A reflection by Lindsey
As I have been discerning my celibate vocation over the past few years, I’ve heard a lot of objections on various grounds. Many people say that celibacy cannot possibly be life-giving because physical touch is one of five “love languages.” Gary Chapman championed the concept in his 1995 book, which has spawned all sorts of spin-offs. I know people who have spent considerable time discerning how words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch affect how they experience love. Some believe that if they understand their own love languages and how their loved ones have different native tongues, then they will be able to love much better.
There are merits to Chapman’s ideas. Anyone who has ever received a Lindsey hug knows how much I value my ability to speak the language of physical touch. But recent experiences have me questioning if love’s languages are quite so logically discernible.
Sarah is adjusting to life with Ménière’s disease, and it’s progressing quickly. If you’re like me, this is probably the first time you’ve ever heard of this condition. It’s a degenerative inner ear disorder that impacts hearing and balance. It causes unpredictable attacks of vertigo accompanied by fullness and ringing in the ears and temporary hearing loss. Over time, the hearing loss becomes permanent, ranging from mild to profound in severity depending upon the specific patient. Treatment involves trying to slow the degeneration, and the options are none too appealing. Speaking candidly, some are outright terrifying. Sometimes in frustration and sadness I find myself asking, who wakes up in the morning wondering whether within a few weeks/months/years, he or she will be trying to decide whether to go with steroidal injections that accelerate hearing loss or with a surgery to cut nerves of the balance and motion sensors? This condition is life-altering in many ways.
While some might argue that it’s Sarah’s diagnosis and not my responsibility to manage, it affects my life also. Daily, I get to make all kinds of fun choices. Drastically limiting sodium intake is a first line defense. I oscillate between being shocked by the amount of sodium in everything and feeling triumphant when I’ve managed to prepare surprisingly creative meals where all the ingredients combined have less than 400 mg of sodium. (And, being the engineer that I am, I tend to press a bit harder to see if I can keep that total reliably below 300 mg.) I have tried to transition our kitchen into a low sodium kitchen because it’s easier to avoid eating particular items if you don’t have them in the house at all. Restaurants rarely have meals that are low enough in sodium, so we’re having to rethink what we want to do when we want to be out and about in the city.
Despite our best efforts, Sarah continues to experience periods of temporary profound hearing loss, and over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed the level of permanent hearing loss increasing. I didn’t really gain any empathy for what Sarah has been experiencing until I played around with a hearing loss simulator. And…wow. My mind was completely blown. I didn’t realize that it was possible for people to lose the ability to hear certain letters. If you’re a hearing person, could you imagine living your life in a constant game of Wheel of Fortune? Sarah has been working with a great ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor who specializes in inner ear disorders, but Sarah’s audiograms show continuing declines in nerve function. We’re bracing ourselves because we anticipate doing what we can to preserve balance in at least one ear, which likely means we’ll make choices that accelerate Sarah’s hearing loss.
When faced with complete helplessness, I’m generally okay with searching for a way to do something rather than nothing. Sarah has a good number of close friends in the Deaf community. I’ve been doing what I can to develop survival ASL skills. So far, most of my letters are recognizable (by Sarah) even though I’m still trying way too hard and cramping my hands. We’ve been practicing my alphabet with the School Song from Matilda the Musical. I also know the exceptionally important signs for “hamster” and “squirrel” and can sign some of my most frequently used phrases. I sometimes join in as Sarah studies for ASL class. In addition to Sarah’s course, we’re looking forward to attending ASL sessions offered for free at the public library so I can expand my basic vocabulary.
Periodically over the last several weeks, these realities have hit me hard. I reflect frequently on what it means to me to tell Sarah that I’m opting in, 100%. I’m still in, and I have no intention of going anywhere. The mindboggling “logic” of love continues to surprise me. I’m learning something about how Christ neither leaves nor forsakes us. I see a great deal of wisdom in doing what I can to adapt to changing situations rather than focusing all of my efforts into praying that Christ would magically restore Sarah’s hearing. To be sure, I pray about the situation constantly. Yet my mind constantly wanders towards how hearing people have a number of misconceptions about deaf and hard of hearing people. When I get into engineering mode, I think about designing something that has broad import and meets Sarah’s needs. I think about how having even basic conversation skills in ASL will enable me to connect to a whole new group of people.
As I’ve learned to live into my celibate vocation, the word “choice” has taken on new meaning for me. The easiest thing for me to control in this situation is my attitude. I have made different choices regarding my personal level of investment. It’s easier for me to zoom in my energies on mastering low sodium cooking than it is for me to learn ASL. Vocations tend to work best when people can build upon their natural strengths. Nonetheless, the cost of living one’s vocation is high. I really dislike the idea that Sarah and I need to figure out other ways to have fun. Restaurants offered such a perfect solution for my introversion and Sarah’s extroversion. A desire to empathize with Sarah has changed my understanding of what it means when a person is deaf or hard of hearing. I’ve been praying about how Christ wants this new understanding to impact my life, and I sense that I will have more and more opportunities to interact with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
We’ve written a number of posts where commenters have asked us, “How is what you’re talking about different from a marriage?” I’d like to pre-empt that question a bit. Over the last several weeks, I’ve noticed some interesting trends in my thoughts:
- I keep thinking about the people I haven’t met yet. I have at least four (five, if you count Sarah) friends who are deaf, hard of hearing, or in the process of losing hearing. But I find myself prayerfully musing on the people I will meet as Sarah develops greater confidence in conversing in ASL.
- The engineer in me is pretty frustrated with the state of our technological solutions for people who lose their hearing after growing up in the hearing world. I’m keeping a notebook of ideas to see if I can work with people to develop the ideas further.
- I reflect on people I’ve met while supporting Sarah with other health concerns.
We talk often about how the celibate vocation enables people to love and serve the world differently. While I certainly do not want to lose the ability to communicate effectively with Sarah, my thoughts turn quickly towards other people in similar situations. The fact that Sarah is hurting is a comparatively minimal part of my outrage at the state of things. I should note that my outrage is reasonably massive, but it’s clear that the situation developing within our community of two will spur action that extends far beyond our little family. Mother Maria of Paris frequently wrote on the need to serve people on the margins of society. I find myself asking for her intercession as I work to discern my next steps.
I am not the only person who has had to navigate receiving tough health news within his or her family. Many people give their all to caring for and advocating on behalf of their loved ones. I have been amazed to watch parents and children rallying together during health crises, and in no way do I want to belittle the selfless gifts of those who are not living celibate vocations. They give themselves to each other as a family. Monastics will frequently devote themselves to caring for one another, explaining their actions in terms of attending to their brothers or sisters. I’ve noticed that through this most recent health ordeal, God is challenging me to open my heart that much more towards people as he keeps reminding me over and over again that Sarah is human. I’m not quite sure what to make of that rather consistent nudge in my prayer life, but I’m seeing how it directs me towards loving and serving the world in a way that is unlike any I’ve ever known.
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