for me. It opened up that place underneath just for a second. But then I quickly moved back to the complaints. I have many. Or at least I believe I have many reasons to complain. But I’m realizing that complaints are surface things. They live outside of us and do not always reflect the inner emotions we are truly feeling.

A complaint develops easily and blurts out what’s on the surface of our lives. It flows easily off the tongue and falls upon any willing listener. The empathy we receive from that willing listener keeps the complaints alive. If someone listens to us and responds with caring about our complaint, it is then cemented. We have given it life, perhaps life beyond what it deserves.

This brings us back to the probing question: “If I let go of my complaints, what might be underneath?”

If gratefulness for the obvious graces that we have received replaced the urge to complain, we would be surprised at the result. If, instead of lodging a complaint, we spent some time exploring what lives “underneath,” we might well gain true insight into our emotional state. 

So we would do well to ask ourselves what’s underneath the complaint we speak out loud? Is it true that our complaint rises from a deep place inside of us but hides the emotion there?

If my complaint, for instance, is that I am overworked, perhaps underneath is the constant feeling that I’m being taken advantage of. If my complaint is that I have to endure an illness, perhaps the feeling underneath is that I fear suffering, even death. If I am terrified of death, perhaps I am not certain I left a good and lasting legacy. If I’m languishing in retirement, perhaps the emotion “underneath” is that, now that I am not “ministering,” I am questioning my self-worth.

You might be asking why this is important. It is important because whatever lives inside of us holds the power to harm us physically, emotionally and spiritually. What could we do instead of complaining? 

  • We might begin with silence that moves us a bit towards serenity.
  • Next, we will practice mindfulness that helps center us.
  • We woukd do well to contemplate gratitude for the graces of life. 
  • Then we should pray for insight, comfort and healing, not only praying for what we need from God, but also listening for God, abiding for a while in God’s presence.
  • Then we must take time for what might be the most important practice of all: introspection and self-reflection.

One of the primary goals of introspection is to better comprehend our inward life and to learn to focus it towards fulfillment of self. To go there is to invite vulnerability, healthy vulnerability that softens the hard places inside me that are wounded. Then we need to pull up from our inner resources just a little bit of courage.

When all is said and done, each of us is given a critical choice: do we complain about all that is not right? Or does courage enable us to look underneath our complaints and discover what our true emotions are?

For myself, I have to ponder these questions: What am I grieving? What have I lost? What do I fear? Underneath my whining and complaining (which I am very apt to do) I will find a gift, a treasure that is my very soul and spirit, and the emotions that abide there.

And as a bonus, I will have found a better way to live my “one wild and precious life.” **

* From A Network of Grateful Living

** From a poem by Mary Oliver.