Blessed are the sick?

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on September 21, 2009

BlessedAreTheSickYou could have fooled me. I would have sworn that the phrase “blessed are the sick” came from the Beatitudes delivered by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. But thanks to the wonders of Internet research, I learned instead that the phrase is merely the title of a 1991 album released by the death-metal band Morbid Angel. The album cover is shown at left. To complicate the provenance of the phrase even further, according to my research, Morbid Angel fans later accused the Swedish thrash-metal group Hexenhaus of stealing the 19th-Century-Belgian-symbolist-occult-cover-art idea for its own album, called A Tribute To Insanity. But then Hexenhaus fans pointed out that their album had been released a full three years earlier. So screw YOU Morbid Angel fans!

I guess the main point here is that the sick couldn’t even catch a break in the Bible. The Poor, the Meek, the Hungry, the Persecuted, the Merciful, the Grieving, the Pure of Heart and the Peacemakers all made the cut for the Most Important Sermon Ever. But not the Sick. Apparently they’re never going to inherit anything — except a dumb, overwrought album cover.

I don’t care. I’m going to write about the sick anyway. I always thought I had the ability to empathize with the sick. But that was before I got sick myself. Now I have a little bit of a taste of what it’s really like. Talk about life delivering a major beatdown just to teach me a simple lesson.

Before now, the worst that had ever happened to me was a cold or flu — maybe chickenpox or mumps as a kid, a banged-up shoulder or hip from cycling accidents. I can’t really even remember much about what that was like. Being sick just meant being down for the count for, at most, a week. More recently, I cared for both of my parents through their own sicknesses: Alzheimer’s disease in my Dad’s case and bone-marrow cancer in my Mom’s case. So did that experience increase my capacity for empathy? Maybe a little bit, but not as much as I’d thought at the time.

The truth is that people who were really sick were never on the same path as me. Our paths just crossed from time to time. Sometimes that intersection would be at the bedside of a loved one — like my Mom or Dad — where I would be attentive, indulgent and say all the things a good son was supposed to say. Other times the intersection would be at a place like the dairy case at the grocery store, where some guy in a bulky, motorized wheelchair was taking too long to decide between 1 percent milk and skim milk, holding me up while I quietly cursed him under my breath. In either case — parents or stranger — the encounters would end whenever I decided to put one of my healthy legs in front of the other and just move along.

But here’s the thing about sick people: They are ALWAYS stuck at that unpleasant intersection. They live in it, by definition. They’re always hanging out there, exposed, in the midst of speeding traffic while the world of the healthy surges around them and bumps into them from all directions. Whether they happen to cross paths with me or with someone else hopping down another healthy rabbit trail at some other intersection, there is no choice if they don’t like it. They’re just sick, and they have to stay on their path.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like sick people are all walking and wheeling around out there with halos over their heads. Sick people can be pricks, too. I think after awhile many of them just get fed up with the constant life in the middle of crappy intersections. So some of them start to take advantage of their sickness, in a way. They use it as leverage and begin to treat the indulgences of the healthy as their prerogative. (I have felt the tug of this temptation myself. I have known the pleasures of having someone like my sister Kathleen make me a fabulous sandwich when I could probably have made a serviceable one for myself).

On Sunday, I saw something funny in that vein: Two guys with ‘handicapped’ license plates on their cars pulled into a church parking lot and got into a horn-honking standoff over the last remaining handicapped parking spot. They were red-faced and furious with one another as they jockeyed for position. Almost simultaneously, each of them grabbed the little cardboard handicapped symbol hanging from his rearview mirror, rolled down the car window and then started waving the little blue cards frantically and shouting at each other. The other churchgoers filing by were mortified. You could see the confusion in their faces. It was like: “Which one is sicker? Whose side are we supposed to be on here? What would Jesus do?”

Well, Jesus definitely would NOT have miraculously created two handicapped parking spaces where before there was only one. I’ll tell you what Jesus would have done. He’d just have said: “Goddammit, I’m crossing both of you horn-honking jerks right out of my Prime Time Speech, along with the rest of The Sick!” In fact, that’s probably what did happen right before the Sermon On The Mount: Not enough handicapped parking spaces for donkey carts. Hence, the Biblical omission.

The Star Trek sick bay

The Star Trek sick bay

Jerk or not, at least now I know slightly more about what that feeling of being sick is really like. It’s the primal fear of being weak and in constant danger of being cut out of the herd. Being wheeled around on gurneys by ambulance drivers and hospital workers taught me a thing or two about feeling powerless and vulnerable. And as I enter Week 5 of my chemo and radiation, I have learned what it is like to be so exhausted that I guard every minute of my time and every ounce of my energy day after day because I need to spend them wisely. When you are fatigued like this, a “productive day” can consist of accomplishing just one or two basic tasks that healthy people take for granted and do as they go about bigger business. I hunt small prey these days — stuff like paying the bills, doing a load of laundry, going to the bank or post office, having a couple of phone conversations, reading through e-mail, spewing some random thoughts onto this blog…

Still, as much as I’ve learned over the past two months, I can at least see a horizon out there. My last day of therapy will be Oct. 1. After that, I am looking forward to a month of no treatment at all, followed by an indefinite period of “maintenance” treatment in which I take chemo pills for five consecutive days each month with no radiation. I don’t think that will wear me out as much. I’ll still have brain cancer — because the kind that I have is considered only “manageable”, not “curable”. But at that point, I hope, I will have started to get my energy back and will have psychologically moved on from this world of the sick. At least for a little while. 

Lots of people will go on living in this world. There is no horizon for them. At least now, because of my experience, I hope to have more genuine empathy for them when they get in my way at the dairy case.

The gulf between sickness and health has everything to do with weakness and power and how a society handles the relationship between the two. In a good society, I think, the weak and the powerful should be able to get along just fine. They should be able to walk the same path instead of just running into one another at intersections.


15 Responses

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  1. Pat & Becky said, on September 21, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Yesterday you turned me onto someone who you refferred to as your “expert’.

    Ya may know this ‘cus you’ve known me for so long and I have a hard time changing things up…especially when there’s no reason to and the “message’ comes in clear time and time again…

    but my ‘expert’ is (still) that Wizard, that “True star”…one Mr. Todd Rundgren.

    I’ve met Todd 5-6 times now. Had dinner with him….yukked it up backstage a few times…and the pinnaclle for me as a long-time fan (again, you know me too well), I also “broke bud’ with him and sent him to the moon with some very powerful homegrown ganja. Talk about putting the shoe on the other foot. Todd always sent ME to the moon with his tunes. turnabout is fair play…right?

    Back to “the message”…. which in this case, is shared/akin to much of what you illustrate above, especiially the ‘freezer case’ scenario. Like you, most of us are in a hurry and fail to see the WHOLE picture. Instead, we merely see a glimpse…a snapshot…a moment in time where our paths cross with someone else and we instantly make a judgement as to ‘why’ things are the way they are…or worse…why some else is THE WAY THEY ARE. On other occasions…such a someone in severe pain or someone like you with cancer….the maladies they suffer from can’t be seen. They LOOK normal..but inside..they are struggling….hiding…masking….and in all reality….are merely trying to COPE with life itself. nothing else matters….surely not yer goddamn ice cream!

    The crazy thing is…all of this often plays out in a slient scenario. You wait for them to get out of the way…they STRUGGLE to not be in your way….both of you in sort of an awkward and unchoreographed dance…

    Anywayz…the lyric below screamed into my head when I read your post, sean. Some of these lyrics may directly pertain here..some may be something that pertain to another event you’ve experienced…but either way…this song certainly touches on what you discussed here today.

    Who’s Sorry Now
    Composer: Todd Rundgren
    Duration: 6:17

    You can feel the bodies aching
    You can feel the spirit waisting
    But it’s someone else’s children
    And it’s someone else’s problem in the end
    You just go about your business
    You’ve got bigger fish frying
    Someday you might be a witness
    Someday you may wake up crying like I cry

    What’s the problem?
    There’s no problem in your own little world
    What’s the bother?
    Can’t be bothered
    ’til your own little world goes to hell,
    Then you can tell

    We are all in this together
    We are all in this together
    We got to pull together
    And we can’t worry who’s sorry now
    Who’s sorry now,
    Now that everything is clear
    Who’s sorry now,
    Sorrow unspoken here
    Please take a bow

    You got so many distractions
    You got old friends to satisfy
    You’re afraid of the reaction
    If the others should find out, you’d falsify
    Maybe this could never happen
    Maybe God is on your side
    Tell yourself what I tell myself
    That it’s justice when somebody else must die

    It’s a hard life
    Such a hard life, it’s a hard little world
    Some are winners, some are losers
    Here in our little world
    But you’d sell out, beg, borrow, steal,
    Move mountains, if it was your own
    It was your own
    When it’s your own pretty baby

    There’s no method in the madness
    We all can’t escape the sadness
    Don’t surround your heart with hardness
    You may someday need someone to sympathize
    Before you’re crushed by your own selfishness
    You must confess

    Are you feeling sorry?
    Sorrow spoken here
    Who’s sorry now


  2. Flatus said, on September 21, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    “In a good society, I think, the weak and the powerful should be able to get along just fine. They should be able to walk the same path instead of just running into one another at intersections.”

    I simply don’t think that’s the way the world works. Consider how seldom you see a sick bird or other wild creature. In essence, they go to work sick rather than exhibit any sort of vulnerability that would make them easy prey. Isn’t that what we try to do?

    I have one of those blue hang-tags and I use it. I’d rather use what strength I have walking through the destination rather than the destination’s acres-large parking lot. And, here in South Carolina, people are remarkably understanding of my physical limitations. They make me appreciate being human in a humanoid world.

    Colorado Bob presented an excellent link this afternoon that kind of puts things in perspective, including the people fighting for the single parking spot:
    “rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”

    Hang tough, Lard, break time is right around the corner.

  3. Jamie said, on September 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Quite a while back I read a reporter’s article about meeting Mother Theresa. He was all serious a probing about the source of her faith blah blah blah the usual, how did you get to be so holy stuff. She just sort of twinkled at him and said that she liked being with Jesus every day and asked if he would like to visit him. He made the mistake of saying yes, and she enlisted him in feeding, dressing, cleaning the sick in her hospital. It wasn’t about religion but rather meeting at that intersection.

    Maybe the sick got left out of the Sermon on the mount because they were there being useful to the crowd. As hard as it may be on you, you are actually helping everyone else to be more human. Grab all the privileges you can for the service.

  4. pogo said, on September 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Lard, manage that stuff well. I hope that if I ever have any experience remotely similar to yours, I will have the good sense to face it as you are. I can tell you that I miss your comments over at Crawford’s little corner of the internet and hope that when you hit the maintenance phase you’ll have enough energy and so much time on your hands that you’ll come back and dole out some much needed good sense to a few of the posters there (of course I may be one, but hey, whatcha gonna do?).

    Larry (Pogo, aka newpogo).

  5. RebelliousRenee said, on September 21, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Hey… I’m reading your blog everyday…. and everyday I learn something new….
    never having had a life threatening illness, reading your thoughts is very eye opening.

    Too bad there isn’t a doctor as clever as “Bones”…. all he did was wave a salt shaker over someone’s body and magically they were cured. If I could…. I’d wave that shaker over you. And maybe over Chopper too…. cure him right away of his bad doginess.

  6. Patsi Bale Cox said, on September 21, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    “The gulf between sickness and health has everything to do with weakness and power and how a society handles the relationship between the two. ” All I can say is WOW. This line brought me to my knees.

  7. RebelliousRenee said, on September 21, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    forgive me for leaving another post…. but I just thought of something on the subject of doctors. We eulogized CBob over on TrailMix a couple years ago when we were sure that the reason we weren’t hearing from him any longer was because the diagnosis from a doctor of his being dead in couple months came true. He’s back on TM and turned 60 yesterday. Bear, another TMer, was told by a doctor in spring of 2008 that because of his cancer he wouldn’t live to see who won the presidential election. He posted on TM today.

    I have a friend that had stomach cancer and he was told he’d be dead in a few months…. that was 10 yrs ago and I bumped into him at a local restaurant the other day.

    I’m glad you have good doctors…. but they are not god. Don’t let them tell you how much life you have left. My friend would always answer the question of “so how much longer do you have?” with …. “the rest of my life”. I think that’s the perfect answer.

  8. Tonyb said, on September 21, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Hey Lard,
    Thanks! Your piece to today made me think of the four and half years I spent taking care of my mom and grandmother.It started out as pretty easy, but in the end was 24/7.If it was thrown at you all at once most couldn’t handle it,but taking on a little more each day makes it doable.I’m thankful I was able to do it and yes empathy for the sick is a major reason you go on each day…

  9. Chloe said, on September 21, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Ok Sean, I have to say to you that those of us that aren’t sick at the moment don’t have all the power. We may be frittering around more, doing more things that are probably meaningless, in the big picture, but that’s not power. Having all the time in the world is not power either. Like you say, you are guarding every minute of your time, because you know you must use your energy for what’s important and necessary. Your hierarchy of what’s important and what’s not has changed, and you will never be the same again… you’ll never feel exactly the same about things again. And that’s a good thing.

    It’s important that you keep in mind that the weakness and exhaustion that you feel right now is part of what will help you heal, your body ‘demanding’ rest. It’s more a part of the remedy than a part of the illness. And we are all vulnerable, always have been. You’re just more aware of it right now.

    Sean, I think you are ‘still’ a powerful person, a force to be dealt with. Nothing can take that away from you.

  10. Sandra Louise said, on September 21, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Sean, as far as your sister, Kathleen, and the fabulous sandwich goes, you probably did her a favor letting her make it for you. I try to remember when I’m feeling too darn independent for my own good that sometimes the nicest thing you can do for someone else is to let them do something for you.

  11. ColoradoBob said, on September 21, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Lard –
    I rolled 60 on my odometer yesterday. No one more shocked than me, about this milestone.
    I use the one foot system, one foot in front of the other, one foot at a time.

  12. DexterJohnson said, on September 22, 2009 at 1:12 am

    Hi Lard…glad to read you are hanging in there, and I wish you the best.
    Nobody gave me a chance to live to be 40 because I drank and smoked so heavily, but now I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I too made it to 60 on Friday.
    I live the mantra; I believe the chant: One Day at a Time. Throw in some healthy planning for the future and dig in for the bumpy ride ahead.
    I think about you in that picture on Craig’s video with your little dog. I wish you courage.

  13. Mary Frances said, on September 22, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Beautifully written! tho i suspect Morbid Angel means the “spiritually or morally unsound or corrupt” sick, and you are not that! (And elephants will tend a sick family member in the wild. I’m just saying.)

  14. Corey Doan said, on September 25, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Great post!

  15. Kim Larsson said, on January 23, 2011 at 6:44 am

    Coming to late in this thread, I never the less want to add that the phrase”Blessed are we who are spiritually sick …” is to be found in The Bible (Matthew), so the Morbid Angel record’s title is probably inspired by that …

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