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Posts tagged ‘Headaches’

Long Term Growth

This spring, our three backyard Manitoba maple trees needed pruning. I received a crash course on trees from the arborist we hired for the job. Craning my neck upwards, I listened as he opened up the world of trees to me. maple leavesHe explained which limbs he would prune and why. I had a sudden desire to become an arborist myself as I listened to the wise details of his trade. His business is aptly named “Long Term Growth”.

Normally, I love pruning — whether it’s unruly hair that begs to be cut, sentences that need editing, or trees that need trimming, there’s something about weeding out what is not giving life that seems so beneficial. I have become an amateur in all three areas.

When it comes to the deeper pruning of unhelpful aspects or habits of my life, the process can be tougher, but just as needed. As electric and handheld saws began to thin out the trees, I played “spot that metaphor” and reflected on the pruning in my own life in the last year and a half.

The pruning of my teaching job was filled with much consultation and prayers. Just like the wise arborist pondering my maple trees, I had people gently saying to me, look friend, this limb is not sustaining life anymore, maybe it’s time… It wasn’t the easiest pruning to make peace with, but time has shown that it was necessary and helpful for my own long term growth.

Leaving full-time work was just the beginning. Now that the big, obvious branches have been cut, it seems that the pruning is more subtle. My mantra has become “less is more” and I keep having to make decisions, large and small, of what to cut out as I learn to avoid headaches. More branches are being pruned all the time.

Ever since I learned that my headaches are not just physical in origin, I’ve become a bit of a detective, searching for clues. I have this long time habit which friends jokingly call my 911 tendency. I tend to project a calm exterior so people might not guess it, but I overplay the emotional dramas of life, engaging in histrionics. Like a druggie’s quick fix, it’s an unhelpful habit which really only serves to distract and prevent me from tapping the deeper roots of life.

RHS_PUB0002681_900998Sitting in my meditation room, this troubling habit is becoming more clear to me. When a headache flare-up happens, I am learning not just to ask for sympathy, but to ask myself, and the friends who know me well, whether I’m somehow feeding it. I’m learning that regular pruning is essential.

To do this requires humility, acknowledging that I’m not just a victim. But it’s something I deeply desire. Not only do I want to become well physically, I also want to be tethered securely to my deepest values, which for me rest in following Jesus.

Last Sunday I was asked to share reflections with my house church from the gospel of Mark 5:21-43. It’s a story, actually two stories, about Jesus performing two miracles. One of them is a woman who was bleeding for 12 years. She spent all her money on physicians, and not only did she not get better, she got worse (a story that I could identify with)! She was at the end of her rope, physically as well as socially since she was one of society’s untouchables. In her desperation, she reached out and touched the edge of Jesus’ robe. She was immediately made well!

But when Jesus stopped in his tracks and asked who touched him, she felt she was busted. An unclean person wasn’t supposed to touch anyone, let alone a holy man, but Jesus didn’t think like that. The social taboos of the day were manmade, not from God. Earlier in Mark, he said, “I came for those who are sick, not those who are well.”

Scripture says she came out of the shadows and “told him the whole truth”. In response, Jesus wished her peace and to be well permanently. Her shame was gone and she was restored to the community.

But he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go home in peace, and be free from your trouble.” Mark 5:35

The phrase about telling “the whole truth” has stayed with me. I too want to be honest before God and my Unknownfriends and confess my anger or my people pleasing. The stillness of the meditation room invites me to take a deep breath and quiet my reactions, quiet my thoughts, quiet the struggle, and go deeper.

And then I can pray, trusting that God the wise arborist is lovingly pruning those branches which are not life-giving. If the power saws sound alarming, I can remember that God only does this out of love and a desire for my long term growth. Then, like our lovely backyard maples, the wind of the Spirit can blow through my life with more ease and freedom. I’m so glad God wishes peace for all our gnarled limbs.

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Thanksgiving in December

For so long on my medical leave, I’ve been pressing the pause button, on a soul-searching  interlude, listening for answers to deep questions. Blogpost titles have reflected this, with titles like “Waiting,” “Solitude,” “Tight Places” and “Who Am I”. And it seems to me that all this waiting is starting to bring answers. Both Canadian and American Thanksgiving have passed, but it’s never too late to express gratitude at what I’m beginning to understand.

For at least 6 months or more, I’ve answered people’s questions about my headaches with an unsatisfying answer, “Not better yet.” I didn’t usually tell people, but the headaches seemed even worse, something I couldn’t understand.

In late fall, I made a list of all the things I’ve tried to solve my headaches over the last 25 years, and I was shocked. I think there are 24 things on my list by now. Chiropractic (with countless neck adjustments), physiotherapy, acupuncture, thousands of dollars worth of vitamin regimens, colonics (don’t ask), massage, osteopathy, cleansing fasts to rule out food allergies, medication, to mention just a few. I even got hypnotized once! I groan when I think of all the money I’ve spent. Well meaning people often ask me, “Have you tried such and such?” and I roll my eyes and tell them they have no idea.

In the beginning, I would feel a surge of confidence and revived hope at each new “solution” I tried, trusting the practitioner who promised big changes. It always felt empowering to be “in charge,” at least at first, and I drove my friends crazy with my latest miracle cure talk. As the years went on, I continued to try new things, but with increasing desperation and unease, trusting my new saviors just a little less each time.

Some things on the list helped here and there, while others, like massage, made the locked-doorheadaches worse. In recent months, on medical leave, still in regular battle, I finally began to concede that maybe my ladder has been up against the wrong wall. I made my list and took a long, hard look. How was all this effort and money for naught? It made no sense. I’d failed to fix myself. There seemed to be no more open doors. I prayed for a way forward, an open door in my tight place. And God heard my prayer.

October 17th will go down this year as a watershed day for me. It was the day my pastor and spiritual mentor Paul told me, “Your headaches are not primarily physical.”

Though I’d been told this before, being at the end of the road has a way of unstopping the ears. It was as though I heard it for the first time. With a great heave-ho, I threw my long list over the metaphorical cliff and said, “No more!” I began to listen for what deeper issues lay at the root of this gnarly weed.

I’ve been learning just how much my efforts to be good in the world, to be a “Mother Teresa,” have led to my predicament all these years later. The emotional and the physical are connected in a much more profound way that I’ve ever realized. Sure I have a biological propensity to migraines in my family, but it’s only part of the story. With a deep rooted fear that I was not good enough, I became a person whose every unconscious effort became to secure love in this world by being everything to everyone — in short, I became a people-pleaser. After 25 years, it left me so sick I had to give up the vocation I loved of working with kids.

Above the Clouds - Vlad Studio

Above the Clouds – Vlad Studio

I’ve been learning that the answer to this habit of people-pleasing is to sink my life more deeply into depth and meaning. For me this translates into solitude, writing and reading. It isn’t as though I’ve never done this before, but doing so after an accurate “diagnosis” has made a noticeable difference. The headaches have not disappeared altogether, but I am becoming more aware of what to avoid.

My habits are so old in me that often I doubt I can ever shake them, but I keep remembering the door that opened when I thought I was in a locked room. God can fix far more in us than we can imagine.

Instead of making myself look good by “being everything to all people,” I have been learning a second language that I am “good enough” already. Instead of trying hard, I can let God forgive, restore and deliver me from all of this. I don’t need to feel guilty, but to realize that I’m already forgiven, and am already being restored to a new way of living from the inside out.

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  John 20:26 (NIV)

Solitude

For the past 3 months, I have been living the life of a hermit. Some might think this is a dream life, but it’s not as trouble-free as it seems.

When I was a kid, a life of solitude appealed to me. I spent countless time imagining that I could live by myself in the bathroom. I had it all figured out. The bathtub would serve as a bed to sleep in. I’d have enough water to drink, and I could relieve myself and take a bath whenever I wanted! A tiny window high on the wall would give me enough fresh air. The problem of a lack of food or company did not trouble me. I thought this tiny world would be perfect.

booksIt was the same interior world which made me long for the days off of school, which I would lovingly plan by stacking my bedside table high with books to read and color in the morning. A day with nothing to do but be with my books seemed the highest possible way to live.

When I went off work in mid-April, my pastor Paul gave me a few suggestions for living in the silence of days. The recipe was simple. He suggested that every day I read, write, and pray to ask God for guidance in my activities. It felt like such a relief compared to how I’d been living, which had drained me to the point of illness. The green meditation room has been a place of much soul searching and where I’ve been met with God, but it has not been an easy place.

My headaches have gone through periods of respite, but continue to pay regular visits. Lately they are worse again. Facing the frustration of illness in silent reflection is a challenge and some days it’s all I can do just to stay put and not run away into busy activity in a vain attempt to get away from the discomfort.

I realized if it were up to me, I would want two things – a life free of headaches, and meditation which is only peaceful. Blissful union with God 24/7.

Since I can achieve neither of these things, I have had to take another look, and thankfully, I’ve had a good coach in author David Benner. He writes about how to let our surface desires point us to our deeper longings.

Take headaches for instance. Despite my best efforts (and there’s been tons), they are still out of my control, and I usually think of this situation as ugly and irredeemable. My first response is usually frustration, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m a loser.

In the midst of this God reminds me that there are no losers in God’s kingdom, and that I am loved in the “no-matter-whatness” of life, as Greg Boyle puts it. Even when I want to write myself off, I encounter love again and again, in community and in times alone with God. Hopefully one day I’ll believe it fully and see myself only as God sees me.

So, instead of desiring a life free from headaches, a deeper desire is to ask for the gift of trust that God can be with me in any difficult situation. I’d rather have a life of meaning than a life free of trouble.

In my other surface desire for only the bliss of meditation and none of the difficulty, I realize I am asking for a superficial happiness. Society promotes it inaccurately as the goal of solitude, but it’s actually not real or lasting.

Instead of desiring only blissful meditation, my deeper longing is for the kind of solitude that Jesus experienced. He went into the

Artwork by Ramone Romero

Artwork by Ramone Romero

desert and God was there, but so was the Devil, with all the temptations known to humankind. But because Jesus was rooted in his relationship to God, he knew that God would protect him and deepen him. Jesus knew that his Father was more powerful than any troubles that got lobbed his way. He knew that God would show him the way to lasting happiness, the kind that is forged on the anvil of suffering and not dependent on pleasant circumstances.

Jesus’ character was formed by God as hope and suffering joined hands. This is what I want. “Such hope,” says author Peter Gomes, “gets us through and beyond the worst that can happen.”  This kind of hope is not in people, but in God, who promises never to abandon us. With that kind of hope, all suffering can be borne and overcome.

My idea of a room of solitude as a kid wasn’t a bad one. What I know now, is something I probably knew as a child, but forgot for many years in between, and that is that God is in the solitude. I’m not alone.

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