In my daily life, I am usually a giver of support. In my work at the prison, particularly, I open myself to sense what is happening in the woman with me, trying to hear the feelings beneath and behind her words. When this works, it is as if God is with us, an open channel, enabling us to understand each other deeply. I think of this as God working through both of us, allowing up hidden pains and fears to emerge, and starting to heal them with trust, compassion, and mercy.
But in the last weeks, since I had knee replacement surgery, I have been the recipient, rather than the giver, of support.
In physical therapy, before the surgery, I realized that my therapist used a similar kind of deep understanding to discern the source of my pain and how I could move toward easing it. The focus and the content of our work was very different from the work I do in the prison; but he, too, used a wordless channel to understand my suffering and to convey that I could trust his understanding.
Real connection, real support, comes from our ability to feel someone else’s experience inside our own self. Not an intellectual “Oh, yes, I know exactly how you’re feeling!”, but a felt sense that encompasses more than what the other has conveyed in words. For me, that connection is a facet of the Divine – whether its focus is childhood abuse or an arthritic knee.
After the surgery, I was helpless. Without assistance, I could not get in or out of bed, or get to the bathroom, or prepare something to eat. Even my ability to think and make decisions was compromised by the haze of pain meds.
Early on in this state, an image came to me that has persisted throughout my recovery. I am lying on my back in a tiny boat, no bigger than my body, being swept down a river. I rock a little from side to side as the current moves me; but even lifting my head, I cannot see beyond the boat to upcoming rocks or turns. I am simply carried by the current. I will come to rest when the river is finished with me.
Surprisingly, I trust the journey – and the boat. It is clear to me that God is in both the river and the vessel. That does not mean that I am safe from hitting the rocks. But somehow the wisdom of the river and the boat are greater than my wisdom. My job is to respond, to roll with the current, not to plot the course.
In another few weeks, I will resume my responsibilities – returning to the prison, and preaching, and committees, and my full portion of housework. But I will be changed in more ways than just the acquisition of a strong and stable left knee. I have learned something of the beauty of dependence and the grace of helplessness. In the kingdom of God, which we encounter in bitsand snatches, it is rich and sustaining to experience those connections of understanding and support. It is rich and sustaining to be the supporter, as I am in the prison. And it is rich and sustaining to be supported, as I have been by the aides, the surgeon, the nurses, and a multitude of others in these last weeks. They have been the boat, carrying and protecting me on this journey.
I am grateful for the spiritual as well as the physical experience.
Dorothy Muller is a Chaplain at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and a Parish Associate at Bedford Presbyterian Church.