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Giving Thanks for Our Afflictions?

Usually when we give thanks, we give thanks for the more pleasant blessings we receive from life. But today I’d like for us to think about those blessings life brings us that come wrapped in pain instead of pleasure.


A couple of decades ago I was sitting in a group therapy session in Dallas, Texas. Along with about thirty other counselors, social workers, and psychologists, I was engaged in a year-long practicum in Marriage and Family Therapy. Whenever you are engaged in such training you are also required to be in therapy. There were six of us in my therapy group.


It so happened that I was also suffering considerably from the as yet undiagnosed immunological disease which had been my constant companion, in one form or another, since childhood. Without going into gritty detail, the mastocytosis (mast cell disease) which started out in a cutaneous form as a child became systemic and progressed from an inconvenience to life-threatening. Allergic reactions and sensitivities to certain chemicals often triggered it. And the list of food and chemical triggers had grown exponentially during my twenties and early thirties. Even changes in temperature, especially heat and sunshine, were also triggers, as was fatigue. For someone who loves food and outdoor sports, like tennis and golf, and who tends to burn the candle at both ends, the fact that these things could trigger anaphylaxis had become much more than a nuisance. I bemoaned the disease that limited me from so many of my favorite activities.


We took turns speaking in group therapy. I hadn’t shared in some time. Frankly, I didn’t feel much like sharing. But my therapist, Sue, called on me. “We haven’t heard anything from you in a while, Michael.”


I don’t remember exactly what I said. But it had something to do with seeing my disease as a curse that limited my freedom and had stolen many simple joys from life.


A few group members spoke, as counselor-sorts often do, with sympathy and empathy and tender support. But one member of the group, a therapist who worked with an organization on the front-lines of suicide intervention, confronted me with a really annoying question: “I wonder if you might see the blessing in what you now see as a curse?”


I responded with something like, “Are you *bleeping* crazy?”


“I don’t think so,” he answered. “It seems to me that everything we are given in life is potentially a teacher and a gift. Your illness is a given, even if you can’t see it as a gift. So what is it teaching you?”


If someone had walked into that room, waved a magic wand, and turned all of us into lemurs I couldn’t have been more speechless. In a single question, this fellow had turned my world upside down and shaken it vigorously.


Thinking back now, I realize he was raising a question for me that resonated with others in the group: two alcoholics and another person with a drug addiction, a woman with a severe eating disorder, a person who had been sexually abused as a child by a family member, another who had attempted suicide because of her depression. Every one of us was damaged, carrying the wounds of past and present pain. Our pain, in some sense had led every single one of us to engage in the so-called helping professions. But had our pain given us something even more profound?


As our colleague asked this question, I felt that kind of emotional and intellectual discombobulation that has the potential to lead to a new way of seeing things.


His question has stayed with me. And it came to mind recently while I was meditating. It also happened to be on a day when my mastocytosis had gotten the better of me. I was meditating, lying flat of my back in bed, unable to eat anything more adventurous than vanilla yoghurt.


One of my seminary professors once told me that there are some people God can only save by making preachers of them. I think his lesson could be expanded. There are some of us who progress in the life of the spirit only if we are miserable.


Some of us just will not become conscious of our utter dependence upon God unless God makes us. Of course, there are blessed souls who are more God-aware, more mindful of their own finitude and frailty and the fragility of human life, more awake to the fact that a power beyond conception holds all beings in existence. Such blessed souls may not need quite as much prompting to become aware of God’s presence and our absolute dependence on God. But many of us do.


So, as I lay there meditating, I was reminded that the illness that keeps me physically humble is a gift that does far more. The pain that comes with it, the feeling of exhaustion that accompanies it, and the various discomforts and inconveniences that are all a part of this disease, serve as a reminder of just how dependent even the most independent of us is on powers beyond ourselves. The disease has forced me into making choices I would rather not make (like between hiding the illness in pride or humbly acknowledging that I’m just as frail as anyone else; between denying or resenting reality; or between making the pain worse by engaging in self-pitying suffering or just living with a recognition of certain limitations).


My colleague in the therapy group was right all those years ago. This illness is a gift for which I can (if I choose) be grateful. It has been a faithful tutor all my life. I suspect that our colleague’s question was helpful to other members in our group that day. He reminded us that consciousness of our own fragility and humanity can help us to be aware of and sensitive to the needs of others.

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