When I was in seminary, I once had a classmate describe to me what it was like to be diagnosed with a chronic health issue midway through life. They said something like, “It’s only when you begin to experience symptoms and undergo countless medical tests seeking a diagnosis that you truly realize you took your health for granted up until that point in life.”
Back in February, I had such an experience. It started that month waking up every morning with pain in my lower back. While it would eventually subside throughout the day, I found myself feeling fatigued at various parts of the day. At first, I thought these symptoms were related to stress. Not only was I adapting to a recent move with my family for a new call, but my wife and I were also continuing to deal with the challenges of raising twin toddlers.
However, after a few weeks, in addition to my issues with my back and feeling fatigued, I started to experience tiredness while walking and stiffness in my hands that made it difficult to hold things (including my sons) without being in pain. Additionally, I also started experiencing cognitive issues such as struggling to recalling names of church members and finding myself struggling to find words while in conversation and while preaching. This rapid change in my health was very concerning and scary as I became anxious about what condition I might of been dealing with. It was at this point I made an appointment with a new doctor (since we had recently moved) and after several weeks of countless blood tests, x-rays, and referrals to specialists, I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal disorder where nerves in one’s body overreact, causing body pain, memory issues, and general fatigue.
While there is no cure for my condition, I have been fortunate enough to begin to adapt to the reality that while I may feel pain in various parts of my body during random “flare ups” and have occasional cognitive and speech issues, my condition can be manageable. And while I am just now beginning this journey through making lifestyle changes while making my health (along with my family) my first priority, I do have hope that I will eventually be able to manage this condition even if it will take me some time.
Prior to having these health challenges, I always took my health for granted. Since graduating seminary ten years ago, I have always been on the go, serving in various ministry and non-profit leadership roles across the country. And up until this health challenge, I struggled to appreciate “the present” because I was too self-obsessed about “the future.”
In our American culture, many of us are so consumed with careers that we often not only take our health for granted, but we also neglect to spend time focused on “the present” and the precious moments we have with our families, friends, and the beauty of the world around us. Then something happens in our life such as a health diagnosis, the death of a loved one, or an unthinkable life-changing event, and suddenly our perspective on life changes. Almost instantaneously we go from being consumed by our careers and trivial obsessions to suddenly recognizing what is truly important.
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift – that’s why it’s called ‘the present’,” Eleanor Roosevelt once said.
As I shared before, despite dealing with the struggles of dealing with chronic pain, I am fortunate that my condition can be managed. There are many other people I know who are dealing with progressive illnesses and their journey to find acceptance and peace can be much more of a challenge. However, it’s from these individuals that I find inspiration. One such person was my grandmother who despite being left completely paralyzed because of Multiple Sclerosis, remained defiant not letting her condition interfere with the joy she received being with her grandchildren.
The most important thing I want to share about the changes in my own health the past few months is to encourage others to embrace the elements of life which truly matter—our health (even if its diminished), our families, our friends, and the gifts, adventures, and experiences which helped shape us to become who we are.
Certainly, we need to be able to support our families with our careers. And for those of us who love and feel called to the work we do, we need to continue to fulfill our true call in life. However, we also need to remember that we cannot offer ourselves fully to others if we cannot offer anything to ourselves. And to do that, we must at times slow our lives to appreciate as my mother once described as “the preciousness of life” by setting boundaries with others and prioritizing our health and time with our loved ones.
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world,” 13th-century poet Rumi once shared. “Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”