The Impatient Patient

In September, an old friend had an emergency surgery, which was quite major. Her primary doctor told her to expect to be back to normal sometime in December. She is slowly healing and eager to be back to her routine life.

When I was healing from surgery and waiting to get back to everyday life, I was impatient. I wanted to be healed and done with the pain, resting, the medications, my feelings of uselessness and helplessness, and eventually, the physical therapy. I was not “a good patient.” I tried to be nice to my spouse and well-wishers, and practicing acceptance came hard. The wise priest/writer/professor Henri Nouwen wrote, “The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.”

Being an unwilling patient (are there any willing patients?) taught me more empathy as a chaplain to my patients. Going through the process of surgery, where one might not wake up again from anesthesia, made me face my mortality afresh. I made sure that I had no amends to make. My relationship with my husband was loving. My spiritual care work was in good hands. I was reminded of the inconvenience of putting your regular life “on hold” in order to have surgery and recuperate. I gained empathy for patients in pain. I felt very grateful for good health-caregivers on whom I was so dependent. Being dependent was difficult for me, simply because I am used to being independent. Slowing down and doing nothing was also a new spiritual practice. Since I still teach chaplains in the hospital, it is imperative for me to remember what it is like to be a patient and to be open to other patients’ experiences as they differ from mine.

It could be that you are going through illness or some kind of difficulty right now which requires patience. Perhaps patience is not a strength of yours. These words of Teilhard de Chardin may be of some encouragement to you, as you wait:

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new; and yet it is the law of all progress that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you, your ideas mature gradually – let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, Grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give God the benefit of believing that God’s hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”