Three months ago, I suffered a “minor” spinal cord injury. It’s odd to put “minor” and “spinal cord injury” in the same sentence, yet I am standing upright as I write this even though I’ve only been able to control my fingers to type for the last two weeks after months of therapy.
That dichotomy illustrates why I’ve fluctuated between abject terror and profound gratitude nearly every day for 12 weeks. It could have been so much worse, and yet it is so unexpectedly frustrating. Doctors who looked at my initial MRI said I shouldn’t be walking; I have been grateful for walking but exasperated by a hand and arm that won’t move normally and hurt like nothing I’ve ever known before.
Being a generally stubborn person, I have refused to give in and have pushed myself to do more than I was expected to do. Survival mode kicked in and carried me for several weeks. And then I hit a wall.
I started to unravel at Kevin and Norah’s wedding. Sitting in the beautifully renovated sanctuary of South Main Baptist Church in Houston, the sheer magnificence of the room overwhelmed me: soft light streaming through stained glass, delicately painted details on the plaster work, the joy of a long-anticipated wedding. Then Silas, the newborn son of our friends Matt and Abi, let out a gentle cry across the aisle, and I was undone. Something about that combination of happy emotions swiftly and without warning pushed me over the edge, and I began sobbing before either the groom or bride had made their entrance. The dissonance between what I knew to be joy and the fear I felt inside was too much.
For the next several days, I could not stop crying. What had been let loose in me was a never-ending stream of emotion. That’s when I admitted for the first time that I needed help, that I couldn’t fix myself emotionally.
Other people already were helping me in so many ways. My wife, Alison, helping me dress when I couldn’t even zip my own pants. My friend Dwight driving me to physical therapy when I was too medicated to drive and didn’t have the strength to hold the steering wheel.
All that was hard enough for a self-sufficient person. But to come to the realization that I, a pastor who regularly helps other people in times of crisis, could not help myself — that was a revelation. I am so accustomed to being the helper that I didn’t know how to be the one needing help.
Then came Ash Wednesday, which is not my favorite day of the church year. As I listened to my friend and colleague Aaron preach about how we mortals have come from dust and will return to dust, the reality of my own mortality and dependence on God consumed me. After the service, I could not move from the pew. As everyone else left to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads, my own forehead dug deeper into the pew in front of me as I hung my head and sobbed uncontrollably. For half an hour.
In that holy space, I understood that I was so depleted that I could not even pray for myself. There were no words forming. And so I remembered the promise of Scripture, and I prayed over and over again, “Holy Spirit, pray for me.” Over and over, the pew that held my head shaking with my every petition.
Several weeks earlier — before the surgery that cured my first problem but unexpectedly created the spinal cord injury — when I was living with unbearable nerve pain that seemed to have no cure, my friend Jakob called me one afternoon to ask a brave question: “As your friend, I need to ask you: ‘Are you considering taking your own life?’”
My answer formed slowly: “No, but I now understand how people get to that point. And if I get there, I promise to call you.”
As a pastor, I have counseled with, prayed with and visited others in my condition and worse. I know all the right things to say. I know the prayers to pray. And yet, when the tables were turned, the helper needed help. Not just once, but many times.
The therapist I started seeing helped me understand the emotional trauma that had resulted from the gap between the way I assumed the world was and the way it had turned out to be. Even though I knew better, I believed bad things happened to others (the people I helped) and not to me (the helper).
Weeks later, I realized that I have spent most of my adult life praying that nothing bad would happen to me or my family. The most common thread in all my daily prayers was for safety and health. Not a bad prayer. Not an evil or even selfish request, really. But not a realistic prayer. It turns out there’s a reason Jesus taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil” rather than, “Shield us from evil.”
From the beginning, my doctors have told me I should experience a full recovery of hand and arm function, although it may take a year to feel “normal” again. Three months out, I’m not there yet. But I am looking forward and trying to imagine how I might be different because of what I’ve experienced. Being an outcomes-driven person, I figured I needed to learn something from this trauma, become a better person, develop some new spiritual insight or practice.
One Sunday after worship, I stood in the aisle of our sanctuary explaining this to my friend Paul, after we had talked about the one-year anniversary of his wife’s premature death that was coming up that week. We cried together and talked about grief, and then he told me this story to answer my question about how I was supposed to be different because of my experience.
“After Jann’s death, people sometimes asked me if there was anything I regretted about our marriage, anything I wish I had done differently,” he said. “But I decided I wasn’t going to think about that. Instead, I like to sit and look through old photographs and remember the things we did right, the good times we had, the ways I was a good husband. That’s more productive for me, and I think it might be for you as well. Use this time to think about your strengths and the things you can do more of in the future rather than trying to make yourself be something or someone you’re not.” And then we cried some more.
On that Sunday, the friend I sought to console instead consoled me and gave me a tremendous gift. Because sometimes the helper needs to be helped.