Sunday, August 9, 2009

Saying Good-bye while Still Present

Today I am mulling what tomorrow is bringing me. I've hired a new person and the staff that has been reporting directly to me for the past twelve years will report to her and she will report to me. Partly this is succession planning for the time when I either leave or go part-time when I get a church, and partly it is so that we strengthen the financial depth and skills at the agency. All good reasons, and I think the person I've hired will be a good fit for the department and the agency. Nonetheless, tomorrow I am saying good-bye to certain relationships, as I am welcoming someone new, and as I am facilitating change.

What I'm doing is not so unusual—we all navigate relationship changes of one sort or another throughout our lives. Still it's hard. I am reminded of the insistence by my CPE site supervisor on the need to say "good" good-byes. A "good" good-bye is not slinking out the door without saying anything or acknowledging how you feel; it is not a hit-and-run good-bye—see you around. A "good" good-bye takes the time to say to people, "you are special to me, and I'll miss you, and while I may be in touch, this particular relationship we've had in this space and time will not be the same." CPE interns have to say good-bye to make space for new interns, pastors have to say good-bye to allow a new pastor to do the work, and tomorrow I get to say good-bye while staying, and allowing new and old people to form relationships with one another, and trust that I have enough internal security and confidence to know that my relationships will survive and matter, although they'll be different, and allow a new person to change what I've been building for the past twelve years, while I watch.

I understand grieving and loss, have taken classes about it, written about it, experienced it myself and with others. In some ways it is easier to face our own losses rather than those of others. I know what I can bear. I can feel when my breaking point is coming. I really do have a break in my voice when talking about those things--a real breaking point when sadness gets the best of vocal self-control. And now when confronted with the immediate tough griefs of sudden deaths, I have grown unfortunately more practiced in being with my friends, colleagues and loved ones. I listen, I empathize, I give a hug, I sit: I've been there.

Gradual loss, saying good-bye while still there, is a different thing, and I have begun to face my own questions about how to be a friend and companion with people who are on that journey, and how to be on that journey myself. I have two friends at church who have been diagnosed with memory disorders, probably Alzheimer's disease. They are still here, still present, but in some ways they are starting to be not here. It's hard to know what kind of friend I can still be, both to them and to their spouses.

I just talked to the son of my next-door neighbor—well, I haven't seen her in three years because she had a cardiac incident and the blood flow to her brain stopped for too long, and perhaps—I think he feels—not long enough. She lives with her daughter now, has supportive caregivers, has a "g" tube. She's alive, but maybe not really living; present, but not here. Some days she recognizes him, some not.

Admitting that you have or that someone you love has a chronic illness is hard. At my workplace we are running support groups for people with chronic illnesses, based on a model developed by Stanford University School of Medicine. One of the things that the research has shown is that while chronic diseases have different symptoms, they share in common these symptoms: fatigue, depression, anxiety, frustration, stress, pain and isolation. Those common symptoms combine to keep the person from living as fully as possible. Chronic disease often and unnecessarily robs a person of control and independence.

In one of my seminary classes, The Transforming Power of Rituals, we brainstormed a list of events for which we have no rituals, and chronic illness was on that list. We have rituals for liminal events, those transitions from one state to another: christenings, dedications, weddings, bar/bas mitzvahs, confirmation, baptism, graduations, and funerals, for example. Clearly we need to create rituals and ways to acknowledge the impact that the gradual loss of capabilities has, not only to the person who is losing capabilities, but for all of us around that person, because our relationships change. The activities we used to do together, the food we ate together, the conversations we had together: all of these can change with a chronic illness. But when it affects your own life it becomes a hard personal task, and any help you might get is a good thing.

Pain and illness do have important functions that we don't usually acknowledge. Gregg Levoy writes this wonderful essay in his book Callings, called "Pandora's Mirror" (p. 90-92).
Several years ago state educators in Lansing, Michigan, halted plans to teach a breathing exercise as part of a health course in kindergarten through the health grade, deferring to concern that deep breathing could promote "devil worship and mysticism."

I understand why they're afraid. As a child, I knew the power of breath. I knew that is I held my breath long enough, I could turn blue and pass out, thereby generating gales of attention. And I used it regularly, or so I'm told by my mother, who still describes it with the kind of dreadful fascination people typically reserve for reminiscing about floods and earthquakes.
Breath is life. It the holy wind that carried the Word. When children begin to feel that this power resides within them, they become too powerful to control, too intuitive to frighten easily.

But Lansing didn't let the program through, thereby doing its part to prevent any swelling in the ranks of devil-worshipping kindergartners, and adding to the already colossal alienation people feel from their bodies. It is an estrangement that prevents us from honoring our bodies as the emissaries they are. Who, after all, wants to enter into intimate relationship, or even conversation, with any-body they were taught to rise above or ignore?

Besides, who knows what we'd find out about ourselves if we peeked into that Pandora's box? Who knows what we might discover our souls are missing, and who needs the grief? A lot of us prefer to treat the symptom rather than face the source. We would rather be cut open from stem to sternum than open our hearts from the inside out.

In addition to our appalling disaffection from the body, we also have a long and pernicious history of linking sickness with sin, of dressing our wounds with guilt and judging our illnesses as failures and evidence of general unworthiness. The cruelest question that is always present, even if unasked, in the presence of illness, said the anthropologist Ernest Becker in his book The Denial of Death, is "Why are you sick?" Or worse, "Why have you done this thing to yourself?"

This attitude is guaranteed to make a sufferer feel worse, and it betrays a kind of arrogance. It implies that we are masters of our fate to such a degree that we can not only create disease but also make it disappear by the ordination of sheer willpower and the proper sort of faith. We are not, I think, so much in control of things. We have not necessarily drawn to ourselves everything that happens to us, and not every symptom is a metaphor. There are bugs in the world, and they carry diseases. There's arsenic in the water and exhaust in the air. There are tragedies like pits that people fall into. There are accidents, wrong times and wrong places, floods and earthquakes. There is also no guarantee that healing our lives will cure our diseases.

Rather than using sickness as an opportunity to beat yourself up, or set off on a crusade to figure out why bad things happen to good people, better to try and use illness and pain for what they were designed for—to get your attention. Understand that though you may not have created them, your soul may still be attempting to communicate something to you through them. We are not so much responsible for our illnesses, says author and Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine, as we are responsible to our illnesses. The question is not so much what to do about our suffering, but what to do with it.

Being responsible to an illness, he says, means being willing to relate to it, have a full-on experience of it, and investigate not just the pain but also your reaction to it. It means letting it communicate with you rather than merely trying to subdue it. Though that's certainly the natural reflex, it probably is an accurate mirror of how we resist whatever is painful and unpleasant in our lives, whatever doesn't go our way, whatever makes us feel out of control. It's a mirror to how we regard not only the physical but also the emotional symptoms in our lives: our sulfurous marital fights, our obsessions with money or love, our wayward kids, our debts piled up to here, that low-grade anxiety running like a white noise through our days, the constant feeling of something missing. To say nothing of the symptoms scattered around the body politic.

This sense of responsibility cannot be soft-pedaled. It will try your most grim self-restraint, for instance, to lie in bed and just let sciatic pain be while it yowls at you. But there is knowledge and therefore power in following its migrations, plotting its geometry, and noticing how sometimes it burns and sometimes it vibrates, sometimes it spills boiling oil down the legs and sometimes it spreads hot coals in the pan of the pelvis, and always it make you feel so vulnerable. It would be so much easier just to grab a fistful of aspirins, wash it down with an immediate appointment at the chiropractor's, and get back to business as usual—which might be what landed you on your back to begin with.

Being responsible, Levine says, means asking not "Why am I ill?" but "What is illness?" Not "Why am I in pain?" but "What is pain?" It means seeking the what rather than just the why. The mind is so desperate for answers, and so easily settles for the simple and convenient ones, that it often ends up leaving completely untouched the deeper truths and deeper processes. It also routinely ignores the need for change, which is the unspoken petition of any illness. This can be the need for a change in priority or posture, a change in attitude, approach or tempo.

Change may or may not ameliorate the symptom, depending on how long we've waited before making the change, but it can have a powerful impact on the course of not only an illness but also a life. For instance, among those who have experienced spontaneous remissions—inexplicable recoveries from "incurable" diseases—over 90 percent, Bernie Siegel says, first experienced major, and favorable, change in their lives prior to the healing: dramatic reconciliations, religious conversions, the admitting of long-denied truths, the removal of obstacles to a career or a marriage, the birth of a child or grandchild. These people, however, didn't make their changes in hopes of effecting such an outcome, but "to do things more appropriate to living than dying," as one man put it. Healing was the by-product of the change.

If our only approach to the body's deep cries is to clamp our hands over our ears, we have dismissed the dreams of the body. If we medicate our symptoms away or get them "fixed" by the doctor, hoping to return to our lives and pick up where we left off without missing a beat, then we've missed the point of pain. Fortunately and unfortunately, though, the opportunity to grow will come around again.
As I reflect again on tomorrow, being responsible to this good-bye while still present means that I need to say good-bye and to say welcome, and to accept the change that I am facilitating. My ritual for doing so is to bring in some food, some fruit and breakfast breads, and to make introductions while sharing hospitality, and to acknowledge the bittersweet moment that this is. Perhaps in making space for these feelings and in facilitating this change, I will find that I have removed an obstacle to my full-time ministry—that being the sense of commitment and responsibility to this agency that I have, and haven't been able to let go.

May God grant us all the gifts of "good" good-byes, of being present, of listening deeply to our bodies, and of accepting the moments of grace that can be a part of each day as we pay attention.

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