cut it out

Sometimes you can know something, but not really know it. You know what I mean? Maybe you hear something, but not until much later do you actually understand the meaning of it.

Maybe it doesn’t happen to you, but it happens to me all the time. Like yesterday.

I happened to be on horseback, riding down the beach, with a friend of mine. We were chatting – as, at this point, the horses were content with a steady walk and had not yet entered into the exciting though somewhat humbling gallop down the beach – about life and various things. As we chatted, she mentioned that her father in law was having some health issues – struggling with an infection in his lower leg, an infection that was not healing.

As the story unfolded, it turned out that there was no circulation in the leg, below the knee, because of some earlier problems. In fact, the infection was becoming not only debilitating – her father in law was not able to walk on his own – but also potentially dangerous, with the threat of gangrene setting in and claiming more territory on the already compromised leg.

“What he needs,” she explained to me, “is to have the leg amputated at the knee.” Put that way, it seemed fairly straightforward – though of course not ideal, desired, or comfortable. But it was also clear, by the way she was recounting the story, that straightforward was not in the cards.

“He doesn’t want to do it,” she continued, explaining that he didn’t want to lose his leg – he didn’t want to be ‘crippled’ – assuming that would make him somehow less of a man.

The problem, of course being – he is already crippled.

Not only is he crippled, but by not attending to the issue at hand, he is actually in far more danger than the surmountable challenge of learning how to live with one ‘good’ leg, use a prosthesis, and find his way through the loss not only of the leg, but of a part of his identity. For him to do nothing, his very life is at stake, not just his leg.

As I listened, and as we chatted, I pondered out loud at the ‘sermon’ in the story she had just told me – how we can often try so hard to hold onto something, something that we think is an essential part of who we are, even when that very thing is what is actually threatening our very existence. How, sometimes, what we need to do is to dig within and find the courage to amputate – or allow to be amputated – that which is not only not promoting life, but actually reeking of death.

In doing so it is possible that we might find that, though we feared that the amputation of that part would be the death of who we are, it actually has freed us for new life, another chance –  a new life that is undeniably wounded, yes, that will never be the same as the old life once was, but that can find its way through that pain to the other side, to a place of renewed wholeness that stands on a foundation of health, not disease.

Of course it is not easy. Of course it is not without risk and pain – perhaps even excruciating at times. Of course it is easier to see this need from outside, when it is not one’s own leg being discussed. But that doesn’t make it less true, less threatening, or less necessary.

The conversation on horseback happened in the morning. That night, making dinner, I was cutting up cauliflower. Somehow, in the midst of the cutting, the words of Jesus as quoted in the book of Mark came to mind: “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out.”

Um, not meaning to be disrespectful here Jesus, but isn’t that a bit extreme? To be honest, this phrase, along with the passage that accompanies it, had always seemed a bit strange to me – or, maybe not strange, but a bit hyperbole, which is often how Biblical scholars treat it. Of course he was not talking about literal maiming, they are quick to point out, but was using the image, metaphorically, to make a point. That seems like a much less bloody interpretation.

But somehow, in the context of the creeping gangrene spoken of only that morning, the phrase took on a more urgent sense than it had before – this is no joke, this threat of infection combined with the dangerous nostalgic holding onto an idea that no longer serves the health of the body. That which he does not want to let go of, that which he thinks is an essential part of who he is – how will I be a man without my leg – is actually the very thing that will, if left unchecked, take that life which he seeks so desperately to hold onto.

Amputation might seem to be an extreme measure. It is not necessarily a topic of conversation for polite dinner conversation. It seems almost barbaric in the brutality of it.

But, in the case of my friend’s father in law, amputation might actually be blessing. Amputation might actually be grace. Amputation, what seems to him like a kind of death that he is unwilling to face, is actually, as it turns out, the path to new life.

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3 responses to “cut it out

  1. Nice, thoughtful writing. Here’s something else to consider. When Timothy Leary was diagnosed with prostate cancer he decided not to treat it. He openly discussed death as one of life’s greatest adventures and declared he was looking forward to. I don’t know if I would make a similar choice in a critical situation, but it was his choice, and what else do we actually own other than our choices? . Perhaps your friend’s father as difficult and painful as it may be for those who car about him, has made his choice.

    • A great point – and one to be wrestled with, especially in our age of ‘fight death by any means and at all costs.’ In working as a hospital chaplain I came to realize that sometimes ‘fighting’ death with ‘heroic measures’ can actually be more problematic than letting it take its natural course. As you suggest, it is hard to know what choices one might make, when not in a particular situation. In general I tend to be a fan of ‘integrating’ rather than ‘amputating,’ especially in the spiritual journey, but what struck me about my friend’s father-in-law was how vivid a case his situation seemed to make for amputation – in this case, literally.

  2. Erin, Just thought I would let you know that my father in-law made the decision yesterday to go ahead with the surgery. They will be sending him home for a few days first to strengthen himself a bit, then back in the hosp in a week or so. Could use your prayers for a successful outcome. Thank you so much for your insight.

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