Looking At The Ceiling

By JIM NICHOLS

Most of us have been there, probably more than once. We step into a dressing room, disrobe and, perhaps, put on some medical-type clothes or gown. We might get to leave our socks on so that the hard tile floor will not be so cold when we walk gingerly to the next room. The bed we lie on is not made for sleeping; it has a clean sheet (perhaps paper), but there is no real mattress—just a two-inch pad of something. There is also a poor excuse for a pillow. We lie on our back and look at the ceiling. Our glasses are sitting over on the table, so our vision is not all that clear. Another person or two appears on our periphery and they all seem to be 25 years old and wearing athletic shoes.

“These procedures will not take very long at all,” one says. “We will try to keep you comfortable and will keep you informed as to what we are doing and what you might feel.”

As I look at the ceiling, I nod my head. It seems cold in that room. There are lots of strange noises—whirring, dinging, pumping.

Vulnerability must certainly be a most common human concern. At times, it is not just a concern; it is nearly a terror. Especially in the American world, the game seems to be accumulation, consumption, and collecting. Self-sufficiency has been promoted in each of us since childhood; being able to take care of oneself has been a primary goal. We do have some defeats and recognize mistakes sometimes, but our culture teaches us that we should use even those to “do better next time.” We can even give this a spiritual spin and suggest that God gives us gifts that we should use; I agree with that. However, when something is not right (perhaps) with our body, our American mental braggadocio faces challenges and those inevitably take us to places in our faith that can be difficult, perhaps simply because they are so unfamiliar. Maybe we need to think about them some ahead of time, like now.

For most of us, our bodies work virtually perfectly and have been doing so for all our physical lives. Our bodies are truly wonderfully and marvelously made. However, they are finite. Not only can they be temporarily injured or infected, but they are wearing out.

Even to write these words I realize my vulnerability. Perhaps by writing them, I will be able to incorporate them more deeply into my understanding of some realities of life.

Vulnerability, although a natural feeling, can represent our selfishness at its highest degree. Looking up at the ceiling, we are usually thinking only about ourselves. Understanding that, I intend to try to learn to make my vulnerable periods less times of concern for my own well-being and more about times of growing in trust for God. Easier said than done, I know.

A friend has reminded me that scripture is not flat. That is, there are peaks and valleys of importance for various scriptures. I believe my hospice patients (and I, myself) need to incorporate some peak words from Romans 8. Those powerful words ask what is it exactly that can separate us from God’s love. Can famine, distress, sword, angels, principalities, looking at the ceiling? The answer is “No, nothing can separate us from God’s love.” Can I remember that?

This will be a significant challenge for human beings, but, I believe, a worthy one as I try to be God’s person. Is it possible for us to position faithful calmness as a replacement for vulnerability?

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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