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.