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Yesterday I moved my brother’s meager hospital belongings into a different room for the fourth time since he checked into a rehab and skilled nursing facility after a massive stroke in October. They seem to schlep patients around there like pawns, but this time we carried his things to the wing they call custodial, where elderly or disabled people are shuffled off when their mounting needs can no longer be met at home. Most of these residents live their final years there, rarely seeing a visitor. As my brother is only 62, the enormous sadness of it all settled on my 87-year-old mom and me like a shroud. I found myself sitting in the public bathroom crying like a baby, trying to pull myself together. Writing about it now brings me to tears all over again.
My brother, on the other hand, took it all in stride. In fact, he has patiently endured an incredible amount of suffering these past months—left-side paralysis, excruciating nerve pain, invasive stomach-wrenching bacterial infections, painful catheters, careless and insensitive attendants, and mushy meat-like substances served as meals, this as a vegetarian—for starters. Yet through it all, even on his sickest days, he has accepted whatever came with few complaints.
It’s hard to imagine that before this stroke, even the slightest change in his routine could send this guy into high anxiety. Last week a neurologist explained why. The stroke’s effect on my brother’s brain has left him with a condition they call “La Belle Indifference,” which lacks a clear definition, but is described by various experts with words like a naïve lack of emotion…inappropriate calmness…unconcern with symptoms. In general, it means that my brother is far less concerned with his daily condition than the rest of us—there are times he can almost seem indifferent to it all.
La Belle means the beautiful, and that is the paradox.
La Belle means the beautiful and that is the paradox. From the start I have tried to drive my brother to work at his rehabilitation, to do the arduous therapy needed to enable him to come home. But because he doesn’t connect the daily grind with his future, it makes no sense to him to endure the pain that therapy requires. The neurologist told us we shouldn’t even try to get him to connect dots he cannot grasp. I have to say that beautiful sure doesn't describe the way this condition sabotages his recovery. And yet, I have seen beauty.
It was beautiful when a couple of his former nurses came by just to hang out and assure him they would be back to visit. He has endeared himself to them and others simply because he connects so well with the present moment. He knows janitors, aides, therapists, nurses and doctors well enough to ask about their children or their dogs by name, something he never forgets to do, even in his sickest moments. He pats them on the hand, asks to see pictures on their phones, encourages them in their struggles and makes them laugh with his uncanny wit. This altered state, as his wife calls it, is beautiful because he has no fear for his future and no bitterness about the cards he’s been dealt. He seems blissfully unaware of how bad things really are most of the time, and this indifference is a grace, a beautiful grace.
to rest means to learn to sit with the now, and no one does that better than my brother.
I’ve thought a lot about this as I’ve tried to press into my word for the year--rest. As I wrote in my last blog, to rest means to learn to sit with the now, and no one does that better than my brother. Because he cannot connect the present to the future, he has an almost hyper-sensitivity to the now. He sees and hears everything, and is so keenly in tune with people’s emotional needs as a result, that he continually asks discerning questions so he can offer meaningful encouragement. Today I tried to wash his hair, insisting he get into his wheelchair so we could go to the sink. After a harrowing ordeal that nearly left him prostrate on the floor, I reluctantly let the nurse put him back to bed, dirty hair and all. As I left a little a bit later, he took my hand and reassured me, saying: “That was a valiant effort, Tricia.”
I read of one journalist whose husband demonstrated La Belle Indifference in his final weeks, and she described her experience with these words: “It is a phenomenon of naive or inappropriate lack of concern about one’s illness or disability, also called a conversion disorder. I call it heaven.”
I get that now. La Belle Indifference—the beautiful indifference—sitting in the now—rest. I still have a lot to learn, but I know someone who can teach me.
Last week Joe went to Ethiopia and I binge watched three seasons of cooking shows on Netflix and devoured three pints of Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond Ice Cream. That’s just for starters. They say confession is good for the soul, so there you go. Embarrassing? Well, yes, but there was a redemptive quality to my downfall that I hope I can articulate here.
People at times ask me how our transition is going, but as I noted in my last blog, the word God gave me for this year isn’t transition, but rest. How is my rest going? That’s a tricky one. First, I am a planner by nature, hard-wired to envision the future, to lay down tracks for myself and others who might appreciate the guidance. When I’m not planning, I’m looking back, learning from the past so I can regroup to do better next time. But in this moment, there is nothing to plan or organize, no ministries to oversee, no messages to prepare. I am in transition, which seems like a perfect time to rest, right? Not so simple.
The sluggish pace surfaces insecurities about who I am when the doing stops.
Rest, it seems, means learning to sit with the now, to embrace, experience, and enjoy it for all its worth. But something in me resists. The sluggish pace surfaces insecurities about who I am when the doing stops. Empty spaces loom large, like a bottomless pit I must avoid. It’s hard to rest when you’re on the run, even if from your own demons.
The passage on rest that has spoken deeply to me these past few days is a warning the prophet Isaiah gave the Israelites. The story was that Assyria was going to destroy them, and the best outcome they could hope for was years of captivity. Their national identity was about to be obliterated, so it only makes sense they would look for solutions—like getting help from Egypt, Assyria’s enemy. I can imagine how outrageous God’s idea sounded to them: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
Four simple words: return, rest, quietness, trust—this was their mandate and the one I’m learning to immerse myself in as well. Here’s my paraphrase:
Do you want to experience wholeness? Then for now you must pull away and embrace the quiet. Do you want to become stronger through the struggle? Then you must learn to embrace the sobering stillness, and put your confidence in me alone.
So, while my default is to pack every minute I can with busywork, to prop up my identity with productivity, God is calling me instead to sit with the now...
So, while my default is to pack every minute I can with busywork, to prop up my identity with productivity, God is calling me instead to sit with the now, to trust what is rather than what will be, to ignore the niggling doubts about my future and resist the futile assessing of my past. This rest may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but in some weird way, I can’t wait to see how it plays out.
More about that later, but first, the back story. Every January I pray for a word or phrase God might want to be my focus for the year. This year I was pretty sure I knew the answer without asking--transition. So many pieces of my life are in upheaval, not the least of which is that Joe and I are letting go of our shepherding role for the church we planted over 36 years ago. We are in what feels like the greatest transition of our lives.
...letting go of our shepherding role for the church we planted over 36 years ago. We are in what feels like the greatest transition of our lives.
But as I prayed, I heard a different word--rest. I resisted—reminding God that this transition is front and center for me every single day, along with all the other changes in my life. Still, I heard rest, so I set out to contemplate that notion, and what it might mean for me in 2018.
There are so many great truths about rest in Scripture, but the one that intrigues me most is the instruction in Hebrews to strive to enter into rest (Hebrews 4:11). This oxymoronic admonition—striving to rest—is where I found myself a few days into 2018.
As I sat with this, the image of swaddling babies came to mind—of how they often resist at first, but once they give into the constriction, they are able to rest. That’s when I began to grasp that for me, rest and transition are synonymous; that this upending of my life is God’s way of wrapping me so tight I have no other choice but to rest.
God is swaddling me with circumstances I cannot control, with a future afloat with uncertainty
God is swaddling me with circumstances I cannot control, with a future afloat with uncertainty, with days and weeks and months of ambiguity ahead, and a sense of loss so profoundly unfamiliar that I cannot find the edges.
Everything in me wants to resist—to throw off these constricting circumstances and return to what is sure, what is known, to a life that I have loved and never really wanted to change. But in resisting, I cannot find rest, so instead I must strive to trust God’s ways—day in and day out, moment by moment.
How is God swaddling you these days? What are the circumstances that constrict you, that threaten your faith, that make you waver in unbelief? What does resisting look like for you? What would it mean to strive for rest? I’d love to hear from you.
The song below is sustaining me with its truth day by day. So thankful to Jason Upton--Click here to get his latest album free and be blessed!!!
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Tricia McCary Rhodes
Author of 7 books and a professor for Fuller Theological Seminary, Tricia specializes in helping others experience God’s presence through practicing soul-care.