I NEED TO READ THIS
By JIM NICHOLS
It has been said that sometimes you write what you need to read yourself. Here goes.
There are two linked pieces to my thinking here. Consideration of them causes me to talk to myself and the conclusions boil down to just a few words. Unfortunately, though this conclusion consists of minimal words, they are functionally difficult for me.
The first item concerns a newspaper article. Recently, a writer for the Boston Globe, Jenna Russell, penned a piece on Charles and Pam Ogletree. The writer and subjects of the article were unknown to me, but the subjects’ story and her account moved me. Apparently, feedback to the Globe indicates that I am not alone in that.
Charles Ogletree is described as an “intellectual celebrity.” Moving in high academic and political places, during the 1990s and 2000s his name and face appeared in leadership of many important committees and movements, particularly those with social causes or minorities. As a Harvard Law School Professor, he influenced thought leaders for some decades. The article included photos of Ogletree with both Barack and Michelle Obama. Though with a lower profile, Pam had a strong career in guiding and implementing efforts to aid disadvantaged families.
A few years ago, Charles Ogletree received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. As happens with this and other health conditions, the early indications were minor. Soon they could not be ignored and, as of the writing of the article, were severe. Pam Ogletree is his primary caretaker.
The newspaper article is noteworthy largely because, to people in certain circles, the Ogletrees are well known. On the other hand, I suspect each of us has read or experienced similar stories of this difficult disease in individual families less famous. In my role as a hospice chaplain, Alzheimer’s is frequently a main player. I suspect that I am not alone in feeling that these stories are nearly overwhelming in their complexities and anxiety. The situations cause me to question God’s involvement in the world, frankly. Despite my attempts to walk as God’s person, it is difficult to see light in these dark places.
In a conversation with a friend, I was expressing my tendency to let these difficult human conditions accumulate in my heart. “How can I deal with all this awfulness around me, especially in those I love the best?” My friend’s response was, “You do not have to deal with all of it. Your responsibility is to love the person who is in front of you. That is all you can really do.”
“Love the person who is in front of you.” That is difficult enough, though maybe manageable.
Whereas this first issue deals more with my role in the community of God’s people and my concern for them, the second is more individual. This is my personal difficulty with fear, especially as it relates to my own health.
Despite my history (really all my spiritual life) of God’s care for me and mine, given an appropriate stimulus I can easily feel weak and fearful for my own well-being. I am not comfortable with that admission, but I am being truthful. At times, I am quite reasonable as I consider my aging with its complications and limitations. I can even make jokes about it, especially when around others in similar situations. I am a biologist and I know physical life begins and ends. As long as neither my head nor stomach aches, my heart is regular, and I do not have a pending biopsy, I am quite rational. However, those periods are becoming less frequent. Then, if I add parallel concerns for those I love the most in my family, matters can snowball.
It is comforting to know that I am not alone in these feelings. Many of you readers have deeper experiences with these aspects of life and your examples aid and support me. I believe this is one of the most important aspects of living in community as God’s people. You and I do not walk through these fears alone.
One of my mentors spoke of growing up in Arkansas and harvesting potatoes on the family farm. The workers gathered their harvest and put them into burlap gunnysacks. After a while, they found that the potatoes in the sacks wore a hole at the lowest point and the potatoes fell out. They found, however, that the holes wore in different places in different sacks. If they simply put one sack inside a second sack, the double sack worked fine because the weak spot in each sack was in a different position. He taught me that as an illustration of how the weaknesses of one member of the community are met by another in the community.
Furthermore, scripture deals multiple times with fear. Even a brief survey of passages including “fear not” or “do not be afraid” or something similar leads to a large count. Both the Hebrew scripture (“When I am afraid, I will trust in you”— Psalm 56) and the New Testament (“The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen.’”—Matthew 28: 5-6) make this the most repeated command in the Bible.
Do not be afraid. Love the person in front of you. This is the way the community of God’s people functions as intended.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.