Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:13, 14 NRSV
I can understand why Martin Luther, the Reformer, didn’t think this short letter from James, the brother of Jesus, belonged in the Bible. James is brutally honest. I’m probably more familiar with the letter than most, because this was my very first curriculum writing assignment for the Southern Baptist Convention Sunday School Board (now Lifeway) back in the early ’80s.
This passage has haunted me in recent years, as I have watched so many best-laid plans go awry. I have grown almost superstitious, saying “I’m scheduled to…planning to…hoping to…” Sure enough, I was scheduled, planning, hoping to go with friends to Palm Beach January 6. Instead, I am home alone in a wheelchair and on a walker, trying to keep my weight off my cracked left knee so I can avoid surgery.
I have been in a similar situation twice before: in 1979 after a major car crash in which my left foot and right arm were broken and in 1975 when I splatted on the asphalt while crossing Fifth Street on the Baylor University campus and broke my foot again. Both times, confined to a wheelchair for months with Lev hovering over me, I was severely depressed.
To my surprise, I have a far more positive attitude this time round; and at the risk of being misunderstood, I think the fact that I am home alone has something to do with it. I don’t have time to throw myself a pity party and let someone else take charge. I am responsible for me.
Feminist language—words like agency and empowerment—are not part of my vocabulary. However, they are applicable. To be competent and independent is empowering. Having the confidence to believe that I can do this is a far healthier reaction than to sink into dependency and self-pity, believing I can’t take care of myself.
Writing my memoir of grief—Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows—was the beginning, not the end, of my efforts to understand grief in all its dimensions. In my own search to reclaim joy, I discovered that:
- Focusing on gratitude every day, finding something to be thankful for every day, pausing to thank God for every small favor made all the difference in my attitude. I advise new widows, “Stay focused on the years you were together, on all the good memories, all that you have had, not all that you have lost.” Now I remind myself of how much worse my situation could be. I am so lucky.
- Staying analytical, solving problems, looking for solutions, keeping my brain busy kept my emotions under control as a new widow. Eleven years later, the Serenity Prayer is a part of me.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Figuring out how to change what can be changed and letting go of what can’t be changed is hard, but the effort keeps me focused. Now in a wheelchair, every little achievement is a celebration, a moment of joy, a sense of accomplishment.
- Admitting I need help is new to me. As a new widow, I thought I had to be strong, to do it by myself. I stumbled all over my false pride. Now I advertise my situation on Facebook, and the outpouring of love and concern and helpful (and comical) suggestions is overwhelming. Last night I accidentally spilled a folder of papers all over the bedroom floor. I posted the picture. This afternoon a Facebook friend brought me a grabber.
- Never saying no when I can say yes is as true for me today when I am homebound as it was after Lev’s death. Isolation is a killer. I need people around me, and yes, I need meals. I am grateful for every morsel that people bring me and I am even more grateful for their company. I am not picky. I can assemble a sandwich and transfer food from the refrigerator to the microwave, but I can’t cook or wash dishes. Thank heavens for paper plates.
- Lifting my eyes from myself to others, finding ways to help lifts my spirits and reminds me of all I have to be thankful for. In a wheelchair, I can’t provide the practical assistance that others are providing me; but I can still be an encourager. I can listen, I can help solve problems and find solutions and I can pray.
Thank you, God, for every small favor.
* * *
I’m excited to be a keynote speaker at the annual Self Symposium on Tuesday, February 6, at Stark College & Seminary (formerly the South Texas School of Christian Studies), 7000 Ocean Drive, Corpus Christi. The theme is “Spiritual Care for the Bereaved,” and I will be speaking twice, sharing my own experience and what I have learned about grief in the morning and then ways the church and its ministers can respond more effectively and appropriately to those who grieve. Dr. Ellis Orozco, pastor of FBC Richardson, will provide the theological perspective. I am looking forward to the audience of ministers, ministerial students and committed laity. For more information, click here: https://stark.edu/…/rev-linn-and-betty-self-bible-symposium/