Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I realized today that sometimes, you just have to white-knuckle it.
I have a few interns graduating from high school in Richmond, CA. If you’re not familiar with Richmond, it’s a very tough place to grow up. Seated right next to Chevron’s biggest petroleum refinery west of the Mississippi, it’s full of toxic chemicals. The parks are run down and while there is change coming to the City, it wasn’t changing much when many of my students were growing up. Sometimes, I think it’s a miracle they’ve made it this far in one piece, with their sanity intact.
I went down to a local JC today to sort out a clerical error for one of my kids – someone used his ID number to register, then drop out of a class. They say he owes them $21 for a on-unit course, and he can’t register for classes at a sister JC closer to home until it’s paid. I mean, this kid doesn’t have $8 for the BART to come out here to fix it, let alone $21 to pay it. He’s saving every dime so he can get his first apartment, and being a young African-American man from Richmond, even one with a great resume, he’s having trouble finding a job in this economy. He asked me, frustrated beyond belief, why everything has to be so hard. Ah, kid, I wanted to say, I am so not the one to ask right now.
The reason is this: I’d just realized I had done the math wrong this month, and I have three chemo sessions left, not two. Then, my doctor told me that the thing on my tailbone I thought was a staph infection from my gym’s nasty locker room was actually shingles. Which is also why the headaches I’ve been getting are not going away no matter how much water I drink. The best part is, I can’t take anything but over-the-counter pain medication, because I have to drive myself to the doctor four times a week for shots, bloodwork, and chemo.
If you’ve ever put pressure on a shingles-inflamed nerve, it’s not pleasant. Not at all. Which is why I am wincing when Marlon asks me why everything has to be so hard, I know how he feels. I know the feeling that it’s just not going to get any easier anytime soon. In those times, I now realize, you just have to white-knuckle It. You just have to get through it, because no amount of vision-boarding or Madonna-album-listening, or positive-affirmation-ing is going to make the pain and frustration go away.
The worst pain I’ve ever been in was the week I had my gallbladder taken out. I didn’t even have a gallstone; I had like “gall-sludge” – a slimy, grainy-textured, tar-sand-like substance clogging my bile duct. The pain was excruciating; I was out of my mind from the second I walked into the hospital to the moment the morphine took effect. It felt like an alien made of boulders was trying to claw its way out of my chest and I was literally watching the second hand on the clock, thinking two more minutes and the nurse will be here, thirty more seconds and she’ll find a vein, five more seconds and it will be in my bloodstream, knowing that as soon as my body metabolized it, the pain would abate.
Knowing there will be an end to pain makes it so much easier to get through, of course. It’s thinking that life is going to be hard forever that makes you want it over. In the Book of Job, the Devil says to God, “You know, even your best followers only follow you because their lives are blessed. If you took away everything they had, they wouldn’t be so penitent.” So God says, “Okay, fine – there’s Job – go to town. Take away anything you want from him.” And Job loses everything – his kids, his business, his house, all of it. Still, Job believes in God and doesn’t question Him. Finally, Job’s friends are like, “Dude, you are not perfect, but still, how can you deserve this? You need to take it up with God, you need to ask Him what you’ve done to be so punished.” God, hearing Job’s friends question His judgement, interrupts them and says, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (which would be Hebrew for “Who are YOU to question ME?”)
Theologians typically suggest that the central question of the book of Job is, “Is misfortune always divine punishment?” and in my opinion, the Book of Job says no. We’re not at the mercy of a capricious God, and we’re not always bearing the burden of His wrath. In times of misfortune, I take comfort in the Book of Jeremiah, where God says He has a plan for me. I may not know what it is; it may be confusing sometimes. I may feel like the Karate-fucking-Kid, waxing on and waxing off and painting houses all day while He’s out fishing! But I have to trust that it’s all part of His plan, and that, like Job, faith and trust are rewarded. Even if you want to get all existential and say the only reward for faith in a Higher Power is feeling like misery isn’t pointless…. sometimes, that can be enough to make you want to go on living.
So many times in my life, I have been able to use past disasters to put things in perspective, either for myself or for others. Time and again, I have made it through hard times to enjoy an abundant and happy life. We never know what God has planned for us; we can only take comfort in what is, and pray for strength, patience, and understanding if it isn’t what we want. I told Marlon, when he asked me why life has to be so hard, that sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s easy, and the only thing we can control is our reaction to it. When you don’t think you have the strength to bear a burden, and none of your positive thinking is helping, the answer is to hold on, let the tears fall, and white-knuckle it ’till it’s over.