I've had a few responses to the last post I put up here, all from friends of various amounts of history. Some by Facebook comment or message, and even some by regular old email, a technology I'm beginning to forget how to use (sadly, no comments directly on the blog, alas). All contained varying degrees of support or encouragement as well as making some kind of response to the content of the post.
One of those responses, from a longtime friend and confidant, put out the idea that (at least in his case?) what might be called "inspirational" about my current circumstance and response to it is my honesty. Apparently some of the posts along the way have come off as more direct and unfiltered than one is accustomed to seeing. I suppose there might be some truth in that. Even if I'm not dying from this cancer, I guess somehow I've come to the point of being unwilling to be anything less than direct about this illness and how it is affecting me, mentally and emotionally as much as physically. That may put some people off, but it may draw more people, if the page view stats this system provides are any indication.
In its own way, that's a little sad. Or perhaps, it points to something the church needs to think about.
I've been fortunate that, with one or two exceptions, no one has really found anything unacceptable or unforgivable in any of my rants to this point. I've been surrounded by a community that has been unbelievably supportive and caring, both at the seminary and in the church we attend. I know of many churches that offer services of healing and wholeness, specifically designed for the kind of persons going through illnesses like mine and much worse. Churches visit, they provide meals or rides or all sorts of other support. Churches do a lot for people in suffering, I'm not so naive as to deny that.
I wonder, though, if there is something we sometimes overlook.
Church can, at times, be the hardest place to be for a person going through difficult times, physically or otherwise. It can be a place where one feels compelled to put a good face on things. Your soul may be tearing you apart, you might only barely be able to look another in the eye, but it's church, and you can't go around disrupting things, so you put on the good face. Then you do it again the next time you're at church, or if you run into some of your fellow church folk at the supermarket or elsewhere. More good face. (Then there are some who can't stop themselves putting on the good face even when they are among dear friends and fellow sufferers begging them to be real and open up. But that's another issue.)
Is there a space where the suffering can suffer out loud? Can we be so closely knit a body of Christ that we can go ahead and feel that screaming pain from our brother or sister without being scandalized or finding that person's pain and anguish somehow scandalous or improper?
I've been told that for Americans, the default, almost mindless answer to the usual greeting question "how are you doing?" is an almost reflexive "fine" or something similiar, whereas if you ask that of a British chap he'll immediately tell you not only that things are lousy, but exactly why -- awful pain in that left knee, cold that won't go away, rotten week at work, and so forth. An American might be taken aback in the face of such directness.
I guess that my own situation is making me think more about what kind of space we allow for suffering and the anger and sadness that comes with it. Are we too ready to imprison the sufferer, or ourselves for that matter, in the good face? I can't say that I really have anything specific to propose here. I have said many times before in this blog that I don't have answers and I don't have anything original to say. I can only wonder if among all the things the church as a body of Christ-followers for those in suffering or pain or sickness or despair, if there's some way to create space for the anger and sadness and raging that goes on inside the soul of the sufferer, instead of too easily pointing to some supposed saintly model of suffering in which the patient shows nothing more than a beatific smile and heavenward glance, like something out of a martyr myth. (For one thing, being martyred for your faith is nothing like having cancer or having your spouse killed by a drunk driver or any number of other sufferings.)
I don't deny it's hard. It terrifies me every time I let loose with one of these, hearing voices from way back in some (imagined?) past castigating me for being so weak or faithless. Or some imaginary "coach" telling me to "suck it up" and "quit being a sissy" (or worse) (and I never really was an athlete, so I have no idea where that comes from).
But I've learned enough to know that the longer that anger stays imprisoned behind the good face, the longer it will corrode me from within. Even now, with a little better health for the moment and a couple of days of release, I'm in at least a decent place for now as chemotherapy starts tomorrow. I'm not looking to run off and do Gene Kelly's Singing in the Rain routine by any means, but I'm in a place where the anger has run its course. We'll see how things go tomorrow, mind you.
And I guess I've been challenged to try to be more perceptive and more open to others who are in the depths of suffering or anger or sadness or despair. I can't say I've got a great track record there myself.
Darn it, this growing up business is difficult.