Chocolate Ice Cream – with intention

When I learned that my friend’s husband had taken a turn for the worse, I couldn’t think of anything but chocolate ice cream.

I had been buried in my own pain for several months. I was still recovering from a surgery that was meant to bring me relief, but it was too soon to say if it had done its job. The pain I was in now might be different, but it was more intense than what had gone before. There is little that turns me inward on myself quite so thoroughly as pain. I had not had any energy to carry anyone else’s needs for a long time.

But now I had learned that, after years of having their lives turned upside down: after a diagnosis of lymphoma, after chemo, after a bone marrow transplant, after complete remission, after a return of the cancer with a vengeance, after hopeful results from a new experimental treatment – after thousands of prayers and a publicly lived faithful witness – this family was almost certain to be torn apart by this young father’s death. Months were possible, if unlikely. A year was flatly out of the question. That a miracle was called for was understood. A miracle on top of the miracles of provision that had sustained this family for years, and most especially in recent months. Perhaps that miracle would be yet another remission. Perhaps that miracle would be my friend’s ability to tend to the grief of herself, her husband, and her three young children (each one very different from the other) as he slipped into death.

I didn’t know if I believed in miracles in that moment. I was tired and grieved and in pain. I believed in chocolate ice cream. So I went to the kitchen to get some.

Standing in front of the freezer, I began berating myself. Chocolate ice cream wasn’t going to accomplish anything. It wasn’t even going to make me feel better except for the brief time when I was actually in the process of eating it, if then. I should pray.

Except I couldn’t pray. I didn’t really know what to ask for. Was it right to ask for this young man not to die? It was, of course it was, and yet – I had all too much experience in not getting what I had prayed for – of learning that my ways were not God’s ways, and my thoughts were not God’s thoughts. I just didn’t have the energy to ask for something that I didn’t believe God was going to grant.

I thought about asking that the children be ok, but how can anyone be ok when they lose their parent? The loss of my father remains a defining gap, a significant wound, and I was in my late 30s when he died. How old was their oldest child? Not yet 10? I didn’t know if they would even have a memory of what their father had been like before he first became ill. There were so many things that I couldn’t bring myself to pray for.

Paul’s teaching that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for has been a great gift to me, one of my go to lessons in the spiritual life. But I do worry sometimes – I don’t want to use that as a cop out, as an excuse for not talking to God at all, or for not making an effort to lay my feelings before God.

But then I remembered a workshop I had attended in seminary about praying the rosary. As a Protestant, I had no real knowledge of the rosary – only some vague misconceptions. Of the many revelations I received that day, this one sprang to mind: the idea of saying the prayers of the rosary “with intention.” As a person prayed the prayers over and over again, they were likely also holding another thought in their head – a person for whom they were concerned, their desire for world peace, their grief over a particular sin.

I did not have a rosary, and was anyway, not entirely comfortable with the idea of a traditional prayer in that moment. But as long as I had some chocolate ice cream, I could eat that with intention, couldn’t I?

I remembered my father the Thanksgiving after his diagnosis, watching his children and their spouses all together in his front yard clearing leaves and joking with one another. He teared up. “I’m not ready to leave all of this,” he told me. He grieved the idea of us going on without his being there with us and for us.

And so I took out a spoon, and walked with my bowl of ice cream to the large sliding glass door overlooking my back yard. “If he makes it, this will be his last Christmas,” I thought, “and his children’s last Christmas with him. He has already seen his last summer.”

Before digging in, I said, “I am eating this ice cream for my friend’s husband, who is dying.” And with the shock of the first spoonful of sweet cold fragrance, I asked, “How many more bowls of ice cream will he eat before he dies? When he is eating his last bowl of ice cream, will he know it is the last one?”

And I remembered the words: “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” and I thought of communion, and of the heavenly banquet that we remember when we share in it, and of the promise that God gives us far more than all that we can ask or imagine. And I thought, it is hard to imagine much better than a beautiful sunshiny day and chocolate ice cream, but life in God’s kingdom must be even better than that. And I prayed that my friend’s husband and everyone in his family could truly believe that, and I prayed that it really was true that God was that good, and I thanked God for chocolate ice cream, for these scraps of creaturely goodness on days when God’s goodness was hard to believe in, and I asked God’s forgiveness for me not believing, and I asked for God’s love to break in on my friend as bright and unignorable as a spoonful of chocolate ice cream…

And I looked down and my bowl was empty.

It has been more than a year since that day, and almost a year since he died. There are still days when I ignore God, feel distant from God, can’t bring myself to pray. But when I carry the intention to pray – even when I can’t stir up the desire to pray – when I carry the intention to pray, God meets me with abundantly far more than I could ever ask or imagine. I am grateful that God grasped ahold of me that day, and brought me into the community of love between God and my friend and her family and all those who surrounded them in prayer, if only for as long as it took for me to eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

Terminal

When I was in elementary school, my pediatrician advised my parents that she thought that I might have an illness that required special expertise beyond her own to treat. I was good enough at masking my symptoms, though, that my need for a specialist didn’t become imperative until I was in high school.

This illness has caused me immense suffering – suffering that for long stretches of my life has felt unbearable. I have a chemical deficiency that, if death certificates were filled out more honestly, would be listed as a secondary cause of death for many. I don’t think it would be going too far to call it a terminal illness for some – and you can very seldom tell who the terminal cases are until it is time for a post-mortem.

A member of my extended family told me that I had this illness because I didn’t have enough faith – that clearly I had not prayed about it, or it would no longer be a problem for me. I don’t suppose she would have said that if I had leukemia. Instead, I suffer from chronic depression. It is indeed “all in my head” (or at least mostly in my head) – “but only if by that you mean that your brain is in your head,” as a doctor of mine once put it. “Your head is still a part of your body, you know.”

There are many ways in which chronic depression contributes to the deaths of individuals – depression makes it very difficult to care adequately for one’s body (which can lead to malnutrition, obesity, substance abuse, and more), and makes some sufferers careless and inattentive (which can lead to otherwise avoidable accidents – some fatal.) But the cause of death most linked with depression in most people’s minds is suicide.

Many people who suffer from depression never make a “serious attempt” at ending their lives, but almost anyone who has suffered from depression has, from time to time, seen suicide’s appeal. You see, depression doesn’t just make a person feel sort of vaguely sad. The emotion goes beyond sad — depending on the person and the stage of the illness, it can range from intense bursts of the deepest sadness and alienation you have ever felt, to the inability to feel any kind of pleasure for weeks on end. It can make a person exhausted. It affects a person’s abilities to imprint memories. It can make ordinary activities seem impossible to achieve. It can even make a person’s body ache, physically. And worst of all, it feels like it will never end.

Some people find the right meds, and get better – some of these people get better forever, and others get better for a little while at least. Other people get better without medication at all. Still others go from medication to medication, and from therapist to therapist, with seemingly no end in sight. I cannot imagine how excruciating that must be.

I have been fortunate, after a fashion. Over the years, I have found treatments that have brought me into remission, sometimes for as much as 2 years at a time. Other treatments have taken away the worst of the symptoms, and left me with a low level pain that has allowed me to function for many years at a stretch. And I have lived with the illness long enough to recognize now when I am starting to slide towards the bottom – to go get help for myself before I am so far gone that I need someone else to get help for me.

But this place I am in now – this ability to recognize and manage my illness – is one that took three decades to reach. And I didn’t reach this place on my own – it took a great deal of willing and competent assistance. If, in the first fifteen years of dealing with this illness, a doctor had suggested that it was perfectly acceptable to opt out of intolerable suffering with their help – if, in other words, euthanasia had been offered by a trusted authority figure – by some expert who decided to share with me that some people never find a successful treatment – on a vulnerable enough day, I wonder if I might not have taken them up on it.

Of course, doctors don’t offer suicide as a solution to people with depression. In fact, in the United States, any kind of suicide is essentially illegal in most states, and any person with a mental illness who is judged to be “a danger to themselves” (who is credibly at risk of killing themselves) will be held against their will in a psychiatric facility. They may even be escorted to said facility by a policeman armed (oh irony!) with a deadly weapon. There they will be rehabilitated to the limits of the law and insurance, and released when they feel merely terrible again. This is not a great solution, but it could be much worse.

The Netherlands has had an assisted suicide law in place since 2002. In that country, an individual can go to their doctor and get their help in order to die quickly, painlessly, and reliably. At first this was only available to a person if they were “suffering unbearable pain with no hope for a cure.” Any kind of unbearable, incurable pain, that is, besides the pain that accompanies mental illness. Until they did start including some mental illnesses, as well as dementia. And now they’re looking to extend it to folks who are simply old and feel that they have “completed life.” How much longer until people like me, chronic depression sufferers, are included in the list of people whom it is acceptable for doctors to kill, with the state’s blessing, in the Netherlands? (UPDATE 10/14/2016: So, apparently it is not a question of “how much longer until…?” A friend on Facebook pointed out to me that it is happening already.)

Of course, as a Christian, euthanasia troubles me. From the very beginning, Christians have asserted that every life is of value – beginning with decrying the Roman practice of abandoning unwanted infants to die, and establishing hospitals, for instance. Killing those who do not fit into our plans for a tidy, shiny happy society is unacceptable. Instead, what is called for is increased support, and improved and attentive pain management when all else fails. (Shout out to Hospice – I will be forever grateful for how they helped to manage my father’s last weeks on earth.)

But it is also true that, as someone who has lived a long time under the cloud of depression, euthanasia troubles me. I am profoundly grateful for all of the many people over the years who told me, in one way or another, “No matter how much you may feel that your life is not worthwhile, your life IS worthwhile. No matter how much you may wish to die, I want you to do your best to LIVE.”

At my lowest points, it has been just as helpful (and sometimes even more so) when a person has said, “I totally get that you want to die. After all, you are in a lot of pain. But I’m asking you to wait until next week, and see if it still makes sense to you then.” And so on, from week to week.

Depression is exhausting for the folks who live around it. From time to time, some folks have had to withdraw – have not had the energy to be cheerleaders for life in the midst of the thunderstorm I was letting loose on them. They did what they needed to do to take good care of themselves.

Once or twice, an exasperated individual did lose patience with me and say, “Go ahead and die then, if you’re so set on it.” But never once has anyone (ANYone! Much less my own trusted doctor) said to me, “Not only do I believe that you are miserable, but I believe that you are right to be thinking about ending your life. Let me help you with that!”

Thank God.

I am not one who believes that a person who commits suicide places themselves outside of God’s providential care. God’s love dwarfs any meager emotion I or any other creature can muster. I myself have so much love, and no condemnation, for those who do end up taking their own lives – who cannot find any hope or reason to go on living. Nevertheless, the loss of life in this way grieves me deeply – it is deeply sad anytime a person is stretched beyond their endurance.

But giving doctors the authority to help someone end their own life is dangerous and unconscionable. The longer a person endures their suffering, the more opportunities they are given to find moments of joy and reconciliation in the days that they gain, the more opportunities their community is given to care for them, the more opportunities God is given to speak through that person’s life.

These days, almost 4% of all deaths in the Netherlands are by means of assisted suicide. Who knows how many of these people would have found that they had not yet reached the limits of their endurance, if there had not been so many people willing to release them from a burden that was not yet more than they could bear?

Many thanks to Rev. Kara Slade, who brought The Telegraph’s article on euthanasia in The Netherlands to my attention.

White, Black, and Duke Blue

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If you have ever tried to drive onto the Duke campus on game day for anything other than the game, you probably have some strong feelings about Duke Parking and Transportation Services. I remember trying to get onto campus early last spring. It was my one chance to get to the Divinity library to research for a class assignment. I was stopped and interrogated by the person directing traffic. He finally let me go, but only after giving me a condescending lecture: “Next time, check and see if there is a basketball game before trying to come onto campus…” I was incensed. I drove away muttering, “Last I checked this was a university, not a sports franchise with an incidental library!”

Here’s what I didn’t do: anything that would deny the basic humanity of the person directing traffic. I was not happy with the overall prioritization of sports events at Duke, nor with the way available parking and access to campus has been decreasing over the years. In other words, I had some serious disagreements around campus access policy issues. And I will not deny that I was so angry I couldn’t concentrate until I had sent a couple of friends angry text messages about how perhaps the Divinity school library should just close on game days if they didn’t want the (almost entirely non-residential) Divinity students coming onto campus. But I did not take it out on the (probably contract) employee – in spite of him treating me like a person of dubious intelligence and forethought.

There has been plenty of news from NC of late, so you may have missed this one: some students at Duke are calling for the dismissal of Tallman Trask III, executive vice president of Duke University, because of his abuse of Shelvia Underwood, a woman directing traffic on a football game day. I would say “alleged abuse,” since there’s a lawsuit pending, but he admits that his “conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other.” I should say so. He hit her with his car and then claimed it never happened.

Ms. Underwood (and a witness) say that Trask called her a “dumb n*****.” Trask says that he did not, and that no other witnesses can corroborate Ms. Underwood’s claims about what exact words he shouted rudely at her.

But whether or not he used the n-word, Trask already treated Ms. Underwood as a lesser human being when he began shouting at her at all, when she stopped him from trying to drive down a closed road.

He treated her as less than a human being when he hit her with his Porsche, which he claims to have done by accident. Really? Trask bumping Underwood with his car sounds to me very much like an entitled person used to getting away with things who was acting out because he has learned that he can. It sounds very much like a well paid white man not wanting to accept – even momentarily – the authority of a poorly paid black woman.

There was a further indignity for Ms. Underwood. She was treated as unworthy of consideration by all of the involved individuals at the University (including Trask) when she was pressured into dropping her complaint for the price of an apology note whose generic insincerity rivals that of a 6 year old caught doing something they’re still not sorry for.

The only thing in dispute here is whether or not he used a racial slur. He was rude and impatient, both before and after he hit a working person with his car and tried to get out of it. Don’t get me wrong – it matters a great deal whether he used a racial epithet to diminish the humanity of another person. That would be awful. There are certain words that ought never to be used. But just based on the facts that everyone (even Tallman Trask) agrees on, the students’ demands for Trask to be fired would have some basis.

I don’t have rich or “important” connections, and I don’t bring a lot of money into the university. I have no doubt that if I hit someone with my car on campus while yelling at them, and then kept on yelling at them afterwards, I would have been in serious trouble.

I would like to think that I don’t go around acting like my need to get somewhere is more important than another person’s integrity because I believe that we are all beloved children of God. I hope that I am aware more often than not that I am not more important in God’s eyes than whoever is most annoying me in the moment. I hope that I am stopping when a person is standing in front of my car not because I would get in trouble if I didn’t. But. It does strike me that when a person is treated as if he is inherently more important than other people, then he will start believing it. He will start acting like it. Trask was acting as if he was more important than Ms. Underwood. When he hit her, was Trask seeing Underwood as a nuisance? Or (as he claims) was he failing to see her at all? Either way, he was seeing her no differently than does our dominant culture.  Duke University, the City of Durham, the State of North Carolina, and the United States at large sees the working poor (in comparison to the Porsche drivers), black people (in comparison to white people), and women (in comparison to men) – as a nuisance – when they see them at all.

Trask’s race, gender, and wealth all count for something at Duke. It also counts for something that he has been a part of the financial success of the University and of downtown Durham. It shouldn’t. The only thing that should count for anything here is that one human being treated another human being like she was far less of a human being than he was. Duke President Richard Brodhead and the other folks in charge at Duke University need to decide if Duke is going to continue to be the sort of place where some people are seen and treated as less human than others.

Of course, we need to be careful to see Dr. Trask as a beloved child of God, too. Arguably the Duke administration – and any person who has shielded this man from responsibility for his actions over the years – has denied him the opportunity to grow. Perhaps, if he is sent to his room and made to think about what he has done, there is some hope that he will grow up to be pleasant and responsible, and able to graciously accept those times when he is not the one in control.

You can follow the protest on Twitter by searching #DismantleDukePlantation