Did it ever strike you as odd that when a person is sick and under a doctor’s care, we refer to that person as a “patient?” It strikes your pastor as odd because I, for one, am not at all. “Patient,” that is, when I am a patient. I don’t do pain and limitation well; I tend to whine and grumble. I also tend to feel guilty or responsible, as if somehow, by sheer will power, I should be able to override the pain or the other symptoms of illness.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin, patior, which means “to suffer” (in the sense of “to undergo.”) And illness and pain are things that we humans, all of us, undergo from time to time; which means, of course, that we can’t “will our way out of” those moments when life makes a “patient” of us. In fact, our attempt to “will away” the experience often serves only to make it more unpleasant and frustrating.

I like the Buddhist wisdom (although I practice it poorly!) which says that in every human life, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” The gist is that we can accept the inevitable reality of pain and “make friends with it” (even as we do all in our power to heal its cause); or we can “kick against the goad,” feeling singled out for persecution by an unjust universe, looking to blame ourselves or someone or something else. The second approach (which seems, alas, to come quite naturally to many of us) leaves us in pain and miserable about it, as opposed to in pain and hopeful, in pain and patient (that word again!).

Dr. Stephen Levine was a colleague and friend of the late Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who proposed the famous five stages of dying/grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Like Dr. Kubler-Ross, Dr. Levine has devoted much of his career to working with the terminally ill. In his book, Healing Into Life and Death, he describes an interesting phenomenon. “Among those who seemed to move toward healing, physical and psychological as well as spiritual, there seemed to be many who had a certain quality in common. They had a willingness, a kind of open relationship to the conditions they were experiencing” For each individual, it seemed to be a learning to let go and meet life in a fuller way, moment to moment, the living of life a breath at a time? It was those who were against themselves, at odds with themselves, trying to “beat their illness,” who seemed to have the hardest time and the slowest healing, if healing was present at all. But those who seemed to meet their illness in their heart instead of their mind appeared to have a radically different experience. Not all those who embraced their illness survived in the body, but we observed a healing which occurred beyond our previous definition or understanding. Unfinished business melted in the loving kindness with which they met the pain in their body and the confusion in their minds. Pain began to float at times. Ancient resistances and resentments seemed to come into a deeper harmony. Faith became the priority. These were the patients who saw that illness was not a failure and that pain was not a punishment? (pp. 8-9).

Looks like the ancient Hebrews were right in seeing mind, body, and spirit as a unified whole. Also looks like wanting life to be other than it is  (fighting with your present reality) really can hurt you; and acceptance in patient trust can heal you (whether or not there is a physical “cure”). The prayer of the 12-step programs seems relevant: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Got all that in my head; now I just need to get it into my heart. What I can say, with gratitude, is that I am a more “patient patient” than I used to be.

It was not at all my “plan A” to arrive here on September 1 and undergo a flare-up of sciatica which left me flat on my back for a week or so; but nevertheless, that’s what happened, and I am grateful (in hindsight!) for the learning and growth that happened as a result. I am grateful for the kind support of my brother Jesuits and of the parish staff. I am especially grateful for all the warm wishes and prayers of the Old St. Joseph’s family; thanks for caring for me so generously when you still barely knew me. Obviously, your prayers worked, because my back is much better. Meanwhile, thanks for helping me to be a more “patient patient.”

©2008 Fr. Daniel Ruff, S.J.