Looking at my notifications on Facebook the other day, I saw one of those “memories” they periodically throw onto our news feeds – things we had posted that day in years past that they think we might want to remember. According to Facebook, seven years ago on that day I discovered that my hip was wonky beyond repair and would need to be replaced. It was a bit of a shock at the time, since I wasn’t in a ton of pain. I honestly thought I had pulled a muscle, but as the doctor (who had seen my MRI and knew better) examined me, contorting my leg in various, strange angles, he kept watching my face for a reaction. “You don’t need to be stoic,” he reassured me. I shrugged. “She’s stoic, isn’t she,” he said softly to my husband, who pretty much fell out of his chair laughing, “Oh if she was hurting, trust me, YOU’D KNOW.” Alas, despite the lack of obvious symptoms, the hip was indeed busted and would have to go. Months later, when the excruciating pain did arrive, I was promptly scheduled for hip replacement surgery. And. I. Panicked.
This was a big thing for me. A major surgery! I’d had two C-sections, but this? This was HUGE. I was terrified.
Now, those of you who have read this blog for even a teensy bit know that the hip surgery was just the warm up. I, however, did not know this. To my seven-year-ago self, this was a big deal.
Given the odd medical turns that my life has taken since then, I now look at my tragic response to the hip thing with a mix of embarrassment and amusement. Because come on. At the time, however, this was all I knew, and for me it was massive and terrifying. I asked our good friend and pastor to come to the hospital with me before the surgery because I NEEDED DIVINE HELP, PEOPLE. I was a mess. To the great credit of everyone around me, no one told me to suck it up and adult already. No, my people were kind and sympathetic and loving, and not a single one told me (to my face) that I was being a ninny. But I look back at it now and sort of wince. I made it a big deal. But you know what? At the time, it was.
What struck me about the Facebook memory the other day was the date: February 4th. Do you know what February 4th also happens to be? World Cancer Day. Oh the irony.
Fast forward a few years to my second hip surgery. My first artificial hip had apparently gone rogue and given me a whopping case of metal poisoning, along with a pseudo tumor just to make things interesting, so the bugger would need to come out. The hip replacement had to be replaced. Another big surgery. And I was… irritated.
Not terrified, not trembling. Irritated. Really bugged. Annoyed, even.
The difference? Oh, a cancer diagnosis, two eye surgeries for radiation, rheumatoid arthritis, you know… stuff like that.
Perspective. It’s a thing.
Our son’s birth twenty-some years ago was a dramatic event. After our first child, our daughter Christina, was stillborn, this next pregnancy was fraught with worry and residual grief. The pregnancy itself went smoothly, but the delivery ended up involving a frantic, emergency C-section when his heart stopped twice and my blood pressure plummeted. They got him out and we both survived, but just as my husband and I began to catch our breath and enjoy our beautiful, seemingly healthy baby, he was abruptly whisked away. Suddenly there were x-rays and echocardiograms and films being couriered to a cardiologist’s home in the middle of the night. It’s bad. It’s a heart defect. No, it’s a lung defect. No wait – it’s just pneumonia. Around the clock IV antibiotics in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and he’d be fine in a week or so. Of course, it took us a while to accept the “he’ll be fine” part, but as the days stretched on it became obvious that he was indeed getting better. We caught our breaths and relaxed into our new routine at the NICU. And as we relaxed, we started to notice our surroundings, got to know the nurses and heard the stories of the other parents who came to nervously hover over bassinets full of wires. Now, as a full term baby (and also nine and a half pounds), my boy was a bit of an oddity in the NICU. In fact, he looked like a sumo wrestler compared to the other, mostly premature babies. It inspired a lot of questions that sounded like you’d hear in a prison: “So what are you in here for?” On the day he finished his antibiotics and was proclaimed healthy enough to go home, I noticed another mom at a bassinet nearby looking over at us wistfully. I started chatting with her, cheerfully asking her when her baby would also get to leave. “When he can suck, swallow and breathe on his own,” she responded quietly. My heart dropped to my toes. We had been through an emotional hell that week, faced with the possibility that we could lose another child, and it felt like the very worst thing in the world. But this sweet mama had just silently watched us do achingly normal parent-type things – like trying to put a onesie on a wiggly, noodle-necked baby for the first time – all the while wondering when or even if she’d get to do the same thing. It was a stark reminder that our story wasn’t the only story in that NICU.
Perspective gives us the opportunity to re-orient ourselves in the larger picture. Heck, it allows us to acknowledge that there even IS a bigger picture. It helps us see that not every thing that feels huge will always be huge. Despite clichés like, “This too shall pass,” and “It could be worse” (a Minnesotan specialty), perspective does give us the opportunity to understand that where we are is not THE place, it’s just A place. And that understanding can be a comforting, hope-affirming gift.
But it can also do the opposite, as evidenced by my harsh judgment of the trembling, hip-surgery-fearing, seven-year-ago me. Sometimes perspective emboldens us to view others with a patronizing side-eye when they have the audacity to believe that what they’re going through is a big deal, yet we’ve decided that it’s not. Pffft, why is she being so dramatic? It’s nothing.
Well, to them it’s hardly nothing. To the contrary, it’s likely the most not-nothing they’ve dealt with thus far in their life. But unfortunately perspective can turn things into a suffering contest, when, repeat after me, friends: There. Is. No. Contest.
Before my first hip surgery, there were a few folks who’d brush my fear off with a, “Well you know, knee replacements are WAY worse.” Ok awesome. I’m so not scared now, thank you.
Then there’s a sort of reverse perspective phenomenon: we see someone else’s situation as so horrifically tragic and worse than anything we could possibly imagine, and we decide we’re no good to them. There’s no way we could help because we can’t even begin to relate, based on our own experiences. It becomes an excuse to not engage, and we end up running from someone who just needs our presence.
When we see our own stories as part of a larger narrative, we gain perspective. And when we acknowledge and honor the importance of other people’s stories, we gain an opportunity.
Perspective can be good or bad, helpful or hurtful, based on how we use it.
We have so many opportunities to come alongside one another when a fellow human is going through something that to them is big. To just show up, without judgment, and simply love on them. When we let our own perspective give us permission to decide whether another person deserves to feel the way they do, we create this weird hierarchy of suffering. And instead of coming together, we distance ourselves from people who could really use an ally.
Call it grace, call it generosity, call it not being an a-hole, it doesn’t matter. The difficulties each of us has faced in our lives are an invitation to be empathetic, not a license to judge. I’d like to think that the current me would be kind to the seven-years-ago me. But wow, she was such a ninny.
Ok, I’m working on it