Tag Archives: spirituality

God-hope-cancer

Reality check

Working at a cancer support center offers many opportunities to hear people talk about hope. Most often, people hope for a cure—or at least remission—of the cancer that has taken up residence in their bodies.

It takes courage to endure chemotherapy and radiation, which disrupt daily life and can be painful (sometimes very painful). Often the treatments work and the cancer is cured or goes into remission. But sometimes the treatments don’t work. What happens to hope then?hope 4Recently, a woman came in after her oncologist had informed her that the treatment had not worked. Months of painful radiation and chemotherapy had failed to stop the growth of the tumors in various parts of her body. The doctor recommended a different type of treatment—something experimental—and this woman had made an appointment to discuss this new treatment.

Before that appointment, though, she wanted to talk about her situation. “Even if I take another round of treatment,” she said, “I know I will be right back here at some point, maybe in three months or six months, but this is where I am going to end up.”

I remained silent, but inwardly agreed with her that it seemed unlikely that the cancer was going to go away.

“My question is,” she continued, “how do I talk to myself about this? How do I wrap my head around the fact that I am going to die?”

Good questions.

I applauded her courage for even facing this reality.God-hope-cancerIn the three years I have been in this job, I have only met a few other people who were willing to admit they were going to die and who wanted to try to figure out how they could best live until they died. Mostly, people seem to deny the reality; they keep hoping for a cure or remission until the moment they die.

And sometimes, even when the person who is dying accepts it, their families and friends refuse to admit it, depriving the person of expressing what they need to at the end of life.God-hope-cancerWe then talked about hope.

What is she left with, she wondered, when her hopes for remission have been dashed? I suggested hope for something else—for inner peace, for gratitude for the life she has left, for the ability to see goodness in the midst of struggle.God-hope-cancerOne thing I have learned is that if we allow our fears of dying to shape our lives, we can never really live.

God invites us to live every day trusting in the kindness of the people around us and in the goodness of God. That looks different for each of us every day. Some days, it is easier to be full of hope and joy and gratitude; other days, even finding one small gift or grace can be a challenge.

My father used to say, “No one gets out of this life alive.”  I hope I always remember that and live in the freedom it brings.God-hope-cancer

fear-vulnerability-risk

Do the opposite

I am afraid. I am not sure exactly what I fear, but I know I am afraid.

I know it by my hesitancy to get involved, to start projects, to commit. And once I do start something, to stick with it until it is finished. I fear messing up, disappointing, being inadequate, not up to the task.

Things I used to do with confidence now give me pause. Sewing, cooking, knitting—all things I once did with certainty and ease—now I hesitate or, even worse, I don’t even try. A pile of fabric sits untouched by the sewing machine; recipes untried and yarn unknitted.

Not my usual way of moving through life, but pretty much the way I have been for the past few years. And I don’t like it. I want to be myself, more daring, more willing to try new things and more willing to take risks. What happened to that person? Where has she gone?

I wish I knew, and I wish I knew how to bring her back.

Fear has been holding me back, and I am tired of it. I want to break free.

My spiritual director recently suggested I push back against myself.  “Do the opposite of what you are comfortable doing,” she said.fear-vulnerability-riskMaybe it is all the loss I’ve experienced these past few years, all the grief and sadness. Maybe my equilibrium is just off. Maybe…do the reasons really matter? I think not.

Rather, I think I need to stop thinking, stop trying to figure it out—and just act.fear-vulnerability-riskBefore my niece’s wedding last week I went for a manicure. “Choose your color,” the manicurist instructed me. Standing in front of rows of nail polish in every shade imaginable, I was paralyzed by too many choices. I picked up bottle after bottle of different shades of pink, but could not make a decision.  fear-vulnerability-riskMy niece’s favorite color is blue, and I suddenly found myself drawn to the blues. “I have never worn blue nail polish in my life,” I said to no one in particular. Another customer said, “It is only nail polish.” Right. Only nail polish. Why such angst over something so temporary?

I chose a lovely shade of periwinkle, and then decided to get shellac so it would last at least two weeks. Two weeks of blue nails! Be bold, I told myself.

Two weeks earlier, I got my hair cut very short. Jim used to call it my “chemo haircut;” I call it my “girl’s summer haircut.” I had not had the courage to wear my hair this short for a long time, but I work at a cancer support center where people have very short hair (or none at all), so it is not an uncommon hairstyle.

It took some courage to tell my stylist to cut it short, but I am happy with the result. Plus, I know it will grow back if I tire of it. Short hair and blue nails—it’s a start.fear-vulnerability-risk

 

compassion-God-love

Growing in love

Love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:31

Whenever I encountered this Scripture passage, I used to think, “Poor neighbors,” what a low bar. Shouldn’t I love my neighbors at least a bit more than I love myself?

I didn’t love myself very much in my young life. I saw myself as lacking in most every way, never quite measuring up, more often messing up.

I might have re-written the passage to read, Love your neighbors as you want to be loved—or possibly Love yourself as you love your neighbors, because I can be much more accepting, compassionate and forgiving of others.

My capacity for self-love was definitely deficient.

Growing up, I knew that God loved me, and it was always a mystery why or how God could love someone I saw as so broken. It was probably my biggest Yes, but, as in “I know God loves me, but…” followed by my litany of deficiencies—all the reasons God must be wrong to love me.

Recently, one of my neighbors ripped out his front lawn. I don’t know why he did it—maybe it was dying or too weedy; maybe he just got tired of it or just did not like it and wanted something new and different.

I walked past his grassless front yard for a few weeks and then one day there was a beautiful new lawn—lush, green and weed-free. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if I could rip out what is undesirable in me and instantaneously replace it with something new and beautiful, completely erase whatever was old, worn or ugly?compassion-God-loveBut that is not how it has worked in my life. Years of therapy helped me to redefine myself more realistically. Years of prayer helped me to begin to see myself as God sees me.

I had to learn to set good boundaries and practice owning what is mine, figuring out what I believe and reinforcing that—and letting go of negative views. I wrote affirmations on little pieces of paper and taped them to my bathroom mirror, stuck them to my refrigerator with magnets and placed them in small picture frames. Reading these affirmations every day eventually began to push aside negative messages and replace them with God messages.compassion-God-loveI was restructuring the landscape of my inner self, but it was not as instantaneous as laying sod.

When I was in therapy in my thirties, I used to practice my boundary-setting out loud. When I recognized that I was regurgitating someone else’s negative belief (about myself or anything else), I would identify it. “So and so needs to say…” and then I would say, “But I want to say…” about whatever it was what I believed, or what belief I was growing into.compassion-God-loveGrowing in self-compassion has strengthened my boundaries and improved my self-esteem. To love myself as God loves me is my desire. Only then am I able to truly love others as I love myself—and as God loves them.compassion-God-love

 

God-transformation-vulnerability

Stepping into the future

I am usually a quick learner when it comes to concrete tasks, but learning abstract things—not so much. I am abstract-challenged. (I am also spatially-challenged, and maybe they go hand-in-­hand.)

When it comes to learning about myself and my emotional/spiritual/psychological self—those abstract characteristics—I have to admit that I am a slow learner. Processing new information about myself can take a long time.

Thankfully, God is very patient and never seems to tire of reminding me of areas where I need to change and grow.

At Mass last Sunday, three heart messages caught my attention. After the third, I wondered if anyone else in the congregation was getting this message or was God mainly speaking to me? I also wondered when I would actually get the message—take it in and make it a part of myself so that God (and I) can move on to something new. God has been inviting me to soften my heart for as long as I can remember.

And there they were last Sunday—three references to the heart, to my heart.God-transformation-vulnerabilityLast weekend, I also did a major house cleaning and clearing out, including journals from the past twenty years. My plan had been to read them one more time and save anything that seemed important, but I could not seem to get started on that project. One day, it occurred to me to just throw them all away. Even thinking that thought made me feel lighter and freer. And when I hauled the contractor-size black trash bag to the curb, I felt a space open up inside me.

I am done with the past; I want to move on into the future. I want a fresh start.God-transformation-vulnerabilityBut there was God reminding me of my heart. If I had taken the time to read my old journals, I know the heart theme would be a thread throughout. Will I ever get the message?  Will I ever make the leap of faith that will move me toward becoming a soft-hearted person?

Open my heart, I pray

To love

To joy

To fun

To happiness—and yes, even to the possibility of pain and sorrow. They go hand in hand.God-transformation-vulnerabilityOpen my heart, I pray. Create fissures where fear can escape and light can get in. Create spaces in my heart, gaps ready to be filled in—with trust, hope and love.God-transformation-vulnerabilityI want love, hope and trust and the blessings they will bring. I want a heart big enough to hold pains and sorrows and still have room for love—a heart that won’t shy away from grief but be pliable enough to hold both loss and hope.God-transformation-vulnerabilityI pray that God reshape my heart into something more closely aligned with his vision for me, a heart able to absorb the pain and sorrow of my life and of the world, able to live with loss—and still see beauty and hope—and to embrace the gift in all of it.

god-blessings-transformation

You are worth more than gold

Last weekend, I returned to Philadelphia for a friend’s thirtieth birthday celebration. Last weekend also marked the fifth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death, and I commemorated that occasion with Mass and dinner with friends.

I had lived in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years and have friends there who have known me for most of my adult life.

One friend asked me if I had come to see any upside to the time of Jim’s illness and death. I reminded her that I believe every curse has a blessing, and I recounted some of the blessings from that difficult time.god-blessings-transformationJim used to tell me to “take it in” whenever someone paid me a compliment.

Low self-esteem had plagued me from an early age, and I didn’t really believed the positive things people said to me. Each time Jim told me to take it in I knew I was minimizing or dismissing a compliment—a habit so deeply ingrained that I was unaware I was doing it. He never seemed to tire of reminding me that people appreciated me, even though I was blind to my own gifts and talents.god-blessings-transformationBut in the process of caring for Jim, a switch got tripped, and I started to be able to take it in. I began to believe the compliments.

While Jim was received radiation, we met weekly with his radiologist and I would report on Jim’s reaction to the treatment. During one of these meetings, the radiologist said to me, “You are an accurate report.” “I am,” I thought.

I had realized during Jim’s illness that I can deal with most anything as long as I know what is happening. My reports were accurate, and I was able to take in the radiologist’s affirmation.

“You are doing the best you can for Jim,” the radiology receptionist said to me one day when I was particularly emotional and weepy. I took in her affirmation, too. I was doing the best I could, and Jim not only lived months beyond original expectations, but his life was good.god-blessings-transformationAbout six months into Jim’s illness, his neurosurgeon said, “If I was just looking at your scans, I would be deeply concerned. But talking to you and looking at you, you seem to be doing quite well.” “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. I had come to realize that Jim was doing well at least in part because of the care I was giving him.

These little experiences began to add up, and I started to see myself differently. My self-esteem was being bolstered during this very difficult time. I was actually functioning fairly well, and I was doing the best I could for Jim.

While Jim’s brain cells were being destroyed by cancer, my negative self-image was also being destroyed and my brain cells were being reorganized into a more accurate report.

“You are gold,” Jim said to me one day. “Thank you,” I replied, as I took in his compliment and believed him.god-blessings-transformation

spirituality-prayer-lent

Change my heart

Recently, I have spoken about my work at a cancer support center to several Optimist Clubs, and every time I hear the Optimist Creed, this line stands out:

To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

One of my Lenten plans was to see the people in front of me. Sometimes I don’t actually see the person standing in front of me, but rather I see a version of that person which is based on my past experiences with him or her, and I know that is not always accurate.

Instead, I want to try to see as God sees—to see the potential in each person, to see the best in each one. I want to be less critical and more hopeful about the people in my life.spirituality-prayer-lentUsually, though, I form an impression of someone when we meet. If someone is prickly, I tend to think, “This is a prickly person.” I can then find it difficult to change that initial impression, to let go of my expectations that someone will act in a particular way. I can easily devote attention and energy to the faults of others while conveniently overlooking my own. spirituality-prayer-lentI know, though, that when I get a glimpse of myself as God sees me, it is a better version of me. From God’s perspective, I am capable of being my best self—loving, forgiving, accepting and merciful. When others see the best in me, and let me know that, I am more likely to be that person (or at least be more aware when I am not). The ability of others to see the best in me helps me to grow into the person God created me to be.

God invites me to focus on improving myself, on fixing my own faults before I start looking at others.spirituality-prayer-lentWhen I am aware of my own flaws, I am less likely to be critical of others. When I remember that I grow and change, it is easier to believe that others also grow and change—and also easier to see their potential.

Practicing seeing as God sees also makes me more compassionate. Seeing the potential in others and allowing them the space to grow into their potential reminds me we are all on the path to discovering who God created us to be. Hoping that I and others can live up to the vision God has for us shifts my vision from pessimism to optimism; God’s vision is always hopeful and expansive.spirituality-prayer-lentEvery person who stands before me has the potential to become all that God intended. My desire is to accept the people who come into my life without criticism or judgment and to imagine them as their best selves, the selves God created them to be.