“Wounded and weary, help me, I pray!”
I groggily became aware of bright lights everywhere; slowly the three green clad figures came into focus. My surgeon walked over and asked, “Do you know what we had to do?”
I then noticed the burning circle where my right breast used to be. Yes, once again I knew the bad news without being told. Two more surgeries within the next nine weeks marked a second mastectomy and a failed reconstruction attempt. These were just punctuation marks in a list of tragedies that had plagued me for the last several years.
It had started Christmas of 1983 when my “knight” began to side with the dragon, instead of with our four children and me. We all tried to smooth out the tattered relationship, but a phone call from a stranger revealed the real problem, another woman.
Rather than angry confrontations, I went the self-improvement route – new diet, new clothes, new make-up, new hair-do, new attentiveness, new passion, and new marital counseling.
I’ve often said that if I were to write about that hapless period of my life, it would be, not a book, but a multi-volume soap opera where I was the embarrassed and unwilling star. Incident after troublesome incident piled up on an almost daily basis. First, I put my finger in the dike, then my whole body, until finally the dyke broke and I was swept away like flotsam and jetsam to a world with new realities and new rules.
I could frame my life in regular two year cycles for awhile: two years to try to save my marriage, two years to wait for a civil trial, two years to obtain the meager settlement allotted to me, two years to try to find a new pattern for living, two years to battle cancer and its financial burden without insurance. And even more years passed before I began to find a new place for myself in society.
In my experience everyone who gave his or her Christian testimony always came through any trial within a defined period of time and with at least some spiritual victory to claim at the end. But as the years rolled on, I could find neither an end nor a victory.
In God’s mercy, there is no time frame for the book of Job, so he became my closest friend as I read and re-read that book searching for some answer or some promise of resolution. Like Job, I felt rejected and accursed by God and I, too, enjoyed the comfort of well meaning friends.
Like Job, I frequently argued with God over the way He was treating one of His best (in my own somewhat arrogant eyes) friends. In frustration and anger I even threw pillows at the ceiling one night as I cried in bed. “Take that and that!” The whole scene seems so ludicrous now; I must have given all the heavenly hosts a really good laugh. I kept complaining that I couldn’t go on, that He demanded too much, that life wasn’t worth living. But I could not find a way out.
The worst part was the loss of my dreams. One day I was financially and socially secure, working toward apparently godly goals for my family and myself. Then I unwittingly found myself with no husband, no security, no place in society, no goals beyond mere survival, no beautiful home, and no hope. I couldn’t even find a real job to pay for groceries.
I considered my experience of rearing four children, running a complicated household, organizing charities, and creating charitable events as least as demanding as running a successful small business. But sixty-seven different employers who needed help refused to allow me to show them what a conscientious and intelligent worker I was. From 1986 to 1998, I could find only occasional odd jobs. In materialistic America therefore, I had no identity and no “raison d’ être.”
My friends got tired of bring sympathetic and I got tired of being plucky. Suffering is a scandal to us Americans. We are quite willing to help each other out if problems can be fixed fairly rapidly. But affliction over long periods of time frustrates us.
Tacitly, if not theologically, many American Protestants have adopted the idea that earthly success illustrates God’s favor. It’s not really suitable to actually be a victim or a failure unless, at some point, you emerge as a hero. Au contraire, a little sleight of hand, a little manipulation, a little winking of the eye is not only sometimes acceptable, it’s almost a proof of righteous intelligence. Surely those hapless victims deserve their fate somehow, while successful people have certainly earned whatever advantages they’ve managed to grab for themselves.
As the popular song suggests, we want to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again toward the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We are allowed to stumble along the way, but we must become successful. As months of picking myself up stretched into years of dusting myself off and countless failures at starting all over again, I began to wonder what was wrong with me. How could I be such a failure when I tried so hard? I even wrote an essay describing my (and other rejected wives’) plight that won first place in a national professional writers contest. However, no one would publish it because there was no happy ending or resolution. I could not find the way out of the financial, social, and emotional morass for myself, much less describe the path for others.
The problem wasn’t just that I had suffered, but that it appeared so random, so useless and so meaningless. As Viktor Frankl wrote from a Nazi death camp:
Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a
meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to
be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.
I didn’t learn any great spiritual nuggets of truth. Nor did I come to a great awakening to the need for repentance although my friends, enemies, and family no doubt would love to show me some blind spots that I should work on. My suffering certainly didn’t help proclaim the gospel. In fact, my experiences probably caused many to either doubt that God was loving and powerful or that I was really a Christian. There was no result to allow me to believe that any good whatsoever came out of it.