On Losing Strength (Part 1)
If you’re young and healthy, this is a concept, but if you’re old or infirm, it’s simply a part of your reality:
You are dying.
We all are. No human is immortal, and while some of us are closer to the curtain-call of life than others, from the moment you are born, the clock is running.
Of course, there are things you can do to get more mileage. Eat right. Don’t smoke. Exercise. And there’s a lot to be said about living a healthy life, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re considering here, is what happens when, despite your best efforts, you begin to lose that health.
I have a friend who’s an adventurer in every sense of the word. His life embodies a passion for that element of character which is inseparable from the very essence of adventure: an unquenchable curiosity. From Scuba-diving the Caribbean to hiking the mountains of New Mexico, this guy has fit more Life into his years than a double-decker bus-load of geriatric Asians on Westminster Square. When I met him back in college, this man was self-constructing a woodland base for the Boy Scout troop he led, and between conversations about faith and Ham Radio operations, I decided I wanted to be like him when I grew up.
An interesting fact about this friend, is that he has long suffered Rheumatoid Arthritis, which increasingly attacks his ability to function physically. He recently shared how this illness has become severe enough that it has now deprived him of being able to do things as simple as using his zipper in the bathroom. For a man who has never in his life not been “useful,” these limitations are more than painful- they threaten to erase his very identity.
Only a fool would think themselves immune from such a struggle.
Perhaps you will be lucky enough to burn out your vitality in a single moment of glorious action, rescuing orphans from a burning building. But to be honest, which fate requires the greatest virtue- the hero lost in painful sacrifice, or the hero left to remember his youth and loved ones, long after both have passed?
I have another friend who struggles with severe Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Once a robust firefighter in his youth, his body is now racked with unrelenting pain. He avoids the copious prescriptions of schedule-3 narcotics offered from his doctors by smoking marijuana.
It’s funny to me, because I used to be a counter-drug pilot who flew state troopers. But here again, a man is forced to ask himself, “What is left of me?”
The interesting thing about both these friends of mine, is that neither of them is defeated. They have both endured struggles beyond any measure I could have imagined for myself, but still they stand in the breach of age and illness, where many others have despaired.
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones
Do you know the story of Apollo 13?
I really hope this isn’t new to you, but in case you missed it in history, Apollo 13 was to be the third manned mission to the moon, until an oxygen tank malfunction turned the trip into a desperate survival situation. As the astronauts trouble-shot for their lives, the ground support crew worked feverishly for the next three and a half days to bring the men home.
Apollo 13 is an incredible story of grit and ingenuity that hinges on one primary concept- not giving up. Repeatedly throughout their mission, the astronauts were faced with one spacecraft system failure after another, and each time, they had to respond by reverting to or reserving what they had left.
In the movie about this event where astronaut Jim Lovell is played by Tom Hanks, there’s an iconic moment where Lead Flight Director, Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) is being told by the Grumman advisor that the spacecraft wasn’t designed for what was happening. In that moment, Ed Harris’s character makes a statement that summarizes his team’s need for ingenuity.
“I don’t care about what anything was designed to do,” he says. “I care about what it can do. So let’s get to work.”
The rest of the movie follows these engineers as they clamor to repurpose every resource available to the astronauts in space, proving the triumph of ingenuity over design.
When I was a kid, my dad took me to see world-renowned mountain-climber, Ed Viesturs, speak at the Cincinnati arts center. While it’s easy to be impressed with Ed’s record of having climbed all fourteen of the world’s tallest peaks without supplemental oxygen, there’s one comment he made that day, which I’ve never forgotten.
“Reaching the summit is optional. Getting back down, is not.”
Sure, Apollo 13 never reached the moon. But despite overwhelming odds against them, the flight and ground crews worked together to pull off the miracle of brining those men back home, alive and safe.
And that is the heroism of the infirm: that in addition to contending with the world around them, they must also overcome the malfunctions of their own bodies.
I recently sat with a good friend, who through anguished tears, declared herself weak, since the clinical depression that sometimes overcame her, thwarted her ability to function like a “normal” person. I had to force myself not to laugh. “Are you kidding?!” I answered. “You’re right, you’re not normal. But you’re strong as hell! Look at what you have to deal with. I have no idea what that’s like. The only difference between us, is that I don’t have to fight what you do!”
My friend with MS sometimes wonders why I call him a badass every chance I get. For him, like too many others who struggle with physical ailments, it’s easy to miss the heroism of their daily function amidst the speed at which the rest of the world moves. But that is a tragedy of blind-ness.
No one has ever accused the astronauts of Apollo 13 of incompetence. Reaching the moon would no doubt have been a fantastic feat, but the real genius of those men was salvaging their lives from the disastrous failure of their vessel. The explosion that crippled their spacecraft didn’t make them lesser men- it just changed their mission, and in the process, called forth from them a courage and competency yet unseen within the NASA program.
So if and when your body begins to fail you, fight the temptation to despair. Instead, I encourage you to recognize that you are not being deprived of greatness, but are instead, having greatness be called forth from within you.
And in the end, like the family of a mountain climber, God is less concerned with what summits you reach in Life, as much as he is with whether or not you make it home.