I didn’t anticipate this distance I feel. Distance from others. From God.
I cannot remember what it feels like to be well. This is not so much a complaint as an observation. Like a frog in a pot, over time I’ve grown accustomed to the effects of my infection—the night sweats, the constant chill, my foggy mind, the ache when I stand up, my general malaise.
I have a recurring dream from which I wake with a start. In the dream I am being chased and I am afraid, but that is all I can ever recall. I wake trembling with fear. It takes a few minutes to remember where I am and shake it off. When I lay back down, my pillow is drenched in cold sweat. I go through this routine alone almost every night. I do not wake my wife, and I don’t think to talk about it during the day. I am the only one who knows that every night, when everyone else in the house is sound asleep, I am frightened awake. Whether it be the hounds of heaven or the devils of hell, this is my nightmare. It has become part of the rhythm of my day. It happens so often that it feels normal.
The fever has given me an ashen complexion. My friends tell me I look gray. They are deeply concerned when they say it. I hear it in the way they choose their words. They want to say the right thing but don’t know what that is, so sometimes they say the wrong thing. I understand. I say the wrong things too. Sometimes I make little jokes about dying.
There is a strange relational order to this experience. I feel a great burden to care for loved ones who, themselves, are afraid for me. I do not know what hounds are chasing them in secret, but I see the fear in their eyes when they ask me to tell them my story. So I try to tell it in a way that will comfort them. I want to reassure them that I will be fine. But I do not know if that is true.
Nevertheless, I, the infirm, find myself caring for the sorrows and fears of the well. I do not resent them for this, not even a little. I love my friends. I want to comfort them. I am a pastor. Caring for the hearts of others is part of my profession. But walking through affliction is a work that is bound by limitation. Often it isn’t that the afflicted are unwilling to let others in. It is just that there comes a certain point in a person’s suffering where there is no apparent port of entry.
To close this gap, I have to come out of my present distress to meet them just as they have to step into a suffering that is not their own to meet me. If I wanted, I suppose I could withdraw from people on the basis that they don’t understand my pain. And in a sense I would be right. But what sort of fool would require such a thing of those who only want to love me?
This is a distance born out of love and concern. And fear. But it remains a distance—one I suspect has been here all along but has now stepped into a light by which it may be seen. The fear of losing me has illuminated the truth that no one has any power to keep me. Though there are hounds in the shadows bearing down on us all, we have caught a glimpse of one of mine.
I wish I could take away their fear. Here is that strange relational order again. I see people trying to imagine being in my position. They say this must be very difficult for me. Then I do the same with them. I imagine how sad they must feel worrying about someone they love. That must be difficult for them. It is hard for me to go through. It is hard for them to watch. I have now become a prayer request.
“I’m better than I was,” I say. “My doctors assure me I’ll be fine.”
I tire easily. I don’t have much strength. I find myself sitting down while everyone else is standing. They now must look down on me.
I realize I have a choice about how I will regard this distance. I have a choice in how I respond to people when they say the wrong thing or avoid me because they don’t know what to say. The lines have fallen for us all in strange places. Who knows what the rules of engagement are? I don’t want to become so self-important that I require a certain kind of elegance from those who cannot help but stumble around this unfamiliar stage.
It serves no purpose for me to be touchy about how people interact with me or I with them. We live most of our days avoiding the subject of our mortality. It takes courage to face death, and trying to be brave is the same as being brave.
The truth is, I don’t always know how to be. If I encourage people to take a casual approach toward my affliction, am I robbing them of the opportunity to express what they really feel? If I treat my situation with utmost solemnity, am I being unnecessarily morbid?
In affliction we cry and then we laugh. Or we laugh and then we cry. We become schooled in the art of being able to feel more than one thing at a time. Since the afflicted live among the well, moments like these are bound to come. And with them, this feeling of distance.
But it does not need to be a separating distance. Just as I must not demand that I understand everything God is doing in order to pray to him, I cannot expect others to understand everything I am experiencing in order for them to talk to me. The distance is real. The least I can do is come out to meet those who seek me.