Dealing With Ordeals

What’s the Gift?

By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.

On Monday, February 12th, I logged onto my Online banking and noticed that one of my accounts was down by $2,000. When I pulled it up to view I became aware that $2,000 in traveler’s checks had been withdrawn. By Tuesday morning it became clear that over the weekend someone had invaded my Online system, having changed my address to one in Lincoln, Nebraska. Before I could close down the system, two thousand dollars more in traveler’s checks was withdrawn, compromising another of my accounts. I had been through attempted identity theft three years ago, and it took weeks to deal with that intrusion. I knew that it would require a lot of redirected time and energy to handle this incursion into the sanctity of my life. This current crisis launched the first week of an ordeal that would challenge me in more ways than one.

In the days preceding this dilemma, my 87 year-old mother’s back was giving her trouble and the pain was getting quite debilitating. On Friday, February 16th, she informed me that she couldn’t walk, and we arranged to get 24-hour nursing care to assist her. On Saturday morning I was heading over to her house following a meeting with one of my clients, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was scheduled for surgery to have his prostate removed. We had a good talk that morning, and as we were parting I experienced an extreme pain in my right flank. At first it occurred to me that it was a sympathy pain. However, having a history of kidney stones, it didn’t take long to recognize that the intense pain was a warning that a kidney stone had ripped out of the wall of my kidney and had passed into my right ureter, the connecting tube between my kidney and bladder. I have experienced 6 or 7 stone episodes since my early 20’s, and the first two were quite challenging, necessitating extended hospital stays and grueling procedures.

On this fateful morning I was about 30 minutes from the hospital, and by the time I drove myself to the emergency room, the pain had gotten to a level 8 on a scale of 1-10. I was given a pain medication IV, sent to radiology for a CT scan and admitted after it was determined that I did indeed have a 4- by 6-millimeter stone lodged in my ureter. Two days later, after it was further determined that the stone had not moved and was not going to pass on its own, I was taken into surgery to have the stone pulverized through a laser procedure. A stent was inserted into my kidney to keep the ureter from collapsing due to the post-surgical trauma, and a Foley catheter was inserted into my bladder for 24 hours to allow me to completely empty it. I was discharged after 5 days and returned to the doctor’s office the following Monday to have the stent removed. Ouch! The spasms that began an hour later forced me to discontinue a therapy session with a client. I took a Vicodin that I carry for situations just like this one and canceled the rest of my day. When I was safe to drive, I went home to rest and to prepare for what was to take place the next day.

The following morning my wife and I arose at 4am to take her to a hospital on the West side for a three hour surgery to have her neck fused. She had sustained damage to her spine at three levels in her neck and two in her lumbar region following an auto accident two years ago, when her car was struck by a car driven by a teenager who abruptly pulled out from the curb without looking to see if the coast was clear. While waiting for my wife to return from recovery I sustained another painful episode requiring that I be taken down for another CT scan to determine if a stone fragment was stuck in the ureter. I couldn’t believe that I was going down to radiology as my wife was coming up from her own surgery. The scan did not reveal any stone fragments, but indicated that there was a fair amount of swelling and blood clots that were causing the pain. I experienced five separate painful episodes over the next week following the removal of the stent.

On Thursday, two days after my wife’s surgery, my mother went into another hospital for a two-hour surgical procedure to remove bone spurs from her lower back. I spent the day with her, and over the next week, scurried between the hospital where my wife was recovering and my mom’s house where she was recovering. The weekend following both of their surgeries was the roughest for them. I stayed out of my office for essentially two weeks, attempting to direct my energies where most needed and to recover from my own physical challenges. While I was contemplating what my family was dealing with, I was also reflecting on the serious nature of the dramas that were being played out with people suffering in Iraq and other war-torn or disaster-ravaged areas. Whole families were being challenged in ways that are unimaginable. I felt blessed to have so much love surrounding me and to be cared for in ways that were so healing. At the Colloquium in January, many men spoke about the challenges that they were dealing with and how their worlds had been rocked, but also how they were manning up to meet the adversity in order to discover what the gift was that would come out of the ordeal.

Following the January Colloquium, I read an article about a new book by Sara Davidson entitled, LEAP: What Will We Do With The Rest of Our Lives? The book excerpt described “the ‘stripping’ that one goes through as one passes into a phase in life where everything gets harder – before it gets easier.” Davidson, who had been a successful TV scriptwriter for 24 years with several award nominations, now at the age of 57, finds that she can’t get hired. Besides that she’s now alone without a partner and with kids away at college. She can’t sleep, waking at 2am riddled with fear, her mind absorbed with questions about the meaning of her life and what she’s going to do with the rest of it.

For Davidson it was the beginning of a period she later came to call “the narrows, the rough passage to the next part of life. In the narrows you’re in the dark, stripped of what you thought was your identity, and must grapple with questions like: What do you really want to do with the time left? What will make you feel most alive?” She found, after several years of research, that everyone – no matter how much money or achievement has been attained or not attained – must go through the narrows. One may do it in the late 40’s, or not until the 70’s, but if you don’t do it voluntarily, the world or your body will force you to.

It seems that every person goes through the narrows according to character. Those addicted to gloom will see no hope. Those who put a rosy slant on everything will see it as an opportunity in disguise. Davidson stated, “My way was to assume the fetal position and cry, berating myself for failing at work, failing at love, with my kids – at everything. This is what the Buddhists call the second arrow. The first is the bad thing that happens. The second is what you do to yourself because of the bad thing that happened.”

She began looking for contemporaries who were going through some kind of stripping, because she needed to see that people could survive and find a way through their ordeals. She interviewed icons like Tom Hayden, Ram Dass, Dr. Andrew Weil, Jane Fonda and 150 others from all walks of life. She contacted Carly Simon, whom she had known when they were younger. She had heard that Carly had been through multiple blows, having been diagnosed with breast cancer and going through a mastectomy at the same time that she and her husband were drifting apart, her kids were moving off on their own, and her record company was abandoning her. “I felt like a discarded dog.” She told Sara, “I’d had so much rejection I couldn’t take it anymore.”

The people that Davidson interviewed told her that she needed to “surrender” and that, rather than attempting to power one’s way through to one’s goals, it’s better to listen and let things unfold. She detested the notion of surrender because it seemed like defeat.

Six months after Davidson’s talk with Simon, she heard from her. Carly told her that she had received a call from Richard Perry, the superstar producer with whom she’d made “You’re So Vain” and other hits. He asked her to collaborate on some romantic ballads. They funded the recording themselves and sold it to Columbia. The week it was released as “Moonlight Serenade,” it hit No. 7 on the Billboard chart. “How sweet it was – and unexpected,” Carly told Davidson, and in another moment said that she wanted to learn “how to walk down the ladder gracefully. I have this image – I’d like to get smaller and smaller in a relevant way.”

As Davidson spoke with dozens who’d managed to make it out of the narrows, she saw that each had had a conversion, and each was different. She came to see “surrender” in a different light. She learned that it’s not giving up or being a victim, but accepting that you’re in a transition and can’t know what’s ahead until you get there. As a friend described it, throwing out her arms as if to meet a lover or embrace a child, “You open yourself to what’s unknown.”

I have heard a definition of surrender as “moving over to the winning side.” It’s not giving up, but more giving in to the changes that are attempting to get you unstuck and move you in a new direction. I’ve often considered that the reason we are confronted with crises is that it takes whatever it takes to get our attention, get us off the dime, and shift our energies in productive ways. Lessons learned don’t need to be repeated, but lessons will get harder when they’re not learned when they’re easier.

On a personal level, what came out of the ordeal that I have been experiencing is a desire to reprioritize my life now. At 60, it’s time to recalibrate how and where I devote my time and energies. I find that pain is very purifying. It strips you clean, helping you to shed excess body weight and toxins as well as bringing with it a clarity of mind and a focus that is enlightening. Buddha told us that Enlightenment is the absence of suffering, but that one must suffer consciously in the process of becoming enlightened. A friend of mine, who is a Roman Catholic Priest, always reminds me to link my personal suffering to the suffering of the Christ and to allow it to expand my heart to become more compassionate. I was grateful that my physical challenge had preceded that of my wife and my mother. It increased my own compassion for what they were enduring.

On another level, I also linked my own suffering to the suffering of those in the world who I don’t personally know, but who I know I am connected to in spirit. I maintain the faith that we humans are striving to expand our collective consciousness to include the awareness that we are all one. And, in so doing, we are learning how to interact and support one another with greater empathy, tolerance, compassion and love.