A reflection by Sarah
“Yes, those who are sick or incapacitated in some way show the features of Christ; there is a “usefulness of uselessness”. After all, the most useful hours that Christ spent on this earth were on the cross, though they seem utterly useless from our pragmatic point of view.”
This bit of wisdom from the great spiritual writer and activist Catherine de Hueck Doherty came my way rather unexpectedly yesterday afternoon as I was sifting through some old files of research materials on my laptop. Feeling convicted by recent discussions about racism, I was looking for a particular quotation of Catherine’s on discrimination and segregation. But instead, God saw to it that the above paragraph fell before my eyes not even five minutes into my search.
By the time you read this post (if you read it the morning of its release) I’ll be at the hospital getting prepped for and undergoing a surgical procedure on my right ear. At this point in my process of managing life with Ménière’s disease, all nonsurgical treatment options have failed to reduce my chronic vertigo or prevent further permanent hearing loss. As much as I’ve tried to continue living a regular life that includes teaching, dissertation writing, babysitting my favorite toddler, being active in church, and other parts of laboring in my vocation, I have to admit that my level of ability has changed over the past few months — likely over the past few years despite my not noticing it so much until this year. The greatest challenge by far is accepting how my current situation fits into the way God is calling me to spend my life.
I’ve shared here before that doing art is one of my hobbies and that I planned to share some of my images here eventually. As I’ve experienced more periods of exhaustion from vertigo, I’ve found myself drawing or painting from my bed almost every day. I’m feeling rather inarticulate at the moment, so for the rest of this post I’ll use some of my artwork to assist me in reflecting. For starters, this is what I like to imagine is actually happening inside my ear on days when the tinnitus is particularly loud.
And this is how it feels to experience a vertigo episode that lasts for hours and includes multiple falls while attempting to get to the bathroom.
Returning to the Catherine Doherty quote at the beginning of this post, over the past few months I’ve noticed myself feeling especially useless. I’ve been unable to make dissertation progress, I’ve had to miss much more work than usual, and I’ve had to stop babysitting altogether. Some weeks, I’ve noticed depression symptoms creeping back in, and I’ve wondered whether there’s any meaning to a life lived constantly bouncing back and forth between extremes: productivity and inactivity, balance and out-of-control spinning, working and lying in bed with an art journal, hearing and deafness, good health and total disability. Identity questions that I never expected to arise for me at age 30 have been bursting forth from some place inside that I did not even know existed.
After several weeks of thought, prayer, and consultation with Lindsey, I reached the terribly painful conclusion that it would be best for me to discontinue Ph.D. studies at this time. This decision comes at a great cost, and I’ve already heard every possible challenge including, “Can’t you just take medical leave?” and, “You’re almost there. You’re ABD. Earlier this year, you were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Can’t you just push yourself to finish and take a break then?” Being totally honest with myself, I have to admit that the answer to both of these questions is “No.” I’ve been pushing myself to finish. I’ve been pushing as hard as I possibly can, which only makes me feel guiltier and more worthless when I can’t even get out of bed three days a week. Severe Ménière’s disease by itself is complicated enough. Trying to manage a dissertation in the midst of constant symptoms makes life a nightmare, and being able to call myself “doctor” is not worth what I’ve been putting myself through since my health began to decline rapidly.
My experience of my doctoral program has been fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor or committee of readers. I received my MA from the same institution, and from the time I visited campus for my first interview I knew that God was calling me there. But just as clearly, now I hear God calling me to spend this season of life differently. It’s time to let go. As is true for navigating many tough decisions, my art served as a great processing tool.
So where is the meaning in all of this? At one time, it was my dream to serve God and minister to others by being a good academic theologian. I wanted (and still want) to share my love of Christ and his Church with university students, challenging them to think more deeply about their assumptions and guiding them toward using their gifts for the greater glory of God. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being a theology teacher. Even if I need to take a semester off here and there, I am confident that teaching is a significant part of my vocation. But lately, I’ve been wondering if God might be using my experience of hearing loss to open new pathways of ministry — even if all I can do some days is paint pictures of peacocks.
In moments when I see a playful peacock or an autumn dancer finding its way into my imaginative consciousness, I can’t help but feel joy during an immensely difficult period. Being a Christian has taught me how to wait for hope, joy, and even victory. There’s something profound when the Church observes Christ’s passion with full knowledge that the resurrection is coming. As with Great Lent last year, I find myself plunging into Advent’s darkness knowing that the Light will arrive.
Lindsey and I have been praying about what my hearing loss might mean for my ministry. I know that many of you have been remembering me in your prayers. Thank you so much. I’m profoundly grateful. I have questions about how God is shaping my vocation as my hearing loss creates new opportunities for experiencing the world differently. In this sense, it has shown some signs of being a vocational gain. And so I continue to entreat God, remembering Mary’s guidance to do whatever Christ tells me to do…and Catherine Doherty’s reminder that there is a sense of usefulness even in uselessness.
I’ll end today’s post with two abstract interpretations of the inner ear. I’m the sort of nerd who watches videos of any surgical procedure before undergoing it myself, and I’d like to imagine that what lies beneath my mastoid bone is full of fascinating colors. 🙂
(Note: the images on this page belong to A Queer Calling and may not be reproduced without permission.)
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