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Discovering our limits, living our reality
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For the past fifteen years, I’ve suffered from intermittent back pain.  The slightest bad move or poor-postured lift could throw it out.  I became the friend of chiropractors and those whose art is digging elbows and thumbs into unfortunate people’s aching muscles to drive out the knotty demons.

Sometimes the pain was so great, I’d have to lean on the altar to celebrate mass or offer communion sitting down.  There were days when getting out of bed became a major task.  On two or three occasions, I bit the dust.

Whether it all began with excessive sports activities for which my poor underweight body was not well-adapted (like football, skiing, and mountaineering), or that long period of life in which I believed holiness consisted in tormenting myself with too little food and too little sleep, or certain reckless behaviors I won’t mention here, or that time I got shoved from behind and fell so awkwardly, or the jobs I had which involved too much heavy lifting, or maybe just the fact that my pelvis is normally a full inch off-kilter, somehow my back became a major issue.   Its wide variety of maladies demonstrates the well-documented conclusion that the average human back is simply not up to the task of ordinary human living.

“After all,” I thought to myself time and again, “ain’t no one who’s got a back who don’t complain about back-pain.”  That’s what backs are for.  That is, “have back, will suffer”.  No surprise, then, that the central Christian expression for hardship in life’s journey is “carrying the cross”.  

Because I know so many people on disability due to back injuries, I never took my discomfort seriously enough to insist on anything more than an adjustment or two, deep-tissue massage, or an X-ray.  But that all changed a month ago.  Skiing at Tahoe with a priest-buddy on February 19th, I did it.  Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t wipe out on a mogul or crash into a tree.  Those are, admittedly, fairly common ways of provoking back injuries and other forms of skeletal deformities.  In my case, I just stopped.

Beneath beautiful blue skies, beside my buddy-priest, between trees and monumental stones, atop a blanket of fresh powder snow, I glided like a bird in ecstasy.  We picked up speed as the slope grew steeper.  Though I was weary from lack of sleep, the rushing mountain air pumped my bones with energy.  And thus we skiers of Heavenly were, once again, in Heaven.

Two tall trees sported a passageway to new mysteries.  I headed for the gap.  But just as my skis with the painted eagles were about to fly through the opening, an unexpected obstacle loomed ahead.  What I hadn’t seen before now was larger than life: a fallen tree, concealed beneath the snow.

One of the first behaviors you learn in skiing school is the sudden stop.  It proves to be a very useful reflex.  Many an otherwise doomed athlete has avoided far more serious consequences by simply applying this method.

I don’t remember how it happened, but it worked.  From a forward facing posture at high velocity, I was instantly standing sideways, looking at close range at what could have been my demise.   Pushing off, I sped on down the hill to catch up with my friend.  But something very wrong had taken place back up there, by those twin trees.  My body may have stopped, but inside, everything seemed to have gotten messed up.  We continued on for another run.  But the pain became so excruciating, I had to call it quits.

The lodge employees called for a snowmobile.  As I jumped off near the gondola, three Rumanians ran over and asked for a photograph.  Wow.  Word travels fast.  In the gondola, five college drinking buddies pulled out a six-pack.  “Do you mind?” they asked.  One suggested I self-medicate.

Since then, I’ve endured a month of misery.  The left sciatic nerve seems to be pinched, generating constant aches and numbness on the surface of my thigh.  One night, I woke up three times to unbearable cramping in both legs, having to walk around groaning until it slowly subsided.

But when I begged for an MRI to reveal the cause of all this pain, “Our medical advisor has reviewed the information provided and determined that the documentation submitted does not support the medical necessity criteria for the requested service.”  That is, I’d have to keep on guessing.

Hot and cold, injections and infusions, this therapist or that, anyone who’s had a chronic back condition knows the familiar litany.  So thank God that my doctor persevered, and that I had the necessary medical coverage.

On Friday, March 6th, I lay flat on an open scanner.  By last Wednesday, they showed me the results.  Not too encouraging: “Impression: 1) L5-S1: Severe degenerative disk disease with endplate Modic changes.  Mild degenerative disk disease at L3-4 and L4-5…  2) Diffuse annular bulge spur complex minimally deforming the anterior thecal sac at L3-4, L4-5, and L5-S1.  Annular disk margins abut intrathecal L4 nerve roots, with mild-moderate lateral recess stenosis contributed from advanced facet joint osteoarthropathy at L4-5.  Correlate for radiculopathy in the presence of axial loading.   3)  Severe facet joint osteoarthropathy at L4-5 and L5-S1.”  
In other words, it’s going to be some time before I go skiing again.  Like maybe a life-time.  No more basketball.  No more golf.  Not even jogging, at least for a few months.   Not yet 54 and I’ve got the back of an old man.
This is called a “mid-life crisis”.  It’s a bit like death and dying.  But, strangely, I’m not terribly bothered by the news.  It’s better to know one’s truth than to go on living illusions, only to pay a heavy price all too late.

We can learn so much about life and spirituality from what happens with our bodies.  It’s just a matter of applying the details.  I’ll leave that to you.

But for now, let me share that I feel strangely liberated by this bad news.

Everyone knows me as a person who lives life too quickly and packs in far more than the limits of my human existence can tolerate.  Others have paid the price for the pace of my activities.  As for me, I have accomplished a lot but have never rested long enough to enjoy the fruits of my labor.  In fact, I’m usually too busy to enjoy anything.  So what is the solution?

If a behavior gets out of control, the good Lord sends a solution.  Before I consult about back surgeries or cortisone injections, I need to consult with the One who said, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46).  And what better time than during the season of Lent, which means “slow”?

There will be plenty of times I curse my bodily condition, wishing to dive into the surf or jump from high elevations.  But there will also be a long, refreshing season of life ahead, in which no longer activity, but “be-ing”, will predominate.  And, believe it or not, this is what I’d always wanted since my teenage years, but could never achieve.  If it takes a degenerating back to force the paradigm shift, so be it.   The pain won’t have gone to waste.