Monday, January 17, 2005

Back from a dark place

Today is the feast of St. Martin Luther King. I haven't been to the mountaintop, but I travelled that lonesome valley. It seems like a good day to be back.

So where was I?

Oh yeah, all I have to do is rest up from the chemo and the radiation.

Big talk.

Remember the plan? It goes something like this:
  1. use chemo and radiation to beat me within an inch of my life
  2. recover enough to have surgery
  3. have surgery
  4. get more chemo.

Check off number one. I'm feeling much better now, so, I guess two is underway, but that inch of my life thing was evidently no joke.

My pastor, Fr. George Zahm came by this morning to visit and bring me communion. He called yesterday because he noticed I wasn't at Mass with the rest of my family. He's an exceptionally pastoral man.

One of the things we talked about today was what he referred to as my "ability to articulate" my experiences. I suggested it might be a more neurotic need than an ability, but it led us into a conversation about expression and empathy.

I've always been frustrated by the contention that an experience is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't experienced it. It's usually framed something like this: "You could never understand because you're not a woman/black/Catholic/gay/cancer patient/teenager/poor/disabled and unless you've experienced what I have we don't have enough common ground to disagree about [whatever the issue happens to be].

This argument frustrates me because my most important tools for dealing with the world around me are words and imagination. Empathy and sympathy are, I think, extensions of imagination and are likewise critical tools.

If pressed, I'll concede that there are some ideas and experiences that are ineffable, that cannot be satisfactorily and completely conveyed by verbal expression. Most of these are transcendental, and art, music, poetry and imagination (as well as theology and spirituality) have their most important functions in helping us stretch across the inadequacy of straightforward verbal expression.

There are more things that probably don't need to be completely conveyed. I've got a clear enough picture of the atrocities of concentration camps, slavery, torture and genocide without imagining or confronting every horrible detail. A little bit is enough to give me the idea. I get that these are unremittingly bad.

There aren't nearly as many ineffable or unspeakable things as there are deployments of the "you can never understand" argument. Usually, "you can understand" is short-hand for, "I'm not willing to explain this to you and I don't trust that you really even want to get it." That's ok. Maybe you explained it to a lot of people before me and you're just worn out trying. If you're wrong about me and I do want to understand, then I'll find another way. You can doubt my will, but not my capacity.

All this aside, I'm not going to try to write about the dark places of the past few days. Not because I don't think you can or want to understand, but because, maybe, I don't really want you to.

It is enough to say that it was bad.

I'm doing much better.

Step two, full speed ahead. No looking back.

This little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.


Blogger Jenn said...


You have returned from the dark side, young Jedi. Most impressive.

Sorry. I gave John a life-sized replica of Darth Vader's light saber for his birthday, and we've been spouting off references to the trilogy since.

Anyway, good to hear that you are doing better. I've been thinking about you guys a lot lately. When I hear you talk, I often am reminded of how I used to work night shifts on the oncology unit. Most of our patients were receiving very aggressive chemo regimens, and although night time was supposed to be a tranquil, peaceful time to recuperate, often my patients were wide awake, some of them very sick. My goal of the shift was to make the patients as safe and comfortable as possible, whether that was in the form of medication or just some TLC and moral support (which at times was just as effective). As the shift progressed, I always tried to at least glance out the window as the sun was coming up over the James River and the city. It helped me focus that I'd done okay for the night, and that I'd gotten my patients through another night, out of the dark safely.

Glad to hear you're back from that very dark valley.
Rest up, and we'll see you soon!

6:07 PM  
Blogger UisceBaGirl said...

I'm so glad you are feeling better!

I'm sure there are other things to be said, but it all boils down to...

I'm so glad you are feeling better!

6:57 PM  
Blogger Karen Davis said...

Welcome back, Jim. We missed you. Keep on working the plan. Love and prayers to you and Judy. Karen

10:24 AM  
Blogger GSP87 said...


We are heartened to know that you are feeling better and that you are putting yards (if not miles) between yourself and the 'edge of your life'. The whole family continues to keep you and your family in our thoughts and prayers.

By the way, I am tempted to argue in favor of experience over reason as the primary source of knowledge ... but I figure that I am bound to loose almost any debate with you.

Love from the great white north (+1F this morning)

11:21 AM  
Blogger Micah said...

Glad to hear you're recovering, Jim. I hope you're feeling well enough to swing by the pub this week; it's always great to see you there. It sounds like you've got this thing on the run now, so keep up the good work.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Tom Wolf said...

So glad you are feeling better. We do want to understand what you're going through, but, of course, not to the point of actually experiencing it ourselves. We want to share your misery and your joy. As my mom told me, "sharing divides misery and multiplies joy." And as MLK said in another context, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." I am glad to be affected by you. Bless you, Jim Guy.

Love, Tom

6:29 PM  
Blogger vkenny said...

Hi Jimmy, I do understand what you have been through and I am so glad you have made it through the dark. As much as people try to prepare for the ravaging effects of disease & treatment there is really no way to without a point of reference. Ed & I will continue our daily prayers for you as we also understand the first battle may be over but the war rages on and we will be with you as long as is needed for complete victory.
Understanding comes from a willingness to see beyond our own experience & beliefs and to care enough about the person to try to understand their suffering or point of view. Keep your light shinging, your attitude positive and keep fighting the good fight.

8:52 AM  

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