As an educator, I’m fond of saying an essential component of spiritual formation is reflection. We must take time to reflect upon life experiences in light of our journey of faith. Although I am a “glass half-full” type person, I believe there is great benefit in reflecting upon both positive and negative experiences. Today allow me to recall my thoughts following a recent both-and experience—hernia surgery!
I begin by acknowledging I’ve been incredibly blessed with good health all my life. Before my recent surgery I had a couple other procedures but nothing serious. On April 1st (April Fool!) I noticed something unusual. A few days later, my general practitioner diagnosed an inguinal hernia. In a couple weeks, I met with a surgeon and we scheduled surgery for May 14.
I will spare you the gory details, but an important part of the experience was surgery prep which included fasting, two IVs, and hours of waiting. My nurse was very kind. After she readied me for surgery, I eavesdropped on interesting conversations at the nurses’ station. Eventually I began musing about how strange the entire situation was. Like most people I don’t like to be out of control. Control, we all know, is an illusion. I was very aware that soon I would be put to sleep and strangers would be poking around inside my body. Strangely, the longer I lay there, the more peaceful I felt. My reflection and my conviction were and remain so, no matter what happened in the operating room, God cares about my life.
When the anesthesiologist’s assistant arrived to give me a “relaxation” shot, I teased her, saying, “Can’t you see I’m relaxed already?” She acknowledged, that, yes, that appeared to be true. Then I was out like a light!
The next thing I remember was waking up in the recovery room. After a few minutes to re-orient my brain, an aid helped me get dressed. The short walk from the bed to the waiting wheelchair was wobbly, but before long I was in the car so Joan could drive me home. My first car ride post-surgery was very uncomfortable but I was glad to be on the road to recovery (pardon the pun).
The first few days following surgery were easier than they might have been because I was on long-lasting pain medication administered during surgery. When the surgery meds began to wear off, I started experiencing pain; getting up and down was the worst. This level of physical dis-ease was a new experience for me. Sudden stabbing nerve pain almost dropped me to my knees a few times. Though I dislike taking pills, I needed to keep the pain at bay with over-the-counter pain relievers.
The recliner was my friend for several nights, then I graduated to the couch. Almost immediately post-surgery I walked around inside. I think movement and change of position was helpful. Joan and I resumed our daily exercise walking routine three days after surgery – about a half-mile the first day. The next day we doubled the distance but that was too much. Inflammation and swelling set in so walking longer distances outdoors had to wait awhile longer. The next several days were extremely unpleasant because I couldn’t get comfortable even after applying ice packs. Today, four+ weeks post-surgery I have no pain unless I overdo physical exertion or stand too long.
I recount this story for one reason: to admit pain was my teacher. Physical pain kept me totally dependent for quite some time. My wife Joan was an excellent nurse, and she made sure I didn’t over-exert or do anything to jeopardize my recovery. Our physical bodies need time and TLC to heal.
As a recovering workaholic, I fully expected to stay on schedule with writing projects and other less physical tasks during recovery. (Covid restrictions on travel were still in place anyway.) I really did overestimate what my body would allow me to do: lifting, sitting for long periods, exercising. For several days all I could muster was listening to podcasts and reading (when I wasn’t napping). My normal level of productivity was disrupted, and I didn’t like it. Coming to grips with the demands of self-care meant allowing work to take a back seat to the healing process.
Pain offered me spiritual insight, too. My body’s miraculous ability to heal filled me with gratitude. Simple things – getting up on my own, longer stretches without pain pills, return of physical routines and function, less swelling and fewer ice packs, and sleeping in my own bed – elicited thanksgiving. Every day I was aware of my dependence and grateful for return of daily routines, better mobility, and physical strength.
Bi-lateral hernia surgery prompted me to reflect upon God’s goodness, but why did it take an unexpected disruption for me to recognize my constant and ongoing gratitude? We start feeling better and get busier so we forget to remain grateful, don’t we? Paul’s encouragement to “pray without ceasing” is so necessary but I don’t think Paul is suggesting formal, long hours of prayer on our knees or prostrate on the floor. I think Paul’s imperative means to remain open and aware of God’s presence and care throughout the day, in good health and not-so-good, during recovery, and when life is back to its usual flow. We can “count our blessings” and remain aware of our connection to our Creator, often and continually. Every thought is prayer. Truly, life itself is prayer.
Yes, pain and gratitude are strange bedfellows, but thank God for healing and for Spirit’s invitation to reflect upon the journey so even pain can teach us valuable lessons.