Mortify Our Wolves: the struggle back to life and faith in the face of pain and the certainty of death.

Author:Wiman, Christian
Position:Essay
 
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There comes a moan to the cancer clinic. There comes a sound so low and unvarying it seems hardly human, more a note the wind might strike off jags of rock and ice in some wasted place too remote for anyone to hear.

We hear, and look up as one at the two attendants hurriedly wheeling something so shrunken it seems merely another rumple in the blanket, tubes traveling in and out of its impalpability, its only life this lifeless cry.

The doors open soundlessly, and the pall of sorrow goes flowing off into the annihilating brightness beyond. Then the doors close, and we as one look down, not meeting each other's eyes, and wait.

.................. The terrible thing--it could perhaps be a glorious thing; always the ill are meant to see it as such, are reproached if they don't (carpe fucking diem)--the terrible thing about feeling the inevitability of your own early death is the way it colors every single scene: at some friends' house I am moved by the beauty and antics of their two-year-old daughter--moved, and then saddened to think of the daughter D. and I might have, for whom my death will be some deep, lightless hole, which for the rest of her life she will walk around, grief the very ground of her being. What is this world that we are so at odds with, this beauty by which we are so wounded, and into which God has so utterly gone?

.................. Into which, rather than from which: in a grain of grammar, a world of hope.

.................. That conversions often happen after or during intense life experiences, especially traumatic experiences, is sometimes used as evidence against them. The sufferer isn't in his right mind. The mind, tottering at the abyss of despair or death, shudders back toward any simplicity, any coherency it can grasp, and the man calls out to God. Never mind that the God who comes at such moments may not be simple at all, but arises out of and includes the very abyss the man would flee. Never mind that in traumatic experience many people lose their faith--or what looked like faith?--rather than find it. It is the flinch from life--which, the healthy are always quick to remind us, includes death--and the flight to God that cannot be trusted.

But how could it be otherwise? It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness sake--or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins. It's true that God comes to the prophet Isaiah not in the whirlwind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire that follows, but in the "still, small voice" that these ravages make plain. But the very wording of that passage makes it clear that the voice, though finally more powerful than the ravages it follows, is not altogether apart from them. That voice is always there, and for everyone. For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it.

.................. Years between that last entry and this one. Years of working on these little fragments here and there, finding God here and there among the ongoing delights and demolitions of daily life. Years of treatments, abatements, hope, hell. I have a cancer that is as rare as it is unpredictable, "smoldering" in some people for decades, turning others to quick tinder. I also now have two children, two lovely, livewire, and preternaturally alert little girls who were born within eight minutes of each other, at a time when it seemed like the cancer had been driven away by drugs so futuristic I couldn't get past my amazement to feel much fear, and with so few side effects that it seemed I would be able to take them forever. That hasn't proved to be the case.

Though people never say it, you can see it in their eyes sometimes, the question: How could you do it? How could you bring children into a situation so precarious? How could you seed them with this grief? And of course we ask ourselves these questions, my wife and I, when things are bad with me or difficult at home. But then we see them offering each other flowers they've picked from the back yard, or stopping mid-madcap-play to kiss each other, or, when we walk into their nursery in the morning, throwing back their heads and laughing like little palpable fruitions of the love that first led us out of ourselves and to each other--we see these things and we ask: How could we not have had them? How could they not be? How could such life, such love, ever have remained latent and dormant within us?

.................. Part of the mystery of grace is the way it operates not only as present joy and future hope, but also retroactively, in a way: the past is suffused with a presence that, at the time, you could only feel as the most implacable absence. This is why being saved (I dislike the language, too, not because it's inaccurate but because it's corrupted by contemporary usage, a hands-in-the-air, holy-seizure sort of rapture, a definitive sense of rift) involves embracing rather than renouncing one's past. It is true that Christ makes a man anew, that there is some ultimate change in him. But part of that change is the ability to see life as a whole, to feel the form and unity of it, to become a creature made for and assimilated to existence, rather than a desperate, fragmented thing striving against existence or caught forever just outside it.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

.................. Though I have in my life experienced gout, bladder stones, a botched bone marrow biopsy, and various other screamable insults, until recently I had no idea what pain was. It islands you. You sit there in your little skeletal constriction of self--of disappearing self--watching everyone you love, however steadfastly they may remain by your side, drift farther and farther away. There is too much cancer packed into my bone marrow, which is inflamed and expanding, creating pressure outward on the bones. "Bones don't like to stretch," a doctor tells me. Indeed. It is in my legs mostly, but also up in one shoulder and in my face. It is a dull devouring pain, as if the earth were already--but slowly--eating me. And then, with a wrong move or...

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