By John P. Bowen
No book is read in a vacuum. You may kid yourself that you are “getting away from it all” to be quiet and simply read. But the “all” never retreats very far. And if the book is any good, it will follow you back into the “all” anyway. And there, the book and your life will find each and will tangle and fight and perhaps love, and nothing will ever be the same again.
This happened to me recently when I was part-way through reading Andy Crouch’s newest book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing (InterVarsity Press, 2016) for a group I belong to.
I had been diagnosed with stable angina, which degenerated a few weeks later into unstable angina. I was told to stay home for a week, until the cardiologist could arrange for an angiogram. The angiogram, on a Monday morning, revealed four major blood vessels in trouble, one of them 85% blocked, and an appointment was made for quadruple bypass surgery at 9 am two days later.
And then began the wrestling of Crouch’s words and my life. At the worst, it was as though his words began to curl off the page and meld into thin indestructible lines, tying down my life and making me horizontal for the better part of a week.
You know the kind of thing: an unbreakable plastic name band, tubes filling my body with various liquids, lines of nylon thread holding edges of flesh together, lines of metal staples like tiny telegraph poles bridging bloody gashes, oxygen tubes poking up my nose, a catheter to drain urine, a heart monitor with five coloured wires, and thin blue electrical wires poking out of my chest “just in case.” I knew how Gulliver must have felt when the Lilliputians tied him down with their silken cords.
But I need to tell you about the book. Crouch argues that human flourishing—the loving plan of our Creator—consists of two big components, “authority” (by which he means agency, instrumentality, the ability to have significance in the world) and “vulnerability” (the need to be open, to experience love and intimacy, to hurt and be hurt, to forgive and to be forgiven). For each of us, consciously or unconsciously, we seek a healthy blend of those two things.
But things go wrong.
We can exaggerate our authority and withdraw our vulnerability. In extreme cases, this produces dictators and oppressors and abusive marriages. And in those circumstances, everyone else’s life ecology is thrown off too. When some accumulate authority without vulnerability, more will find that they are left with vulnerability but little authority. Flourishing moves out of reach for both groups.
If we plot these on a two-way axis—which Crouch does—where the vertical represents the direction of authority, and the horizontal is the direction of vulnerability, we have four squares. In the top right, there is maximum flourishing. The top left (authority without vulnerability) and the bottom right (vulnerability but no authority) feed off each other in an unholy synergy. The bottom right at its simplest of course is sheer suffering. And the bottom left? No authority, no vulnerability—rich people on a river cruise in Europe!
All this was still fresh in my mind when I showed up at the hospital on the Monday morning.
I suspect you know what hospital is like, but as soon as you experience it through Crouch’s grid, everything takes on an extra dimension.
Think of the hospital hierarchy for a start. The surgeons and doctors are firmly in the top left, the authority square. Some choose to offer a degree of vulnerability, but never much and never for long. It’s not their job in this context. Then come the nurses, bearers of needles and compassion, and administrators, the keepers of gates both great and small. The masses of staff—cleaners, bearers of food, wipers of floors, emptiers of garbage, disinfectors of mattresses, launderers—are much closer to the vulnerability line than the authority line: few university degrees here, not many rare skills, little disposable income, and no university policies being written by this group. Thank God for national labour standards and unions.
And so we come to the patients.
I think it is fair to say God has blessed me with a healthy blend of authority and vulnerability. As a result, I generally enjoy a good degree of flourishing in God’s world, for which I am grateful. Part of my usual flourishing comes from knowing stuff—Crouch’s “authority”—but today the first challenge to my flourishing—apart from the inevitable undercurrent of fear—is that the only knowledge of mine that anyone is interested in is what those high in the medical guild have given me to repeat, and the words scratched on the forms I have been given to hand in. Oh, and my date of birth.
And so I enter this world where I feel very small and very scared, and even (though it’s not usually dominant) hopeful. I surrender the degree of flourishing God had blessed me with until yesterday, hoping it will only be a temporary sacrifice and I will be back on track soon.
I sit a lot and I wait a lot. I am bored. I read things I have no interest in, out of desperation. I try praying, but it’s just words. I have a “book” (no, not Crouch!) but it’s hard to concentrate. Facebook loses its appeal more quickly than usual. I am reminded why we don’t watch much tv.
Lots of people with authority bustle around. They have agency in this important world. Their coats and clipboards speak of their authority. This is a place where they have learned to flourish. For them, this world, in some measure or other, gives them a life-giving blend of authority and vulnerability, and it seems to work well for them. Meanwhile, I and others who can do nothing but wait fall slowly away from our normal flourishing and towards that dark, bottom right-hand corner where we will at last be “sans everything.”
Over the next several hours, I am slowly stripped of those things which make me glad to be alive.
I have already cancelled lunch with a friend. I have pulled out of a speaking engagement. I explain to my research colleague that she will have to work alone for a bit. I forget the writing projects that I peck away at each day. All the things that make me and my life significant are now on hold. Nobody cares what I am reading or my grandchildren’s art work or what I’m working on. Unlike yesterday, I won’t just go and make myself another cup of tea, or see what Amazon has brought to my door. And I certainly won’t be updating my Facebook status. The prospect of imminent suffering makes me want to hide and be invisible. I want to be known as flourishing and strong. That’s who I really am. I think. Sheer vulnerability without any authority is almost unbearable. It’s not the way God has wired us.
The stripping continues.
“Put one of these gowns on your back and one on the front, but leave the laces untied. Put your clothes in this plastic bag. Give your watch and your glasses to your wife to take home. Oh, and your wedding ring, of course. You can’t take that into surgery. It can get very hot. Then pee into this bottle, put it into that tray over there, and then come and sit in the waiting room.” Nobody’s being nasty, they’re just doing their job, but they’re tired and probably bored, like us. Some smile. More sitting, more waiting, more froth on tv.
Of course, I want to be clear: I know that I am deliberately allowing these things. No-one is to blame for my entry into this frightening world but me. No one forced me. This is not a war forcing me from my home, or a multinational stealing my ancestral lands. I could have said no, and stayed in my familiar world and petted the cat and got the supper together and tried to maintain my flourishing. And, conversely, I know that all this impersonal authority swirling around me is ultimately there for my good. Despite appearances, the system is actually benign and pursuing life for me—by way of death.
So, on this day, because an authority figure has said so, I choose to give away the authority that makes me who I am. In its place, I accept vulnerability, and become weak, very weak, as weak as a person can become without actually dying. I no longer grasp at healthy human flourishing, but lay aside all these things. Why? Because I am sick. Without this surrender to suffering, I may die. The only chance of getting my shalom back is through this slow stepping down into the cold, dark, alien world Crouch calls “suffering.” It’s that simple.
It starts small (“Take a number and we’ll call you”) but wait, it will grow. The stripping goes on. For this surgery, I was shaved (I could not but think of it: “‘Let him be shaved!’ cried the queen”), then laid flat with my arms outstretched, and strapped to the table. The symbolism was stark—yet I knew deeply what a difference there was, that in my case my captors really did want my good. They wanted to restore my abundance, not stop its flow for ever.
The anesthetic was quick and merciful before the knives began their work. Then (I am told) a doctor stopped my heart and lungs, so they could not move while they were operated on. Another started the electric saw to sever the breast bone. A third one stripped the little-needed blood vessels from the leg and chest. Sometimes only a knife blade divides this petite mort from la grande mort.
Five hours later, recovery (so-called) begins. Still weak, still suffering, still lacking authority. Things have been taken out of my body and now things are put into my body. The tubes in the throat preventing speech, the catheter up the genitals, chest tubes draining fluid from the chest, blood leaking from under dressings and running down my leg, needing help to get out of bed, to walk, to cough, to pee. More intrusive questions: “Have you passed gas today? Have you had a bowel movement since you woke up?” Nobody asks adults these questions in normal life—only those who have authority over those who suffer.
But slowly, slowly, life begins to return—the difficult climb, inch by inch, out of Crouch’s bottom right quadrant. And at every step, there is grace, usually in small doses—though sometimes I think I couldn’t handle it in larger amounts anyway.
A priest friend drives 40 minutes to see me, stays five minutes and prays for me, then drives back 40 minutes. A male nurse turns out to be a Christian. We have friends in common. He recognises my “authority” in another context. We become friends. Nurses come at the push of a button, night or day (authority: hah!). I am given a remarkable range of choices of what I would like to eat: more authority. (You won’t hear me making jokes about hospital food.)
Family come, bringing love and books and cards and music and flowers that help restore my significance. They bring with them the aroma of the flourishing I once knew, and help me have faith it will return.
The surgeon visits daily for a week, sometimes early, sometimes late. Once, she asks, “So, what is it you are a professor of?” She recognises me as a person who has authority in other contexts. And it’s a somewhat vulnerable question to ask: round here, she is the one with the expertise, not me.
One by one, the tubes are removed, the dressings removed, the needles extracted. “This will hurt, but only for a moment. Take a deep breath and hold it. There: it’s out!” Each one a liberation. Step by step my body becomes autonomous again. I put my watch on, my glasses, my wedding ring. Oh joy.
And so the armies of hospital personnel with all their authority do their work. In the course of seven days, my life moved in a matter of a few intense hours from a flourishing top right quadrant to a deep, dark, bottom right quadrant—and now it begins to come back again. Slowly the balance of authority and vulnerability is restored to that equilibrium which gives life. But from now on the flourishing will always bear the scars of that time in the darkness.
And that too is a good thing.
John Bowen is a retired professor of evangelism from Wycliffe College, Toronto, and author of Evangelism for Normal People and other books. Check out Faith Today‘s cover story and webinar on how to walk beside those who are suffering. And subscribe to Canada’s Christian magazine today.