January 9, 2010

The gift of your physical afflictions

A wave of understanding washes over you when you realize for the first time that something in your body is broken and probably can’t be fixed. Repaired, remodeled, or medicated maybe, but not fixed. At least not in a way that puts it back as it once was.

Over the past few months, I’ve been fully bathed in this realization. I go to bed at night, hoping that the catch in my knee will be better in the morning after a night’s rest, wondering whether the boots I’ve been wearing are causing the problem. Or regretting my decision to clean the fireplace mantle by moving the mirror that hangs there, resting its flat part on top of my head. The method and urgency of a clean mantle seem sort of stupid, especially now that my neck is ouchy. I’m starting to see that it could stay that way. Like permanently. Maybe it won’t be like the afflictions of my youth: I spend a few days in bed or resting and I'm all better.

Having near perfect health for almost half a century, it took me a while to catch on to the notion that, blessed as I am, body parts will wear out, no matter how fortunate and careful I am. It’s a shame I didn’t come to this realization sooner because what follows is a better place for anyone to be.

How can this be considered progress? Let me answer this three ways:
  1. Physical afflictions build gratitude and awareness. When you realize things are not perfect but they could/eventually may be so much worse, you start to understand what living in the moment really means. The way your body is all designed to work together today? It’s nothing short of miraculous. The many days of your life that you have operated totally free from physical pain? It’s worth more than money in the bank. The way you can use your body as is, afflictions and all? A way to redeem yourself for not fully-appreciating all that good health. You’ll probably take better care of it, notice it, and make better choices now that you see what a blessing it has been. 
  2. Physical afflictions build spiritual tenacity. When you realize the temporary nature of your own body, you will naturally incline your ear more toward the spirit. When my body was strong in every way, I couldn’t really grasp my mortality. I owned health. And I had no real need for a newly minted body to house my spirit. More and more, I see how all the good stuff I get while living in my physical body has been a complete gift. And I feel a debt to my Creator for giving me all that good stuff. Shoot, even the afflictions I have are gifts because they’ve helped me grow to this realization. In this life, we get mountains and valleys, ups and downs, one right after the other. In the next, all joy inside a brand new body that doesn’t wear out. It’s not all that hard to see that a life leading to this kind of permanence is all that really matters. Every day and every possibility is more precious. Less about me and more about using my gifts.
  3. Physical afflictions build compassion for others. (Especially for those who are older or more afflicted than you are.) You start to understand the grumpy old lady who is always ready to bite your head off for no reason at all. One day of achy knees isn’t quite like a whole future filled with achy (or excruciating) knees, or the secondary afflictions that set in when you can’t walk properly. Once again, you see how connected the body is, how difficult it is to adjust, find and do things that will make you feel better. You realize that you can’t judge a person by what you see or hear from them. You might even make a quiet resolution about the sort of person you want to be if your body, despite all good care, should lose the portion of strength and health that you have always had.

Of course, it would be so much better if we could be abundantly grateful, aware, compassionate, and spiritually tenacious without affliction. As you read this, I hope you’re blessed with all these traits and a life free from all unnecessary suffering.

Later this week: Two great books for kids who may benefit from seeing another kid triumph over adversity, plus two books for adults—one on marriage, the other on meditation.

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