Allowing myself to see my injuries and pain as ‘not my fault’ is a spiritual challenge.
Still image from the film Perils of Pauline, 1914, by Louis J. Gasnier, Wharton (US) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
In my mother’s house, if several things went wrong too close together in time, my mother would smile, shake her head, and say “The Perils of Pauline!” When she was a kid, she went to a British boarding school in India, way up in the Himalayas. She lettered in track up there at 7,500 feet, and I’m guessing she despised the silent-movie heroine, Pauline, slender and pale as a spaghetti noodle, constantly needing to be rescued from the railroad tracks where the sneering villain had bound her.
It felt more like a warning than a joke. It wasn't exactly an implication that I was causing bad things to happen, just that I was in danger of becoming the kind of person trouble sticks to. A sad sack, she would sometimes say, a helpless victim in a silent movie being tied, yet again, to the train tracks. When I was about nine, I remember telling her that I had a headache. “Oh, honey,” she laughed, “children don’t get headaches!”
In the middle-class Scots-Irish Protestant culture of my big family, if you were doing well, it’s because God was blessing you. The corollary—never articulated openly—was that if things were going wrong for you, if you had no money or a spell of ill health, it’s because you were not blessed. Un-blessed. The polite thing to do was pretend not to notice when someone was sick. Sickness wasn’t a lesson from which you should learn. You learned from reading the Bible. Period. It wasn’t a trial to test your faith.
Presbyterian Scots taught that we have to rely completely on God’s goodness for our salvation. Why should our faith be tested when it was so obviously such a pitiful thing? With God in charge of everything, we weren’t allowed to believe in luck. There had to be a reason for illness and injury, and the reason was probably that you had done something wrong or careless.
The protocol for being ill or injured was: you don’t get coddled, you don’t talk about it, and you take care of it and get over it. When Mama got a lump in her breast, she followed this line. For a year she didn’t tell anyone but God about it. A different theology would have helped us have each other longer.
Sometimes people who had a lot of trouble were compared to Job, the main character in the oldest book in the Hebrew Scriptures. “You’re having the sufferings of Job,” someone would murmur. The message of the book of Job is that God thinks it’s stupid to blame people for their misfortune. Job’s “comforters” say all the things people say today to people who are suffering. Maybe you were too prideful, maybe you had lessons to learn, maybe you have done something to keep God from blessing you, maybe you have stepped out of the Tao, maybe you needed to be taken down a peg.
In Job, Godself appears to yell at the comforters, to tell them they are wrong. God doesn’t give a reason. The message seems to be “stuff happens,” and God is God. God/the Universe/the Cosmos/Being can talk to the water-spurting whale. God is God, and you are not. The Book of Job was read and taught, but it didn’t sink in to the level of daily practice, and there wasn’t much room in Scots Protestant culture for cooing or comforting or taking care of someone who has been kicked off the blessing train.
I’ve been hearing my mother’s voice in my head these past few months as I’ve lived The Perils of Pauline. I fell off a horse at fourteen, and the impact started a degenerative process in my hip joint. I had a total hip replacement when I was 30. It lasted until now. I earned a second-degree black belt in karate with it. I chased toddlers and lived most of my life with it before it wore out. It had been in there so long that a lot of rebuilding was called for before they could put the new hip in.
Six weeks after that surgery, when I had almost recovered, they found that the prosthesis had a staph infection. The protocol for that is heavy antibiotics and multiple re-dos of the same surgery. I’ve just had the fourth and, I’m hopeful, the final hip rebuild in five months. I’ve recovered from the surgery now five times. Mostly I do the prescribed exercises and then sit in a special recliner to let my body and the Cosmos do their healing work. This is not something I can rush, like the farmer who goes out every morning to pull on the new little shoots to help them grow faster. This is not something that my will or charm can affect. I have had to sit here like a mushroom growing amongst tree roots, being cut down once a month and then having to grow back.
Life is full of perils, Mama. Some people seem to get more than their share, but how does anyone know the size of anyone’s share, and who is capable of portioning out the responsibility?
I’m trying to learn to be kind to myself in this, compassionate, comforting. Sometimes I have to struggle with the embarrassment and isolation of pain, the Protestant suspicion that I should somehow be ashamed in this situation. I get mad and twisted up about the things I can’t figure out how to do for myself. Mostly I keep a good attitude and sit at the feet of people who have been through cancer and chemo and who are in situations that aren’t going to get better. Mine will get better, and I will be temporarily able bodied once again.
Halfway through this long injury-infection event, I had a dream. During a video call with an agent who wanted to represent my new book, my wife’s band started to practice. I told my agent I needed to go next door so I could hear her better. When I opened the front door, boughs of lilacs tumbled in past me, all around me. Some kind of vine wove through the lilacs and I couldn’t get out through the door, but I stood there and breathed in the fragrance.
I woke up knowing that there is some sweetness in this time of being trapped, limited, and stopped in my tracks. I’ve learned how very much a small kindness can mean: a card, a text, a vase full of flowers. Those little things turn out not to be little at all. There is sweetness in being taken care of by someone who loves you, and it’s a lovely thing to watch my wife, Kiya, as she does it so gracefully.
Most of the time I don’t feel “unblessed.” I feel like part of nature. Like a water-spurting whale that ran into some plastic in the ocean or a tree that got struck by lightning. Of course I want to know the “how” and the “why” of this infection. I don’t think I ever will. I know the “how” of the recovery, though. I gave it lots of time. I had lots of help from the medical people, from friends, from my wife, and from the congregation I serve. That feels like blessing to me.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)