The Patience of Recovery

A boy gazing out a window in a stone building - by Matt Mck from Unsplash

The Patience of Creation

Creation takes patience. Whether you’re forming a universe, writing a story, choreographing a dance, baking a souffle, or building a life, creation takes time. They say that God made everything we can see, smell, and touch – and much that we can’t – in six days, but He was a master, and we cannot compete. We can’t build a house in six days, nor can we grow a baby that fast, and it takes a lifetime to mature into our true selves, if we ever do. Becoming who we really are takes a lot of patience.

To make it even harder, when we think have our lives figured out, along comes a crisis or a disaster, and we get shaken up. We lose our bearings. To survive, we have to create a new understanding of the world, discover a new self, embrace a new purpose.

Sometimes this is a big deal, huge, life shattering. At other times, the changes are small, and our friends might not even notice. Regardless of the size of the change or its significance, when we get knocked down, we don’t stand up in the next breath. To get back on our feet takes time, sometimes months, even years. How do we tolerate the space in between one identity and the other?

A boy gazing out a window in a stone building - by Matt Mck from Unsplash

Getting through Cancer

I can’t really know what my husband, David, went through when he was treated with radiation for his throat cancer. Watching him, I could tell he was miserable, exhausted, done. At one point, he could barely swallow, and sometimes I feared he would choke to death. Nauseated, in pain, he did little except lie in his chair and wait. He needed courage, strength, and determination to get through those treatments and the long recovery afterwards. He also needed patience.

I can’t say he did a great job being patient. Many days, he was testy and aloof. Tolerating so much discomfort, losing the capacity to work, to love, even to hope, left him with few reserves and no tolerance for petty problems or interruptions, no energy to consider others, to converse, to connect. He had nothing to give, but he also lacked the strength to receive.

In this kind of situation, when one must simply survive, patience is less important than acceptance and grit. Getting through the day or the next moment or the next breath is sometimes the best we can manage.

Though maybe David didn’t need patience during his treatment, I certainly did. Somehow I had to honor his way of healing, let him rest, and support him. Then, when the treatments were over, the cancer deemed gone, and he was left with the wreckage of his body and his business, it took the patience of both of us for him to put his life back together.

The Patience of Recovery

Recovering from addiction, grief, or trauma is kind of like that, too. In the beginning, patience matters less than determination or desperation. Then we notice our discomfort. We ache, feel anxious, we doubt ourselves. We experience guilt, shame, anger, and unrelenting sadness. To get through this type of pain, we need patience.

Not just patience, though. We also need hope and faith, imagination, resilience, courage, an indomitable fierceness, and a love of life. We need to accept grace and to forgive, to let go of our fantasy that we are perfect, good, and right, or that God is, or life is, or our children are, or our country is.

Yet when we feel weak, lonely, and scared, patience helps. It helps us when we don’t have the answers, and when no one around us has them, either.

We like to think we can speed up this work by applying the right solution or learning the right technique. Friends and teachers suggest answers, offer tips, try to make us feel better. This can help, too. In the end, though, we simply must be patient.

Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Yet to reach the end, we must keep walking, no matter how slowly our feet fall.

The Stories of Our Lives

To recover, we also need the patience to create a new story out of our lives. In the best of all worlds, we create a coherent narrative of who we are and what matters to us from our past, even though it means forgetting some events of our lives and ignoring some details. When we’ve experienced significant trauma, though, our memories are disconnected, so to make a coherent narrative requires exploration, imagination, courage, and lots of patience.

We create our lives, however, not just with our own memories, but also with the stories our parents, peers, and culture tell us. Because these make us who we are and give us the capacity to grow and become our best selves – or not – it matters what stories we listen to.

William J. Bausch tells a story about a minister who visits an inmate. Lost in his shame and guilt, the prisoner tells the minister to go away. He is beyond hope.

Learning New Stories

The minister acknowledges that the young man has brought pain to others, causing hurts that may never fully heal. No one can change that. Yet if he wishes, the young man can choose a new way of life from here on out. To help him do this, the minister says, “We must begin by teaching you some new stories.” [1]

Impatiently, the young man scorns “idle tales,” but the minister persists. He tells a story of an unrepentant sinner who is barred from  Heaven by the Abraham, David, Peter, and Luke. To defend himself, the sinner names the times Abraham, David, and Peter sinned, but it is no good. Luke tells him he must go away.

So the the sinner turns to Luke and says, “You of all men must accept me. For I am the lost lamb you wrote about. I am the prodigal son.”

Then the gates of Heaven swings open, and Luke embraces the sinner, welcoming him home.

To the young prisoner, the minister explains that the story is not an idle exercise, but will teach him walk in mercy. “Stories,” he says, “will help you find your way.” [2]

The Patience of Stories

Fairy tales and tale tales, the legends and myths of our culture, the stories our parents tell about us, and the memories we form all help us find our way, or sometimes lose it. For better or for worse, these stories give us our values, capabilities, and goals. It takes a lifetime to internalize these stories and create meaning out of them, especially to claim one that will help us become our best selves.

Bausch tells of a young prince who is given, at his birth, many gifts. Rare and precious jewels, coins, and rich clothing.

One sage, however, gives the young man nothing of material value. Instead, he comes to the palace every day of the boy’s life and tells him stories of the ancestors and the gods, of myths and fairy tales. Over time, the prince develops wisdom and integrity that allow him to govern with mercy, grace, and justice.

“It was because of the seed sown by the tales,” the young man explains.

The Gift of Stories

The prince wasn’t born wise; he didn’t become wise overnight. He became wise and learned integrity because a sage had the patience to plant seed after seed. The sage knew that the indirect guidance offered through stories provides a greater opportunity for growth than does any amount of information and didactic teaching.

To benefit from his teacher’s gift, however, the prince had to be patient. He had to listen, and he had to wait. No matter how much our counselor or spouse wants to tell us what to do, wants to hand us the solution, until we see our own way through grief or despair or addiction or stuckness, we will not fully embrace change. We like immediate fixes, but we can only grow as fast as we can grow.

When the stories we learned keep us stuck, wounded, and afraid, we need new ones. It takes a lifetime to internalize our childhood stories. To unlearn them and claim new ones, takes almost as long.

Telling New Stories

If recovery is about becoming our true selves, then it’s also about healing and growing, and that requires patience. In life, we take one slow step after another. We make headway here, lose ground there, get lost, and if we’re lucky, someone tells us stories that help us find our way again.

When my husband started to feel better, we were both eager for him to bounce back and return to his former self. But we can never be what we once were. Events change us, irrevocably. We had to realize that David is no longer young, that he wouldn’t recover as quickly as child, and in some ways, his new limits would be permanent.

As time passed, we learned to accept this. David learned to be patient with his enhanced need for rest, and so did I. Over the years, he has gradually regained strength and energy. He has bounced back pretty well, yet he is still weaker, slower, older.

So we tell new stories, ones of patient love, of holding, of acceptance. Mostly, we allow the days to pass. From the pieces of our lives, we create meaning, value, and life itself. Creation takes patience because it takes so much time.

Patience as Love

Thich Nhat Hanh, in speaking of relationships and love, writes: “Patience is the mark of true love. . . . If you want to love, you must learn to be patient. If you are not patient, you cannot help the other person.” [3]

Through patience, we show our love, whether it’s love for ourselves or others. We show love when we accept our foibles and give ourselves time to heal, when we accept others for who they are in this moment, patiently listening to them, cherishing the beauty of their inner being, and offering stories of possibility, wisdom, and mercy. Fixing, if it’s possible, can happen in moments, but healing takes time.

With patience, stories, and love, we heal. In our healing, is our recovery. When we patiently take one step after another on our journey, we become our true selves.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Bausch, William J., Storytelling: Imagination and Faith, Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 1984, 37.
  2. Ibid 38.
  3. Hanh, Thich Nhat, Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming the Difficult Emotions, London, England: Penguin, 2004, 261.

Photo by Matt McK on Unsplash

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