The gift of receiving

Is this National Chronic Pain Month? I’ve been battling deep pain in my right hip — 14 years after it was replaced — and several of my friends are recovering from surgery or dealing with other painful health issues. With that in mind, I’m posting an earlier essay I wrote after my last hip replacement surgery. . . .

THE GIFT OF RECEIVING

August 29, 2002
A few years ago, when I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both hips, I read everything I could find about coping with chronic pain and illness. I was amazed at how often Id stumble on a paragraph that advised patients to “look for the gift in your pain.”

Pain is a gift? Thanks, but no thanks, Id mutter to myself. I had just turned 44 and hadnt planned on slowing down so soon. I still had miles to travel with my journalism career — and a family that included a very active teenager. If pain was my gift, well, where was the return policy?

IMG_2790Within a year of my diagnosis, the disease progressed so quickly that total hip replacement surgery was my only option. By that time, I was unable to walk without assistive devices. Even on a good day, it hurt so much to crawl out of bed that I refused to unplug my heating pad and leave the house. Suddenly I was disabled – and even qualified for a “handicapped” parking permit.

Having been fit and active most of my adult life, I was way too proud to let others watch me struggle on a walker. I hated to appear needy. I started canceling lunch dates and appointments, and tried to hide behind a steely mask of self-sufficiency.

But my closest friends and family didnt buy any of it. And it was through their patience and love that I finally discovered the “gift” in chronic pain: It slowly unravels your pride and opens you to the boundless generosity of other people.

“Surrender is no small feat in a culture that applauds the strong, the independent, and the self-sufficient,” writes Victorian Moran in Creating A Charmed Life: Sensible Spiritual Secrets Every Busy Woman Should Know (HarperSanFrancisco). “That heroic stuff is fine when the problem is something we can handle through our own self-sufficiency. But nobody climbs a mountain alone.”

Of course, stubborn self-reliance isnt the sole province of the disabled.

Most women I know pride themselves on being nurturers, fixers, problem-solvers, givers. Well supply all the brownies for the bake sale at school after weve organized the rummage sale at church. Well rearrange our schedules to baby-sit other peoples kids. Just ask, and well triple our workload at the office and still make it to the evening PTA meeting. Yet some of us would rather have a wisdom tooth pulled than ask somebody else for a favor when we need it. As a girlfriend told me recently, “Its my job to be the glue that holds everyone and everything together. I cant ask for help.”

The truth is, people who care about us really do want to help — if only wed drop the mask of total self-sufficiency and admit that were not all-powerful all the time.

Discussing the aftermath of September 11 and the clean-up at Ground Zero, a talk show host suggested that if anything positive rose from the ashes of the tragedy, it was that America quickly evolved from a “Me” nation into a “We” nation. As she explained it, even the most self-absorbed among us realized that we cannot function as loners or islands. We need each other.

It was a good lesson for me to review immediately after my first hip replacement surgery. Strapped to a hospital bed and hooked up to several intravenous tubes, I was hit with the sobering reality that I wasnt going anywhere by myself.

And during the early weeks of my recovery, I had no choice but to graciously accept support from my family and friends. When my husband processed mountains of laundry at home, I tried not to feel guilty. When our neighbors sent casseroles or offered to drive my carpool shift to school, I swallowed my pride and allowed their care to work like a healing balm. And it did.

As hard as it was to surrender, I discovered theres real strength in vulnerability.

Deep down, I still believe its more blessed to give than to receive. And I still believe that putting the needs of others first isnt such a bad precept to live by — unless it renders you incapable of accepting a favor or asking for help when you really need it.

Nobody climbs her mountain alone.

— This essay is excerpted from my book of published columns and essays, Writing Home (Hearth Stone Books; 2005). It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul (Healthy Living Series) and reprinted in Catholic Digest, April 2007. It was also featured on Sirius Catholic Radio.

Bathing Suit Season.

To the people who love you, you are beautiful already. This is not because theyre blind to your shortcomings but because they so clearly see your soul.” — Victoria Moran

BeachIt’s barely spring here in southeast Michigan, but magazine editors are positively frantic about Bathing-Suit Season. My god, there’s not a magazine cover on the stands that isn’t warning me to tighten, tone, and self-tan my ugly winter-white thighs. And of course, I won’t “look hot in that bikini” unless I try another new diet. Right now.

This still scorches like a bad sunburn.

In high school, I spent hours poring over Glamour and Seventeen magazines, desperately seeking validation for my own looks. I never found it. In the early 1970s, the coolest cover girls – Cybil Shepard, Cheryl Tiegs, Patti Hansen – were as blonde and leggy as the Malibu Barbie dolls Id barely outgrown.

I was never blonde enough, tall enough, or tan enough to pass for a California Girl. My face was too freckled; my dark auburn hair was too thin; my legs were too short. Given my genetics, I could have posed as a back-up singer for the Irish Rovers, at best.

Trying to mirror what I saw in fashion magazines, I began experimenting with Summer Blonde, which, given my Celtic heritage, turned my hair bright orange. I sunbathed without sunscreen, burning my freckled skin to the point where Id eventually develop basal-cell skin cancer.

Not surprisingly, the real me got lost under layers of costume and make-up. It took years to find her again.

In her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, sociology professor Brene Brown devotes several pages to the topic of women, shame, and self-image.

Listing what she describes as the 12 categories of shame — including addiction and money — Brown lists “appearance and body image” right at the top. “After all of the consciousness-raising and critical awareness, we still feel the most shame about not being thin, young, and beautiful enough,” she writes. While women in our culture are expected to be perfect, Brown adds, it’s also shameful to look as if we’re “trying too hard.” We can’t win.

These days, fashion and beauty editors give lip service to the concept of “aging gracefully.”  But who’s really buying it? If there were nothing shameful about wrinkles, under-eye bags, and sagging skin, there wouldn’t be countless products marketed to “fix” them.

Now, in addition to worrying about how we look in our bathing suits, we’re advised to conceal every hint of experience on our faces. (Pantene even has products to correct “aging hair,” for crying out loud.) Periodically, fashion editors throw older women a bone by featuring a “mature” model with silver-streaked hair, or a gorgeous grandma in plus-sized clothing. For the most part, however, even the older models in magazines geared to my demographic rarely look my age.

But the self-assured woman defines beauty on her own terms, insists Victoria Moran. Writing from personal experience, Moran is author of Lit from Within: Tending Your Soul for Lifelong Beauty (HarperSanFrancisco). A rarity among beauty advisors, she reminds us to look beyond mirrors and magazines to find our radiance.

Moran claims that miraculous things happened when she finally stopped obsessing about her weight and wardrobe. “To my utter amazement,” she writes, “I started looking a whole lot better – and worrying about it a great deal less. I started thanking God at night for the good in my day, and although I stopped asking to be thin and gorgeous, I sometimes asked if I could be strong and helpful.”

Moran reminds us that authentic beauty, at any age, requires depth of character and a yearning to live in grace. It demands that you spend more time revealing your truth than shopping for a plastic surgeon or a better eye cream. Its all about respecting your inner worth.

Take a dive, Malibu Barbie.