Monday, March 29, 2010

On Personal Illusions and a Chisel

Five days had passed since my daughter was born, and her guts still hung out of her body like tangled rope from a spool. All of Chloe’s intestines were suspended above her in a plastic silo the size of a tube sock. Her four-pound frame lay naked under a heat lamp – aware, hungry, scared. Her infant face had the peculiar look of an older child and not a baby, because (I presume) it lacked the pudginess common to babies. Perhaps also, her trauma contributed to her mature-looking countenance. Her face was marked with what looked like years of hardship. It was stoic.

When my wife was fourteen weeks pregnant, the doctors told us what was wrong with Chloe. Our daughter had a condition called gastroschisis: a birth defect where the fetus’s skin fails to completely form over the bowel. One out of every 5,000 babies is born with gastroschisis, and Chloe won that lottery. “The good news,” said the surgeon “is that it is correctable. This surgery has a high success rate and most children born with gastroschisis recover and grow up like normal.” That was reassuring.

My wife and I spent the next few months learning all about this condition. We read about the surgical procedures, looked up success statistics, and viewed images and diagrams. We watched personal testimonies on YouTube from other families who experienced gastroschisis and we studied papers the doctors gave us. Since nearly all of the information suggested a low fatality rate and complications, we felt we were prepared for the challenge.

But nothing prepared us for what I was now struggling with: a personal, intimate witness of my own child’s suffering. For hours and days, I watched her bony hips writhe in discomfort and her hands expand and contract with tension. Her voice was faint, but the miserable squeaks she produced always raked my heart to ribbons. We were unable to console, comfort or even explain to her what was happening. Her suffering was great, and consequently, so was ours. All the favorable statistics, testimonies and pictures meant little to me as I watched my daughter struggle through her first five weeks of life. I thought I knew what gastroschisis was before she was born, but none of the facts or data could have taught me the experience I was enduring. For days I watched her twitch and recoil from human touch, gag over a tube that emptied bile from her stomach, and live off intravenous feedings. All this while her intestines were gradually pushed back in like toothpaste from a tube.

I was ungraceful in how I dealt with this. I became argumentative with my wife and my moods were always changing and extreme. One moment I was crimson with anger, the next I was despondent and depressed. It was the most I’d ever suffered.

I remember when I was a teenager having an acute fear of dying. At the age of 19, I became a Christian and quite suddenly, I no longer feared death. But whenever I became anxious about a circumstance or problem, fellow Christians would try to console me with a trite reminder. They would say, “We have nothing to worry about. We know how it all ends.” For a few years I grumbled a half-hearted response to this and felt guilty about my anxiety. As I became more honest with myself, I admitted openly there was little comfort in that promise – especially when there seemed to be a stretch of misery to endure until then. In defiance I let no one comfort me when I felt this way. “There are” I said, “no easy answers to suffering, and I resent all attempts to explain it.” Incidentally the issues I was dealing with then seem quite shallow to me now.

In my mid twenties I began to see a different angle of suffering, thanks to C. S. Lewis. In one of his books Lewis recorded his struggle over the death of his wife. He explained that his anger at God for his wife’s death was a painful realization that his prior convictions were merely a house of cards. In his reasoning he wrote, “I had been warned – I had warned myself – not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings […] I’ve got nothing I hadn’t bargained for” (36). He admitted that his wife’s death didn’t change any of the universe’s current problems; worse things happened daily. Therefore, that foreknowledge begged the question: Why is my reaction to this tragedy a contrast to the rest of the world’s tragedies? His conclusion was that his convictions were like an imaginary rope he never had to trust with his life. The thing that would bring him to his senses was a situation that would force him to test out his supposed rope. He said, under the trial, he realized his rope didn’t bear his full weight.

This was my first step in realizing suffering just might have a beneficial purpose. Lewis wrote, “Nothing less will shake a man – or at any rate a man like me – out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses” (38). In other words, one can’t correct faulty thinking without first realizing it is has faults. After pondering these thoughts I still avoided suffering whenever possible (I still do). But perhaps there is something to be learned, particularly about oneself, in suffering. Even before Chloe was born I had the facts on gastroschisis. But those facts couldn’t reveal my own disagreeable temperaments. It doesn’t make suffering easier to know it may draw out my own vices, but I think the honest person will value progress and enlightenment more than comfort and illusion. Nothing, in fact, brings to light better what is truly in one’s heart than a trial. It seems people don’t even know themselves until they are tried and found wanting – and suddenly their own illusions about who they are must be faced.

Is personal progress then the meaning of suffering? I don’t presume to suggest such an easy answer to such a difficult enigma. But I don’t think it unreasonable to believe suffering might sometimes be a tool God uses on His people like a chisel. Most of us would admit there are some parts of our character that needs to go. Physical amputations and surgeries hurt – there’s no reason to doubt a spiritual parallel to amputation would feel any better.

Cited: C. S. Lewis. A Grief Observed.


Queen Gwennie said...

Chloe is beautiful!! I love your transparency and determination. I am praying for your family. Be sure to keep us posted and please do not stop blogging -if time allows!!

Russ said...

Thank you Gwennie!

Adriana Soto-Ramirez said...

how is Chloe now? I am doing a presentation on Gastroschisis in nursing school for pediatrics and your blog made me cry.

Russ said...

Hello Adriana - thank you for the kind words. Chloe is turning 5 this July and she is perfectly healthy and happy. We have two other children now and she's a great big sister. You can see a pic of her in the banner on my facebook page - she's wearing a red dress. I wish you well in your nursing career. :)