Reminds Me of the Time (Stories) - Christmas with Sharon
Befriending Pain, Part 3: Refusing to be a Victim
Christmas with Sharon
Sharon was a cheerful person – you never saw her but what she wasn’t smilingly up for a chat or an adventure. Her short, kinky hair, the styling of which she had no patience for since becoming ill, often looked comical. It tended to stick out randomly at odd angles all over her head. Sharon was a tall woman of medium build who could have been imposing had she not carried that goofy smile and Alfalfa hair all the time. Though it was only her physical stature that had that potential; her personality was engaging, fun, and energetic.
Sometimes it was hard to get residents to participate in activities around the house because illness and depression and recovery from addictions simply take their toll on a woman’s energy. But Sharon always participated, especially in the holiday decorating and partying. A photo I have shows Sharon and me at the Christmas tree: she is holding an ornament and smiling while we engage in considered discussion as to where to place it. I don’t have that great an eye for such things, so she was my consultant.
“Where should I put this one? This Santa Claus with the funny face?” I put it in her hand.
“Well, it needs a big spot – any of those left?” We had been decorating the tree for a while, and even though our only decorating scheme was to load the tree with as much as possible, there was always someone pointing out bare spots.
“How about here – there’s a red ball on one side and a straw angel on the other.”
“No. Angels do not go next to Santas.” She was adamant; I reconsidered.
“OK – here’s a little green stocking next to a big space with a teddy bear on the other side.”
“Good.” The photo shows me hanging the small ornament onto the agreed-upon branch while Sharon stands serenely, smiling. I had to be the one to actually place that Santa because Sharon couldn’t see to place it herself: Sharon was completely blind as a result of AIDS.
There are so many cruelties about AIDS – two such cruel circumstances had visited Sharon: the blindness and the inability of this loving mother to raise her sons. So I marveled at her cheer and eagerness to embrace new experiences because I knew that, for a blind person, even the most mundane activities offer difficulties that we sighted people never think about.
For example, decorating that Christmas tree. In the photo, Sharon is smiling, happy and even content to stand at the tree and go through the potentially frustrating process of listening to me describe one by one each ornament and each bare spot. She did not complain about how hard decorating a tree is for a blind person, did not mention the sons who were surely on her mind. As she did most of the time, Sharon was living into the moment, effortlessly drawing joy from it.
For me, her example served as a humbling reminder. Knowing Sharon, how could I continue to complain about the petty things that bothered me? And I mean petty – I do indignant really well, and about really inconsequential things. Once Sharon’s face flashed across my mind, my spouting off about the poor parking job of the car ahead of me, or about my computer being slow was exposed for the vanity it was. “If Sharon can handle with such grace and cheer being blind, living with AIDS and separated from her children, then I can shut up about my computer and patiently wait.”
Homeless. AIDS. Addicted. Mentally ill. Blind. Is there any more horrifying combination in our world today? And yet Sharon, to whom every one of those labels applied, was the person who showed me about living life more deeply by accepting and living into each moment as it is.
Again and again, I was taught ageless wisdom in the example of one who is labeled and left: a woman whom Jesus would have termed his “little one”, who embodied the meek and who, surely, would inherit the earth.
Refusing to be a Victim
I want today to focus on a particular statement from my previous post of 14 September, which I made when explaining the benefits of befriending pain :
I have a sense of being not so much at the mercy of the migraines. As an intentional, pro-active decision to use a tool of my own devising, it leads me away from feeling victimized by pain.
The fact is that I need to be led away from feeling victimized by the pain (including disruption of and limitations on my life) of the migraines. I love the phrase I learned from the 12-Steps: sitting on the pity pot. It is mostly the example of the women at Miriam's House ("Christmas with Sharon", above) that taught me how easily inclined I am to sit on my pity pot.
First let me say that I am a firm believer in being honest about my emotions. If I am feeling sorry for myself, I say so, sometimes aloud - naming it helps me to set it aside. When I am angry about missing an anticipated event because of a migraine I say so - giving vent to the anger helps to dissipate it. This, too, is a spiritual practice: God "desires truth in the inward being" (RSV, Psalm 51:6), and whether or not one prays or speaks to a listening God, the wisdom still holds.
Falling into vicitm status, my pity pot, is a much different thing. When I am caught up in naming myself as a victim, I am concentrating on one small aspect of life, of the world around me. This is not truth, nor does being a victim lead me to greater truth - it really just leads me deeper into my own, false world. In this sense, I mean truth as a 360-degree totality. OK, it's true that I am feeling sorry for myself. What is not true is that this is the only aspect of my life I could acknowledge in the moment. It is also true that I am blessed with a loving husband, living in a house that is very comfortable, able to walk my dog down tree-lined streets and play with her in the back yard, not to mention being the beneficiary of marvelous technological advances like the clothes washer.
I'll take a moment here to celebrate the washing machine. It used to be that, on wash day, women could do nothing else, the hands-on process requiring their physical presence throughout. It must have been exhausting, not to mention necessitating the leaving behind of all the other tasks and chores. But I go to the machine, set the dials, add the soap, load the clothes, pull out a knob and walk away, able to accomplish another task - or rest - while the work of getting the clothes clean is done for me. I never take this for granted.
The previous paragraph is not a digression, it is an example. In vicitm mode, I plod down the basement stairs while complaining about the load in my arms and groaning about the throbbing in my head. I grumpily dump the clothes in while wishing I could just rest on the futon upstairs, blindfold on and music playing.
Thus, I am a victim of not just the migraine pain, but of my own inability to celebrate life's abundant blessings, which are there whether I see them or not. In this way, choosing to be the victim makes me ever more a victim. It makes me blind and deaf to the sacred beauty of God's abundant blessings.
Beyond keeping me aware of how truly blessed I am, there is benefit in exerting the energy to make the shift to something more positive and truth-full. Really, just making the decision to get up off the pity pot opens me to the greater possibilities of the moment. Which will be the subject of the next post: the spirituality of getting off the pity pot.
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Carol D. Marsh
- With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90 days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.