Embracing the Thorns

My son was on his honeymoon in Costa Rica a couple of years ago. The newly married couple decided to do an adventure excursion involving zip lines 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. At the exact same time 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 at a medical facility much later.

Do you ever feel like that guy, like you’re walking through life with a painful thorn in your palm? Maybe even a handful?

A few weeks after my son’s wedding, I came down with a fever and body aches. Oh no. Not another virus. I had just recovered form 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 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, and the lymph nodes in my arm had been damaged by the treatment. They were no longer functioning and lymphatic fluid, which functions as part of the immune system, was backing up in my arm and causing problems. Apparently I do need my lymph nodes. Who knew?

 “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, and physically tough. I’ve always felt strong. Until then.

“It’s like my arm is disabled, and I have to be careful with it,” I told my daughter. But when I heard myself say those words, I had a moment of clarity and I suddenly realized – I’m in denial. First of all, my arm is part of me. If my arm is disabled, then I am. A disability is defined as a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. I needed 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 knew that. I just was not living in that knowledge.

I had a really hard time with the whole idea of being disabled. I was feeling angry. Whiny. That’s it was unfair and unjust. That I was still strong, and being disabled was not part of my plan.

It’s funny – my recent books have been about people with major, life-changing disabilities. Michael Hingson, a man who escaped from the World Trade Center on September 11 with his guide dog, Roselle, was blind from birth. Ryan Corbin was a young man who suffered massive brain damage from a near-fatal four-story fall. And Austin LeRette, a boy born with brittle bone disease and autism who lived with unexplainable joy.

Each of them has major disabilities, has risen above them, and has extraordinary influence on the people around them. Their weaknesses have become their strengths. But 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 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.

I’m still learning how to use those thorns, and that pain and suffering, to inform my daily life and my work. I’m learning to be honest, and that great insights can come from great pain. I can open up and share them with those around me who might not be as far along on this journey.

I know to expect wounds. You can’t wait for your life, or your relationships or your work, to be perfect. The Bible is full of stories about wounded people and their struggles.

Most people in pain develop a protective shell and might even appear as if they have it all together. Most of us don’t. Our thorns might be invisible, but they are there. When I write, I’m writing for that inner, hurting person. When I read, my own protective shell is pierced and words go straight through to my heart.

After the thorns were removed and he was treated with antibiotics, that guy in Costa Rica turned out to be okay. But he has scars, and in a way they’re a reminder of a painful, but beautiful journey through a rainforest.

About Susy Flory 2 Articles

As a kid, I always had my nose in a book. In school, the teacher had to tell me to put my hand down because I wanted to answer every question or ask every question. I’ve been a reporter, an educator, a wife, and a mom. Now I’m a full time writer with nine books published, including a New York Times bestseller called Thunder Dog. My family sometimes gets tired of my obsessions but I’ve turned that hyper focus into a drive to chase big, true stories that I just can’t get enough of.

I live near Lake Tahoe with my husband Robert. We have two adult children. In addition to writing books and articles, I consult for Lightside Games, the world’s largest online Christian videogame company. I’m a member of the Authors Guild, serve on the board of Inspire Christian Writers, and was recently named Director of West Coast Christian Writers Conference (formerly Christian Writers Seminar), an annual writers conference in the San Francisco Bay Area.

9 Comments

  1. Great metaphor. And isn’t it so true. We write about the amazing faith of wounded, broken people and whine when we’re faced with troubles…until the Holy Spirit pricks us.
    I’m looking forward to hearing you at the conference.

  2. Susy, I’m so thankful for your transparency, especially as one who has been depending on God to help me trust Him through my own healing journey over the last four years. He’s been teaching me how to embrace weaknesses, to ask for help, to share openly, and to allow others to see me struggling as I share how He—His Spirit through illuminating His Word—helps me to remain focused on Him and to allow myself grace during my expected whiny-pity-parties that He eventually turns to praise.

    I haven’t used the “D” word. I’ve been more comfortable referring to my limited mobility as suffering and affliction. But today, as I read your words, I realized that truth is mine. Though I am asking God to remind me that my disabilities, just like my sin, my shortcomings, my past, and my struggles, do not define me.

    Still, your courageous declaration refreshed me. I found courage with you, Sister, courage to face weaknesses and suffering as opportunities to magnify God’s power and mercy and faithfulness, opportunities to encourage others and remind them that they are not alone, either.

    Thanks for being willing to share from that tender spot. You are definitely making a difference.

    I look forward to learning from you and will be praying for you and all of us who are attending the workshop. To God be the glory, the honor, and the praise!

  3. Susy — thank you for this hopeful story of dealing with the thorns (visible and invisible). I very much wish I could attend the conference, but I’ll have to look forward to meeting you another time. Blessings to you and to those who hear your message this Saturday.

  4. Susy,
    Thank you for writing this piece about physical life changes and challenges. It is moving. Over the years I’ve had accidents that left me with somewhat long recovery periods. I dislike my kids seeing me as less than able or down again. It strikes me as odd that I keep tripping over the fact that God gets to write my story. He wants to reveal His power in my weakness which He does if I let Him.
    Looking forward to Saturday!

  5. My stories of fantasy, mystery, and humor, and frequently sprinkled with ‘life’s truths’ are written for those who suffer from some type of disability, whether it is physical, emotional, financial or social. Reading my books provides a few hours when the reader can laugh, cheer on the good guy, see the bad guy brought to justice and forget one’s own troubles. Then, by the grace of God and a refreshing break, we can return to reality, ready to fight the good fight.
    This type of novel can be helpful to those who suffer. Don’t we all need a break from our troubles once in a while?

  6. Susy,
    Thanks so much for your wonderful post and vulnerability. I relate so much to all you shared. I fought the disability word at first, but now embrace it as something God is using in my own life to bring me closer to Him, as well as help others. We all need one another. Thanks for encouraging us with your gentle, yet powerful words of truth. Looking forward to hearing all you have to share tomorrow.

  7. Susy, This was a wonderful article of acceptance and gratitude. As you said, almost everyone has some sort of disability. Thank you for the reminder that it can be a gift if we embrace it.
    Your talks at the writer’s workshop last Saturday were chockfull of information and humor! Thank you for sharing so much of your heart and soul … and writing tips … with us.

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