It is only in the last few weeks that the virtue of patience is beginning to dawn on me. That virtue is, “If you are patient with yourself, you may live. If you insist on running the 4 minute mile this afternoon, you will be checked out of here in a wicker basket.” In short, “patience” is no longer an option but a requirement. My previous reaction to illness has been to get over it and then get back to work. No such option here.
In a small way, I begin to understand Mr. van der Leun’s feelings here, because I, like him, have never been a patient fellow. One cause is that I’ve had a very durable mortal coil for my whole life. I have no allergies. I’ve never broken a bone. My only surgery was an appendectomy at 13… and after a week I was more than eager to go running around, since I didn’t have any post-operative pain anymore. My heart and blood pressure are superb. I’ve been stitched up a few times but nothing truly serious. I don’t even wear glasses as I approach 40.
In short, I’m the idiot who sickens you by mentioning my stubbed toe when you talk about your cancer screenings and diabetes treatments.
This isn’t to brag, though. The truth is that I had nothing to do with my health. I didn’t pick out my body from the factory.* In a way, it’s like goaltending – I can’t win the game, I can only lose it. Likewise, I can’t do much for my health except NOT screw it up. I can smoke or get sloshed or ski off a cliff … afterward, I can quit and dry out and stay in the ICU for weeks. But the healing is really a function of nature and medicine, not of my own actions. I can hinder it by disobeying my doctors. If I listen, I’m not “speeding up the process” as is commonly understood – it can’t go any faster with my help than it does on it’s own. (If I have to move 20 soccer balls down a hill, I can simply let nature roll them for me, or I can go more quickly by kicking or throwing them down. But I can’t do that with a natural process like healing, any more than I can digest my food more quickly. It’s already as fast as it’s going to get.)
* Good thing too. I’d probably wind up with something like this. [music at link]
Apoplgies to Mr. van der Leun here, because here I go about my stubbed toe… or in this case, the meniscus in my left knee. Last month I tore it all to hell. The doctor said that I’m actually lucky, because people with the severity of my injury usually also tear their ACL and MCL, and I only sprained those. What could have been a months-long recovery is already well-underway for me. But I do need surgery to fix the meniscus, if it can be fixed* – and if it is, then I have up to 12 more weeks to hobble about. It’s driving me crazy.
* If it can’t be fixed, they’ll remove the damaged portion – and in that case, doctor says that I’m cleared for full activity. Once it’s gone there’s nothing left to recover from, ergo, complete recovery. The downside is that without it, my knee will come to grief in the long-term, so they will repair it if at all possible.
It’s hard for me to imagine being so badly injured or ill that I can’t even walk the dog, or go up or down stairs, or have to catch my breath just getting out of bed and to the bathroom in the morning. It would honestly send me round to bedlam. Reading about Gerard van der Leun, however, does something else to me. It hurts my conscience. I’m just a selfish little prig kvetching about my impaired knee. It hurts, sure, but it won’t kill me. It doesn’t even hurt as much as it did on the night. If I wanted to be a moron, I could probably play a game tonight, though it would be painful and risk worse injury. But that’s the thing – it would really be foolhardy; in a way it would be ungrateful to push myself. I actually ought to be relieved I dodged worse, and glad that I have the expectation of full recovery. The trick, though, is in being patient. The older word for it is longsuffering, and it captures the essence more completely, I think.
To indulge in a little practical philosophy: longsuffering is entirely out-of-favor in a culture that regards convenience and comfort to be the chief aims in life, disposed of along with many other Biblical concepts. You could protest that you’re not a believer, and that’s fine, because on the topic of patience I am in practice quite the apostate. But it’s also counted as a virtue in many cultures and a few decidely non-Christian belief systems. If we wanted to be systematically rational about it, we can see why: things like convenience and comfort are quite similar to many of the things already mentioned above, in that their natural state is very difficult to improve. We “make ourselves comfortable,” but by getting warm and dry. It’s not so much doing a positive thing, as it is avoiding a bunch of negatives: we get out of the rain, into dry and soft clothes, bundle ourselves off to bed or the couch, and then – SIT. Once we’re set up we don’t have to do much of anything to stay comfortable. To take a convenient path is mostly about avoiding trouble, not making extra work for yourself. We can’t win that game – only lose it.
My knee, however, is already injured. The inconvenience and discomfort are a given. Before I even react, the chief aims of this world are frustrated and I cannot possibly fulfill them. And I don’t even have to be injured for that to happen. No matter how comfortable I get, sooner or later I’m going to get hungry, and have to leave my comfort behind. No matter how convenient I try to make life, something is always going to be in the way or intruding. It demonstrates that if those are my greatest goods, I am doomed to be a failure. Suffering has already defeated that goal. To be longsuffering is to reorient myself and strive for a different goal.
I can’t make it better. All I can do is use the event to cultivate good character, or bad character; to be pleasant to everyone or take it out on them. It may not heal me any faster but I’ll be much happier one way, and much more miserable the other. And suddenly I find that I have a real good to aim for. I can tell it’s real because it’s something I need to strive after, not one that will naturally accrue to me as long as I avoid trouble. It’s the opposite of the natural gifts, which I cannot really improve and that will eventually break down regardless. These are things that require active input, and once given, their condition improves rapidly, far more than if I simply left them to their own devices. And moreover, they endure. I will never in this life be free of suffering; as I age I will only suffer more; this is outside my control. The response – to cultivate longsuffering – is within my will to choose, and is something that cannot be taken from me. As a goal in life, it makes much more sense to pursue something that is within my power to pursue, even if I am well off the pace.