Embracing the Thorn

My son was on his honeymoon in Costa Rica a couple years ago. The newly married couple decided to do an adventure excursion involving ziplines through the jungle, a hike, and a swim under a tropical waterfall. As the group started out on the hike, the guide, a local man, warned them about the trees with thorns. “Don’t touch the trees!” he warned. It wasn’t just the pain; infection is a real danger in the tropical climate.

But the warning came too late. While the guide was giving the warning, the first guy in the line of hikers reached out and grabbed a tree trunk to steady himself on the uneven trail. He yelped in pain and drew back a palm-full of dozens of tiny, razor sharp thorns. The rest of the hike, he and his wife worked to extract each thorn. But it was impossible; he had to hike with a hand full of thorns and get help later.

Do you ever feel like that guy?

A few weeks after my son’s wedding, I came down with a fever and body aches. Oh no. Not another virus. I had a two-week bout with the flu over the holidays, right after my son’s wedding. I was finally feeling pretty good and had just about caught up on work. Now this.

But it wasn’t the flu. Later in the day, rolling around in bed trying to get comfortable, I looked at my right arm and noticed an ugly red rash. My arm was painful, swollen, and I could barely straighten it out. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on so I visited my doctor yesterday and we put the pieces together and figured it out.

A few years ago I had several surgeries related to breast cancer. I’m now cancer free, but the surgeries, chemo, and radiation took a toll on my body. (Apparently you do need your lymph nodes. Who knew?) That week I’d overdone my physical activity (skiing, working, cleaning bathrooms, and capping it all off with an aggressive cleaning session involving a big, clunky upright vacuum cleaner). My arm was injured and it reacted with inflammation and infection.

Sorry I’m such a loser,” I told my husband the next day. And that’s truly how I felt. I’ve always prided myself on being strong, athletic, outdoorsy, physically tough. I like to humble brag about riding my horse (His name is Stetson! He’s 17 hands!) and skiing (double black diamond!) and doing the Susan G Komen Walk for the Cure (60 miles!).

I’ve always been strong. Until now.

I was telling my daughter the story yesterday. “It’s like my arm is disabled, and I have to be careful with it.” When I heard myself say those words, I suddenly realized–I’m clearly in denial. First of all, my arm is part of me. If my arm is disabled, then I am (Disability – A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities). I need to own it. Second, almost everyone has some sort of disability, whether visible or not. The older you get, the more likely something goes wrong with your body or mind. I’m not alone. Third, disability can be a gift, if you embrace it. Intellectually, I know that. I’m just not living it.

I’m having a really hard time with this whole idea. I’m feeling angry. Whiny.

That’s it’s unfair and unjust. That I’m still strong–and being disabled isn’t part of my plan. Disability means weakness. It means I can’t do everything I want to do. It gets at my core identity as a strong woman.

But wait–who am I to complain? Am I so shallow that I think I’m above having some hard stuff to deal with? That I’m exempt from difficulties or disability? Gulp. Yes. I am that shallow.

I’m learning. The apostle Paul talked about being given a thorn in the flesh:

“…So I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness. Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. <2 Corinthians 12:7>

It’s funny–my recent books have been about people with major, life-changing disabilities.

Each of them has major disabilities, has risen above them, and has extraordinary influence on the people around them. Their weakness has become their strength.

So, even though I’ve written about these heroes of the faith and know them intimately, I’m a little late to the party. I’m still trying to figure this out–how to rely on God’s strength in my own weakness. I’m still trying to learn how to hike with a palm full of thorns.

What about you? Do you have a thorn? How do you deal with it?

Can you use that thorn in your writing? YES! Try this:

  • Be honest.  Great insights can come from great pain. Open up and share them.
  • Expect wounds. Don’t wait for your life, or your writing, to be perfect. Most of the Bible is about wounded people and their struggles.
  • Redeem tragedy through writing. “Deeper knowledge and forgiveness of yourself and others through writing can lead to a lightening of past burdens,” says psychologist and memoirist Linda Joy Myers.
  • Write for the inner person. Most people in pain develop a protective shell and might even appear as if they have it all together. Most of us don’t. Write for us.

“Embracing the Thorn” first at susyflory.com. Permission to use by author.

Susy Flory is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books. She leads an Inspire critique group in Castro Valley, along with Jeanette Hanscome. Susy and four others are incoming directors of the West Coast Christian Writers conference (WCCW), formerly Christian Writers Seminar. More on that soon!