On March 9 I was cruising along at 60 mph on a highway in Wisconsin when a car pulled out right in front of me. I’ll never forget that “oh no” second when I realized that there was nothing I could do to avoid the impact.
The metal crunched, the air bag deployed, the EMTs and sheriff’s deputies were on the scene in two or three minutes. I was taken to emergency room in Sturgeon Bay. Besides the bruises all over my body, x-rays revealed that the only major damage was a broken right heel.
Then, while recuperating at home, an intestinal blockage caused such severe pain that I called 911 and took another trip with EMTs to an emergency room. On top of that, I developed an infection which caused my left foot to swell up like a balloon. I had a tube inserted through my nose into my stomach, was NPO (nothing by mouth) for five days and on IV antibiotics for another five days. I had more than twenty needles put in my veins or stuck in my fingers.
A Nazi concentration camp survivor named Victor Frankl stated, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Kevin Ware, the Louisville basketball player who broke his leg on national TV a week and a half ago, tried to make sense of his freakish accident by saying in an interview that the injury must have a purpose.
So here I am trying to make some sense, find some meaning in the month of March which for me played out like an absurd Franz Kafka story. Here’s what I think I’ve figured out to date.
First, thank God for morphine and Vicodin. Thank God for doctors and radiologists and competent nurses and antibiotics. Science has given us gifts which help us get through our suffering and sometimes even cure us.
Second, healing often involves suffering. After having used two veins in both of my arms for IVs during the week, the nurse told me that she was having trouble finding a good vein. Sure enough, she stuck the needle in my left wrist, pulled it out, tried again and again. By this time I was sweating profusely. Inserting the tube through my nose and into my stomach wasn’t fun either. Anyone who has gone through psychotherapy will testify that that kind of healing can also involve a fair amount of pain.
Third, sometimes there are no magic palliative pills. Sometimes we have to just grit our teeth and find a way to get through it.
Fourth, believing is seeing. I’ll never forget Officer Tom Hall telling me that the police are trained to look for the bad in people. They pick up on subtle behaviors that most of us miss. They find the bad in people, because they are looking for it.
Likewise, if you are convinced that life or God are unfair, you will find plenty of evidence to support your belief. In contrast, I have been nurtured for 65 years by stories like the ones some of us heard during Holy Week, i.e. that the worst in us can be transformed into good by the power of righteous suffering. In my case, stories about Jesus trumped stories by Franz Kafka. I found what I was looking for. The care given me by friends, family and medical professionals trumped the undeserved suffering I endured in March.
So, that’s why I urge everyone to teach your children and grandchildren how to suffer, because there will be times when it can’t be avoided. Because there are times when suffering is required for healing. Because in our lives east of Eden, the highway to happiness will often meet unavoidable detours of suffering. There is no direct route to a meaningful life.