I have moments when I realize that I have missing the point again. Life is racing by, and I am missing opportunities to love people that are right in front of me because my focus is elsewhere.
I suspect that most people have these moments but that not everyone is willing to commit their thoughts or emotions long enough to end up writing them down.
Most recently, I read a letter (see here) written by a 27-year-old who was dying from the same disease that attacked my body nearly 7 years ago (has it really been that long?). She writes about how much we take for granted and about how well she lived her final days with her loved ones.
I echo her words, and yet I also struggle to take my own advice. It is not possible for me to live every moment as if it were my last.
Time and time again, I find myself being drawn away from the moment and pulled into an unhealthy or unfulfilling obsession. Time and time again, I find myself praying less instead of more, thinking of my own problems instead of helping others’ with theirs, and prioritizing my oh-so-important diet and beach body above self love.
But I guess this is what it is to be a healthy human who is not dying. This is how it is to get distracted by things that are of mere worldly value and momentarily become numb to the miracles of God that swirl around us like snowflakes in a flurry.
And in spite of this massive failure, again and again, there is a new day. Again and again, there is forgiveness and warm welcomes from a God that gives and embodies and becomes love.
So here’s to a new year of trying again to stay focused on what is important in life, even if I never get the beach body I want. Because the love that surrounds me is so beautiful and amazing that I don’t want to miss a second of it.
To all of you that supply that love- I hope you know how much you mean to me. Happy new year!
13 For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.
17 “The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
19 I will put in the desert
the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
the fir and the cypress together,
20 so that people may see and know,
may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it.
This passage could be interpreted as God giving people what we need, as God rescuing us from earthly problems like drought.
I see it as meaning something different, though. I don’t believe that God intervenes in such simple and superficial ways, at least not most of the time. I don’t think God typically stops hurricanes (or creates them) or cures people from cancer (or gives it to them). I do not believe that God miraculously gives water to those stranded in the desert in this passage or in our world today.
I do believe, however, that this passage means that God is unconditionally present within our hearts and in the hearts of all those around us (this is partly what the Trinity means to me).
As animals, we have needs to survive like hunger and thirst. But as humans, made in the image of God, these things are not enough for us. We need more. We thirst for love. We thirst for God. We crave spiritual unity with our creator. And if we cannot admit this or do not understand it as such, we search for something else to quench our “thirst.” Drugs, alcohol, sex, overeating, dieting, accumulating nice things, gaining power in our careers, self-serving relationships… aren’t these all just attempts to quench our thirst for what we really long for?
It is disappointing that the Christmas season is all about giving our loved ones more belongings that they do not need. What if we focused on quenching our thirst with God instead, through acts of service in our communities? What if we focused on spending our free time in prayer both together with loved ones and alone in the company of God?
When we stop expecting God to put streams in the desert and miraculously heal people with terminal cancers, maybe we will notice that He has already come into the world and quenched our every sinful thirst with grace and selfless love. Even after such a feat, He remains present, pouring love into the universe, giving and forgiving no matter how many times we forget to do the same.
What more is there to want for Christmas?
What if you truly believed everything good in your life was not something you deserved but something that you were gifted? I recently read the manuscript of a 90-year-old sociology professor who has been receiving chemotherapy and radiation for stage IV lung cancer at the Mayo Clinic. He, too, is publishing the thoughts that his experience has triggered him to explore. He articulated a similar question: “When bad things happen to us, who are we to ask ‘Why me?’ rather than ‘why not me’?” In other words, why do we assume we are undeserving of anything bad; who are we to think we are the exception rather than the rule? Who are we to believe we deserve better than what all humans have endured throughout time– suffering? Who are we that we would be above suffering?
Each moment that we spend experiencing joy or hope or love is a moment to be grateful for, a moment that defies the odds and overcomes the opposing forces of the universe. Every person, every memory, every belonging extra-ordinary. The illness and misfortune and fear and anxiety and suffering are products of the fallen world. And every departure from this fall is proof of the resurrection, proof that even the darkness of death can be conquered by light.
I am not always able to maintain such an attitude. It is so easy to become entitled, to expect goodness and be surprised when our experiences fall short of perfection. But when I am able to see every ounce of goodness as a gift that I did not earn (which is what life is, really), then it is evermore abundant.
There are times when I feel inspired at mass, and there are other times when I try my best to stay present in mind and spirit as I struggle to keep my mind from wandering everywhere but towards God.
Today I felt inspired.
Prior to entering the church, I turned to my husband and voiced one of the doubts that sometimes flickers into my conscience, especially lately. “What if the historical Jesus did not want to be worshiped and was not actually one with God? Maybe He was just a really special prophet.”
We walked into mass, and I learned that today was not only the last day of ordinary time but also the feast of “Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” I looked at my husband with wide eyes. as if to say, “I guess I got my answer, at least from the perspective of the Church.”
The Gospel was from the book of Matthew (25:31-46):
Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”
The priest talked about the connection between worshiping/loving Jesus as King of the Universe and acting out His will as a result of that relationship. If we truly worship and adore Jesus, then it follows that we will act out his teachings.
I was struck by guilt, by my lack of focus. So many times in the last year I have prayed for God to help me. I have prayed for freedom from my eating disorder and convoluted body image, for the intellect and willpower to excel in medical school, for the compassion to be a good wife and friend to so many. I have prayed for my continued health. I have prayed that I will not have more anxiety and panic. I have worked hard to stay fit and social and involved and up to date on literature and connected to family in the midst of medical school. I have been busting my tail to be enough for myself.
But what have I done for others? What have I done for Jesus? My king of the universe has been my ego. I have been striving to please the insecure little girl inside of me rather than the Christ who allows love to conquer all.
When have I considered the poor? When have I tried to befriend the lonely? Besides as part of my career training, when have I sacrificed my own pleasure to give comfort to another person?
Today I adjust my priorities to honor the King of the Universe, for this is a King that is in the sick and the poor and weak and not in the elite, the beautiful, or the successful.
I pray that you will do the same.
I like to think of the soul as a cup that is capable of both holding and delivering God’s love.
One reason that I consider myself to be a Christian (because I admittedly do find many other religions to be quite beautiful and worthy of being celebrated) is because Jesus demonstrated the capacity of a human to deliver God to earth.
The story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, illustrates Mary’s ability to carry God within her womb and share God withe world. When Jesus is born, he demonstrates the human ability not only to carry God but also exist as a part of God.
We are all vessels that can hold God, when we allow God to enter. When we become filled with such light, it is our responsibility to share it.
I think many of us forget this part. God’s love is a gift; it is nothing we earned or deserved. Thus, when we receive a surplus of this gift, we cannot store it away for later. The only way to allow the light to grow rather than fade is to share it with others.
As an extrovert, I feed off of interactions with other people. I love meeting new people, and I love being in the spotlight. I savor meeting each and every person, viewing it as an opportunity to meet another little piece of God.
However, sometimes I get too caught up in appraising the fullness of my own cup, and rather than allowing it to overflow, I put a lid on it. I take without giving much back. I feel the love of others, and I love them back, but I stop there.
What does it look like when we let the love within us grow, allowing our cups to overflow?
We begin to give love to those that never asked for it. We show appreciation for those who forgot they were worthy of being appreciated (I think of the hospital janitors). We call old friends just to say hello. We talk to strangers at the grocery store instead of racing past them to get through our grocery list. We hold open doors for old people and send birthday cards to people in the mail instead of via email. We thank God for our blessings instead of begging for more.
So as a challenge to myself and to all of you, let our cups overflow! Don’t just receive love and goodness in your lives; allow these things to multiply and fill those around you. It is likely that you will realize that the miracle of love–of God– is infinite. It never runs out.
One of my gifts is my ability to feel what other people feel. I know that empathy is not unique among compassionate people, especially in the medical field.
But I do believe the level at which I empathize is uncommon.
When I say this, I don’t mean it in an arrogant way, and I don’t mean to say that I am a better person for it, or that I have a superior moral compass.
It just so happens that I am not in control of my empathy.
I’ve always had a way of knowing how my loved ones feel without them saying anything or hinting at anything. I can just feel it.
In my undergraduate psychology class, I first learned about mirror neurons. These are the cells in our brains (and in other animals’ brains) that synapse when we observe other people’s actions, and they are the same neurons that are responsible for creating that action in us. For example, if I concentrate on observing a mother pick up her crying child, the neurons in my brain that would be responsible for the same action are activated. I do not commit the same action—pick up the woman’s child—but my brain does, at least in part.
The neuroscientist Iacaboni first theorized that mirror neurons were also involved in empathy. They allow us to understand the actions and intentions of other people. Modern research has shown that the mirror neurons involved in empathy are less active in individuals with autism. This makes sense, because people with autism often have difficulties making social connections and perceiving facial expressions and vocal inflection changes.
I have launched into such a tangent to explain mirror neurons and empathy because I believe that my mirror neurons are highly active, and perhaps more active than average. I don’t just sense other peoples’ emotions easily; I feel them. My brain experiences them. This can be a beautiful gift or, as I’ve been learning this past year, an exhausting gift.
It’s beautiful when I know that my husband is feeling disappointed about something that happened at work even before he’s had a chance to say anything or even stop smiling. It’s beautiful when I meet new people and know exactly what to say to make them feel comfortable and appreciated. It’s amazing when I know what to do for my suffering patients.
But it’s difficult when I come home from spending time with a patient who is incredibly nauseated, and I find it hard to eat. Or when I hang up the phone after talking with a friend who is struggling, and I feel tense and down.
If you know me, then you know that I am very good at expressing my own emotions. I know how to let things out and talk about them and cry about them and move on. I know how to accept my negative emotions and even appreciate them sometimes.
But feeling other people’s emotions long after my encounters with them are long has become noticeable for me more recently, after beginning my clinical experiences in medical school. Last winter, I began to have panic attacks. They started in the middle of my surgery rotation, when I was sleep deprived and stressed and terrified of suturing up an abdomen while all of the surgeons watched to see if I was holding my instruments correctly. Of course I attributed the panic to stress and to being tired. Then they kept happening in my next rotation, a rotation that I adored—neurology. So I blamed the panic on the Minnesota winter, on the long hard walks in the snow and on seasonal depression. Then I had a break from school for a few weeks for research, and I even got to live with my husband. Without any snow or operating rooms or an abnormal sleep schedule, and at last reunited with Drew, I thought I would definitely be “cured” of my anxiety. But it got even worse.
I saw an amazing psychologist who taught me how to cope with panic attacks. I restarted the anti-anxiety medication that I ‘d discontinued months before. I learned how not to let the fear of panic attacks keep me from living fully. I decided I had idiopathic panic disorder for no reason.
Despite being done with the stress of the first 3 years of medical school, completing my residency application, and even maintaining a healthy weight without constant obsessing and dieting, I have continued to have moments of distress. I not longer have panic attacks (thanks to my amazing psychologist Kristen), but I do have uncomfortable moments that are, quite frankly, very annoying.
When I have these moments, my mind begins to wander—which is never helpful. I am disappointed in myself for having moments of unhappiness in the midst of an objectively wonderful and amazing life with so many loved ones who support me. I begin to question my independence and my stability. I begin to fear the very worst. And then I find myself back on the fast track to panic.
I didn’t have any ideas about where the triggering feelings/moments were coming from until today. I just wrote them off as irrelevant and unavoidable, as things to ignore. And while I’m sure ignoring is better than obsessing and panicking, I don’t know that it’s the best answer. I want to confront the actual issue.
And then I realized that maybe my feelings aren’t mine. Maybe they come from somewhere else—or someone else.
I hesitated to share this with anyone at the risk of sounding delusional. I don’t mean to suggest that I have a super power or psychic abilities. I suppose it’s also possible that what I’m experiencing is more common than I realize, that many people who work with those who suffer also suffer with them.
I believe that suffering is an inherent part of having a soul. St. Paul and St. Francis, among many others in the history of the church, viewed suffering as essential to the nature of humanity. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are filled with stories of suffering. Jesus suffered with and for humanity. My experience with cancer taught me that suffering can allow us to notice love and hope in places we had previously ignored; it can allow use to meet God.
Is there a way for me to find value in suffering with my patients but also find a way to let go of the feelings that are not helpful to me? I know that the extent to which I suffer with my patients will only increase as my career moves forward. I must be prepared to cope appropriately.
After writing all of this out, I admit I feel more relaxed than I have in a long time. Maybe my answer is writing. Maybe my answer is more prayer. I think that these are a good place to start. For any of you who are reading this, please let me know your ideas.
In the meantime, I will accept that the emotions I take on from others are a necessary side effect of my gift to connect with people. And I will continue to be grateful for a fulfilling vocation that gives me the opportunity to be with those who suffer.