My journey from amputation through rehabilitation on to recovery has taught me many lessons. One of the most important is the difference between belief and trust.
For most of human history, just about everyone believed in some version of a god. In Europe, the existence of God was accepted as given. What divided people was the question of trust. Do you trust God and if so, to what extent and in what ways?
But times changed. The enlightenment birthed a new philosophy called Materialism which held that physical reality is all that ever was, is and will be. The inhabitants of Olympus, Valhalla and finally Heaven were banished to the realm of poetry and pious sentiment where for many they languish today.
This created a new situation. For the first time belief in God was called into question to such a degree that mere acceptance of the possibility that some kind of transcendence might exist became for many a substitute for faith. As a pastor, I can tell you that even some who attend church regularly think that their willingness to believe that there must be a God out there somewhere provides the total content of their faith.
But that was never what faith was about. Faith presumes the existence of God but goes beyond that to trust God and not just in regard to some vague afterlife because that doesn’t count. When it comes to dying there really isn’t a thing we can do about that so we might as well hope some sort of spiritual being will help us out there. The question is do we trust God in the here and now, day to day, hour to hour to empower and direct us? When we, for example, get in our cars do we trust God to bring us safely through traffic? More to the point, do we trust that God’s will and purpose is in play if he doesn’t?
Faith isn’t a matter of believing in God. It’s about living life out of the wisdom and power of God rather than our own skills and strength. We bring our abilities to the table every day but by faith, we do so with an awareness that God is the author of our life story and the goal of that story is to maximize our experience of living in all its breadth and depth. My journey forced me to learn that the content of faith is trusting that in life and death I am never operating on my own but God is constantly working in and through me his gracious will to accomplish. With that trust in place, I’ve learned to savor life, its challenges as much as its wonders, as an opportunity to participate in some small way in the exciting things God is doing in his world right now.
I was teaching my Bible Study group last week, a group that meets at a large regional mall. The subject was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan recorded in Luke chapter 10 of the Bible. The story stimulated considerable discussion. In Jesus’ tale, an unnamed man falls prey to robbers along a well-traveled but dangerous highway. They leave him half dead. Two religious officials pass him by without even offering help but an ordinary citizen whose country and faith was at enmity with the nation where the story takes place stops and gives him every kind of short and long-term aid imaginable.
When my group talked about it they expressed the usual judgments about who the good guys and bad guys are in the story. But that response misses the point. Jesus told his story to a religious lawyer who thought he knew it all and had mastered the art of living. He knew he was duty bound to love God and his neighbor. All he needed now was to fill in a tiny technical detail. So he asked Jesus, “Who then is my neighbor?”
Jesus didn’t answer the legal question. Instead, he shaped a tale that shoves the lawyer and everyone who reads or hears it into the ditch along with the injured man. We are all drawn to this unnamed, unidentified character and for a moment become the person in need of help. That changes our perspective. The question no longer is who can I with some sense of moral superiority go out and be for them a good neighbor but who is proving to be a good neighbor to me? The lesson to the religion lawyer was that he was the one in need, in need of love, friendship and ultimately, a savior.
The point is that we all need help and not just from time to time but constantly. Those who give that help are our neighbors by Jesus’ definition But their help poses a question, for whom are we a neighbor right now? Who is depending on us for spiritual, moral or physical support? The message of this parable is that we are never in any position to act out of some sense of noblesse oblige but that we can give because we have first received and love because we have already been loved, by God if by no one else.
There is no “one up and one down” in this world. As Martin Luther pointed out we are all beggars in need of God and one another. With all the hate and division in our world today we do well to remember that and remember as well that a great life flows not from a sense of either duty or entitlement but from a spirit of humble thanksgiving.
One of the most famous sayings of Jesus is his challenge to love your enemy. This always struck me as an odd piece of advice. If I love someone they really aren’t my enemy are they? If they are my enemy then by strict definition I can’t love them. If I do that their enemy status evaporates.
I finally figured out that this saying has little to do with enemies but much to do with keeping our own agenda in life. The idea is don’t let anyone’s actions or attitudes toward you dictate your actions and attitudes toward them. We have to maintain a kind of wall between ourselves and others. They are what they are. The important thing is that we persist in being who we are.
In the same chapter of the Bible, Jesus also said “Bless those curse you” and “Do good to those who hate you.” It’s all the same thing. These statements don’t mean that we necessarily go around blessing and doing good all the time (of course there’s nothing wrong with that!) His point was much bigger.
We just finished a nasty election season. Sitting in the dialysis waiting room I listened as people talked about its outcome. Most were bitter and angry about something. You could feel the hate and see it on their faces. They had been sucked into a national mood of extreme partisan and ideological antagonism. Good people say we need to “come together”, but that isn’t happening and it won’t at the corporate level at least. The only cure for our dark cultural attitude is for each one of us to take Jesus’ advice. We need to ignore whatever mood binds our society and concentrate instead on valuing what we personally value. We have to believe what we individually believe and hold fast to our own (hopefully positive) attitudes toward life. We must never, for even a moment, let the values, beliefs, and attitudes dominate the times that define our lives. Keep your own agenda, and don’t let anyone else set it for you.
Many people are struggling through challenging rehabilitation, a difficult battle with cancer, painful struggles with a child who is finding it hard to grow up and a range of acute crises. At times the challenges can overwhelm us to the point where the battle itself becomes the sole focus of our living. If that happens it is easy to slowly lose heart, ease off on effort and finally give up.
I’ve written before about the importance of having a “why” that shines beyond the pain of the present. In 2001 I was dying because of complete kidney failure. In fact, I was only kept alive by daily blood transfusions. As you can imagine, that can’t go on for long. It finally reached a crisis. I was rapidly losing weight because I would not eat. Food tasted terrible. Doctors told my wife they were going to have to install a feeding tube if things didn’t change. They also told her that procedure might mark the beginning of the end for me.
She came to me as supper was served that day and told me we were at the moment that would decide if I would live or die. I said I would throw up if I tried to eat. She answered, “It’s all up to you now.” At that moment I looked at my youngest son. I’ve never seen anyone more afraid. Looking into his eyes I decided I wanted with all my heart to erase that mask of fear, to see him grow up, to hug his grandchildren, to be there to love him.
I took a bite of the supper and nearly choked but got it down. I took another and another and fought those bites down. It took an hour but I finished the whole plate to the cheers of my family and nurses. That moment marked a turning point. Two days later my kidneys suddenly charged to life again and I was able to go home.
That struggle taught me that “Stayin’ Alive”, as the song has it, just isn’t enough. It won’t take us through the crisis we are facing whatever it may be. There has to be a Why and not just any Why but one that moves us from the core of our being. As we struggle through difficulties (and we all do) it’s imperative for each of us to listen for that Why and grasp it with our whole heart.
Recently I wrote about regaining the ability to drive my own car. That event inaugurated a big and welcome change for me. For a long time, I thought of my prosthesis as a medical device and myself as a person equipped with a hydraulic foot made of titanium. Two things changed: driving, which opened the world to me and dispensing with my cane. The cane was reminding me daily that I was handicapped. Life without a cane changed everything by freeing both my hands. Suddenly I could stand at the stove and cook or do the dishes like a responsible member of the family. As a result of standing and walking without a cane, my balance improved and my gait became what a person might almost call normal.
Yesterday for the first time in two years I went to the grocery store to get some items I needed. It was a short two-mile car trip but it confirmed the restoration of my life. It was actually funny. I got in line at a checkout run by a clerk I used to see frequently before my amputation and to my surprise he recognized me! Think of that! It had been two years, I was 70 pounds lighter and minus one foot but he talked to me as if I hadn’t missed a day!
I knew it then. I, Jim, was really back. A lot wiser, much stronger and I believe a lot better but it was not the medical me, it was the real me. Later that same day I talked to a friend who is contemplating an amputation in order to deal with an agonizing and disabling infection in his foot. He’s nearing a decision to do it but with great trepidation, so he often asks what it is like to be an amputee. My last words to him that day were “It’s not the end of the world, you know.” I could also have said that it can be a chance to restore your life and to do so on much better terms than ever before.
My life changed in a big way this week. For the first time since my amputation one and one-half years ago, I have resumed driving. My family was understandably reluctant to let me take this step but steady expansion of my capabilities combined with their growing weariness with driving me everyplace I needed to go collapsed that reluctance. It all ended quickly. My wife said one Sunday morning, “Do you want to go for a drive together so I can see how you do?” I was out in the car before she’d even found her shoes. I’m now providing my own transportation to dialysis, car maintenance places, the community Bible Study I lead and even enjoy weekend drives into our beautiful New Mexican wildlands.
The big thing about driving is not the driving – that’s easy. The big thing is generating and overcoming challenges. The other day I went to a self-service restaurant, the kind of place I used to ask some family member to visit and pick something up for me. Because I was driving, this time I went in on my own and faced some unanticipated challenges. For example, I had to bring my own food to the table on a tray and then dispose of that tray. I couldn’t use my beloved cane to do either so I had to trust the prosthetic training that had taught me to walk without a cane. I don’t do that often at home. I don’t have to! So, I was less than my usual fast and smooth doing it in the restaurant. In fact, a teenage girl asked if she could help me! But the news is I got it done.
Things like that would never have happened without access to my car. I would have kept on walking where I always walked and doing what I always did with nothing beneficial going on. And that’s the point. We are all prone to settle, to find a safe and satisfying place in life and hunker down. But if we do that all kinds of abilities will remain latent in our body, mind, and heart remaining unknown because they never were expressed.
This posting isn’t really about life with a prosthesis (though it includes that). The point is we all have to keep pushing out walls that are enclosing us so the space we inhabit gets ever wider. We do well to honor the dreams that the creator has planted in us by striving toward their fulfillment no matter our age or condition in life. We need to do it because as the scope of our lives gets wider, who we are and what we are able to do expands to fill that space. Our mindset must be like this:
I’m not to be measured by what I can do right now, but by all that I might be able to do if I get a chance.
With that mindset in place job #1 is obvious – we must fight every day to gain and seize that chance.
My hopes to escape dialysis were dashed this week when a second opinion confirmed that I need the treatment. I was disappointed but not surprised. Actually, what I had really wanted was to escape the challenges involved in a transplant since I have no intention of continuing dialysis forever.
I had seen so many miracles on my journey through rehabilitation following an amputation that I was ready for another in the case of my kidneys. The disappointment didn’t shake my faith but it did wise me up a little. Thinking about the situation I came to the realization that God had never lifted anything completely off my shoulders but he had given me what I needed in order to do what I needed to do. The amputation journey was full of amazing blessings but it was still an amputation and still a journey. Building on that experience I am certain that God has a wonderful plan for my kidney problem but I also recognize it is a real problem and God’s plan is, once again, going to be a process.
As I look back over where God has led me so far I see many gains and few losses. The biggest gains have been self-discovery and self-confidence. I know who I am now in a way I did not know myself before. I see my faults clearly but I have also found strengths I either didn’t have or didn’t know I had. I have a deeper faith in God but along with that a sense of personal competence that is new to me. I’ve gone through pure hell but because of that, I’m standing tall today not on two feet but on one foot born of nature and one foot born of faith in God and in myself. That second foot is by far the stronger physically. But it’s also a new foot not aged like the other and because of that it doesn’t bear the weight of what I used to be but invites me to dream of what I can be and do today and tomorrow.
Before the amputation, I prayed fervently that God would spare me from the road I faced. Today I embrace that road because I know that what I call the journey is nothing other than life as it is meant to be. Life is full of challenges because it is by facing and overcoming difficulties that we grow. There’s not a lot of going on when things are easy. My prayer now is simply that God would continue to stay close to me every step of the way and would give me what I need in order to make the most of the opportunities he has set before me.
A few days ago I graduated and it turned out to be a turning point for me. For several weeks I had been in physical therapy developing abilities I needed to get the most out of a prosthesis. I worked on my balance and under the supervision of trained professionals expanded my prosthetic skills. I came into therapy leaning on a walker and through therapy had moved on to a simple cane. Then, as part of my graduation, I needed to show I could walk through the whole building without relying on a cane. Knowing what I could do, I didn’t just walk those halls, I moved so fast my therapists had trouble keeping up with me. To sum it up I graduated with a score of “excellent” and a private judgment from my teachers that my accomplishment was nothing short of “astounding”.
It is amazing what a bit of validation can do. Up to that day, I was afraid of slopes. But now I was a proud graduate of prosthetic school so the next morning I walked down our steep driveway and brought the newspaper into the house. I used to think I couldn’t carry a plate or even a cup without losing my balance. Now as a certified expert walker I take heavy garbage bags out to the container and almost never go anyplace without something in my hand.
Part of this is the result of hard work. Therapy boosted my confidence because it increased my strength. I spent a lot of time on full body machines of the kind you can find in any gym or buy for home use. I’ve discovered that there is a direct link between the strength of body and confidence of mind. I can stretch my skills now because my body assures me that I can do just about anything I want to do.
But an equally important part of all this is that incredible power of affirmation. Appreciation, recognition, and applause have a deep impact on our lives. I was lucky to be in a situation where I could receive some of that. But I know many of us don’t hear much applause at home, work or anywhere else. However, there is one thing we can all do for ourselves. We can tune out voices that attack, demean and demoralize us, especially those we generate in our own heads. We can instead tune in on positive messages and start generating plenty of those on our own. I live by a simple rule; it goes like this:
“My name is not what you call me, my name is what I answer to.”
When a negative or demeaning name is hurled at me by others or even invades my own self-talk, I just let it slide away. Instead, I embrace and remember everything that is full of encouragement because as far as I’m concerned messages like that have been sent to the right address. Living by that simple rule I graduate as “excellent,” “astounding” or something even better every single day and, as a result, my confidence and with it, my capabilities grow constantly. I invite you to try my simple rule.
Progress for an amputee is measured in two ways. First in the growing realization that learning to live with a prosthesis is going to be a challenge combined with an eagerness to do what it takes to meet that challenge. If there is no realization of the severity of the challenge it will never be embraced. But if the challenge is not enthusiastically embraced it will never be met. My therapists have often reminded me that somewhere near a majority of people who take the trouble and cost to get a prosthesis never use it except for standing up off a wheelchair so they can immediately sit down somewhere else.
The second way progress is measured is by improvement in balance, strength, and gait. This, obviously, is the direct result of a decision to face and embrace the prosthetic challenge but it’s more than that. For me, progress has been most clearly measured in my graduation from wheelchair to walker to a four-pronged cane and now to a simple single pronged cane. The exciting thing about my new cane is that with it I can move with normal fluidity and speed on any surface. No one has to wait for me to catch up and some folks have to labor to keep up. The hydraulics in my heel combined with my cane give me a terrific boost. For example, on a downslope, my mechanical heel gives me s strong push forward onto the cane while my other leg catches up. Going upslope my hydraulics give me a definite edge since they receive my weight and then push me forward onto the cane which grabs whatever surface I’m walking on giving a boost to the other leg as it comes up. I’ve never been a fast walker but with a prosthesis and cane, my motion is probably more efficient than it’s ever been.
I still have a ways to go. My balance needs work and I’m always focused on getting stronger, but progress is being made. There were many long weeks when I didn’t think that would happen. Oh, I have dreamed of doing this, but part of me feared that it was only a dream. However, my core attitude was different and it’s still seeing me through. I recently expressed this to my therapist after an especially grueling session. She was wondering if I needed to stop.
“No way,” I said, “I came here to work!”
A dream filled my mind for more than a year. I could see it clearly: Following amputation of my left foot in the spring of 2017 I dreamed I would walk again. No, better than that I would go shopping, visit restaurants, explore trails, even play tourist at some of our world-class attractions here in the southwest.
The journey toward that horizon was long and tough. At first, I couldn’t even pilot my own wheelchair and transfers were sketchy at best. With rehabilitation, I learned to stand on my right leg. It took a year but at last, my left leg healed and I was fitted with a prosthesis. Now I could stand on my own two feet but that was about all I dared try. Then I learned that to get into physical therapy I had to be able to get around at least with help from a walker. So I got a walker and tried. Lo and behold I discovered I could walk.
I’ve been walking for almost a month now and I’ve graduated from walker to a cane. I can handle slopes and steps. I can assemble my own dinner standing at the kitchen counter. You might say much of my dream has come true and you would be right.
But make no mistake, life with a prosthesis has its challenges. Improvements in gait are incremental and vary day to day. Much depends on how the device is fitting today and that depends on me getting the sizers right. Sizers are socks that fit over the sleeve and under the socket. They come in several thicknesses denoted by color and fill the space between the sleeve and the carbon fiber exterior of the prosthesis. Sound technical? Getting the mix of sizers right is indeed technical. And that is just one of many day to day complications involved with this new life. So has my dream turned sour? Not at all! I can or will soon be able to do everything I dreamed of doing. I’ve simply discovered that I will always have to work at it.
It turns out that prosthesis life is just like life in general. You get out what you put in. You have to test and expand your skills daily. (I make sure the sun doesn’t set without me doing something I never did before.) You go to physical therapy because the stronger you are the more enabled and the less disabled you are. Today I approach the whole thing as a grand adventure. How far can I go, how much can I do? I’m not just referring to walking. What’s at stake in the adventure of post-amputation recovery is living, becoming the most productive person possible. But I suspect this is an adventure everyone is challenged to face in one way or another.