Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Dark Loneliness of the Chronically Ill: A Challenge

Few know of the depths of despair, of darkness, of hopelessness of the chronically ill souls among us (and apart from us). They are removed from normal life, trapped by debilitating, crushing woes unknown and unfathomable by most mortals.

They pray Psalm 88, a lament of Heman, a man chronically ill and miserable, crying and calling out to a heaven that seems remote and inaccessible. (Darkness was his closest friend.) Their loved ones flail about as "the healthy one," praying, fasting, or trying to divert themselves from the pain and loneliness they cannot take away. They hate themselves for not doing more, for not being more empathetic, for losing their tempers, for giving up. They ask for divine forgiveness and more strength. The cycle repeats.

And most others do nothing. They ignore pain they cannot fix; despair they cannot cheer up with cliches and mass marketed or niche-marketed props. They stay away, afraid their own fragile happiness will be imperilled in the weeping, contorted faces of the wounded who will not heal.

Bleeding wound that will not heal.
Lord, spit on our eyes so we can see
And wake up from this tragedy.

--Bruce Cockburn, "Broken Wheel."

They are right. Their happiness will vanish. Normality will disappear when you suffer with another whose pain, bitterness, and loneliness you cannot withstand. You will suffer, too, and in a new mode of fallenness. You will cry out to a seemly absent heaven amidst a near hell on earth.

Can you lay claim to the Psalm that reveals that light shines in the darkness for the righteous? Can you walk into the darkness of a seemingly ruined life and bring some life and light into it? Are you willing to try? Are you willing to fail? For this ministry of presence, even failing may be succeeding.
For more on this subject, see: James M Rotholz, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Christianity, and Culture: Between God and an Illness. New York: The Hawthorne Press, 2002. 141 pages. I reviewed this fine book at Denver Journal a few years ago.


Tom said...

Although I know more than I care to know about terminal illness, I've not had to deal with the pain that comes with chronic illness. I can imagine that it can be a soul-sucking experience.

The silence of God is an issue that causes lots of us problems, but I'm sure that the chronically ill hear that silence much more than the rest of us.

I'll keep those dealing with this burden in prayer and look for ways to help out in my own community. Thanks for the reminder.

Weekend Fisher said...

Likewise my experience is with terminal illness, not chronic illness. My friend Suzan's husband is chronically ill. All I've been able to do is listen to her. She's got the weight of the world on her shoulders.

jcubsdad said...

As the spouse of a chronically ill person I relate so much to what you say. It is hard, tiresome, burdensome and life altering. I keep looking for the refiners fire in my spouse and I. Sometimes I see it, if even just a glimmer.

Rowleeeee said...

What a great post! I have a close family member and some dear friends that suffer from chronic auto-immune diseases (MS and RA), and thanks so much for bringing this up, it was an encouraging meditation, I'll be forwarding it on.

I knew the existential problem of evil for the first time through their suffering.

Oddly enough, each of the chronically ill people I know found conservative Episcopalian/Anglican services deeply meaningful in their suffering, leaving non-denominational Evang. churches.

Each of these have told me, and it is a large reason I attend these churches, that the liturgy is a comfort in pain. The confession, the Kyrie, and the Lord's supper all admit both that we are all weak and dependent on the grace of God for our very life and salvation, and communion reminds us that Jesus suffered, and do so every Sunday. Without violating their a-sacramental theology, Evangelical churches could (and I think, should) integrate into their services similar reminders that the Christian life is not always like the ecstatically happy praise songs, that the Christian life is not exempt from suffering and weakness.

The lack of such things either might be due to an over Willow-creek-ification or the influence of a culture that really would rather believe that everyone was between 20-25 and gorgeous, but it's all accidental to the essence of Evangelicalism. If believers, even ones not suffering, are reminded during every service that suffering is part of the Christian life, and are equipped both affectively (though symbols and song) and cognitively (through teaching), then the benefit's twofold: 1) those suffering are encouraged and not alienated and 2) those who are healthy will be more sensitive and when (inevitably) they suffer, they will be better prepared.

So, preach it, Dr. Groothius!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Dr. Groothuis for this post. You know well that this issue is near and dear to me, and to you. It can be quite a struggle at times.

-Joe Truhler-

P.S. yes, I do check in from time to time.