When I was younger, I wanted to know what the road ahead would bring. I think we are programmed, especially in the age of technology, to always think of what is coming down the pike, of the next best thing. Indeed, in the workplace, we were always asked to think about where we wanted to be in 5 or 10 years.
But when it comes to significant life events, do we really want to know what the future has in store for us? I looked at one famous example of a person who knew: the Apostle Peter. In the Bible, Jesus prophesied to Peter what his fate would be in this often quoted excerpt from the Gospel of John, chapter 21, verse 18:
So in these verses Jesus predicts that Peter will be imprisoned later in life, and will be crucified. I wonder how most of us would react to such news?
Now, I think it is highly unlikely that any of us will endure such an awful death, nor will there any be advance prophesies that may cause us anxiety over our deaths. But it does raise the question of how we will react and cope when life takes us somewhere that we do not want to go. My experience with heart failure, and especially the material I have reviewed about people who are suffering with chronic illnesses, has taught me an important lesson. We should never belittle those who are anxious because they are enduring a demanding and draining time in life, even if it may not be a terminal event. They likely have been in a placed that they do not want to be. They don't need scorn. They need reassurance. I also think that they need a reason to be, a purpose to help them cope with the frustration of the likelihood that they may never feel better but may actually start to feel worse.
Just about ten years ago, I wanted to be working well into my sixties. I aspired to break the glass ceiling by going as far in my Federal career as I could. I convinced myself that I did not have time to be sick, I did not have time to concentrate on my personal life, and there is no way I had time for a complicated relationship that would end in commitment and marriage. I mean really – those were all things I could spend time and effort on during the decade of my seventies once I had arrived at the last stop on my career journey.
But after running around like a sprinter on methamphetamines, I hit the wall. I think that phrase is particularly fitting. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, the phrase hits the wall means: “to reach a point when you are running, exercising, playing sports, etc. where you are so physically tired you feel you cannot continue." I was almost at the point of no return, the point where continuing would have been impossible. I had an astonishingly low heart rate.
I was in denial - despite seeing evidence of the low heart rate, despite having a pacemaker implant, despite a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, and despite an array of proof that my life was no longer suitable for a Type A plus workaholic. So for a while, I continued to try to manage life as usual. But incrementally life as I knew it bit the dust. I was forced to give up: salt, running (I found it too strenuous for my weak heart), drinking a lot of anything, my career, adrenaline rushes - the list goes on and on.
A number of colleagues considered giving up the running and the career to be a blessing – they advised me to put up my feet and relax, do something fun! But the problem was that my whole life, including even the concept of fun and fulfillment centered on work and moving full speed ahead on a full-time basis. Why would I want to relax? So even though I knew the stress of a career would crush my heart, I tried to replicate other career opportunities in retirement, which created a new type of stress.
But then came the moment where I began to see a place that was frightening, a place I truly did not want to go at a relatively young age. I am referring to the moment when I heard the cardiologist suggest that I needed to consult a heart transplant doctor to evaluate the need for a heart transplant. I immediately started to think about what would happen if I needed a heart transplant but the wait proved to be too long. I could die! Or what if I received a heart transplant but my body rejected the heart? I could die! Suddenly any discussion of my mortality went from being in the realm of the hypothetical to tumbling into the frightening realm of reality, a place where I did not want to go.
Again, it would not be the horrific death that Peter and other Apostles suffered for their religious beliefs. But it would be considered by most people to be premature and ill-fated given my previous health and the fact that I wasn’t even out of my late 50s. When you start to think of your own mortality, it is a sobering thought that would make even the laid back among very anxious. It would be hard to think about anything other than health issues, hard to focus on good deeds and being a productive member of society. So the first thing I had to navigate in my journey to an unwanted place was my emotional outlook. How does one adopt a health life perspective in an unhealthy body?
Once again, I found hope in the characters of the Bible. Even if we will not die a martyr as Peter did, we can follow his example of service to God and to others. Indeed, Peter lived a fruitful life even knowing that a painful end was coming. How was this possible? Well clearly the Peter that first met Christ as a fisherman on the waterfront had transformed by the time Christ ascended into heaven, and he was greatly transformed by the time of his own crucifixion.
In modern times, we might refer to this process of transformation as “reinventing” yourself. This is a process that unfolded in my life a number of times when I was still working. In a previous post, I mentioned that transformation had been a vital process in my career success. Heck, a colleague once told me I was the Madonna of the agency, as I was continually reinventing my career goals. (Note: He was referring to the performer and not the Holy Mother!). His observation was on the mark. Not only did I reinvent the goals, I reinvented myself to be able to meet my new career goals.
When I first entered the arena as a heart failure contender, it was clear that I was going to have to reinvent my life to be able to withstand heart failure. So now instead of a career challenge it became a health challenge. I had to reinvent my diet, my exercise habits, my adrenaline junkie habits and my approach to fighting anxiety. I think in large part that I have been successful.
But how does one meet the challenge of overcoming the fear of one’s own demise? I quickly realized that to live a full life regardless of failing health and the shadow of death hanging above my head, I needed to resort to my faith for comfort and for strength. The reinvention of Melanie would now become what I am referring to as a covenant challenge.
What do I mean by a covenant challenge? If you are a member of the Christian faith, you know that by sending his son to earth to die for our sins, God entered into a new covenant with his earthly children who would become followers of Christ. If you read John chapter 21 carefully, you will note that Christ steers Peter clearly onto the path of service and ultimately, to eternity. Christ commands Peter to “follow me”. This can be read both as an invitation to follow him on the flight path to heaven. But it can also be interpreted to be Christ’s appeal for Peter to put into reality all the lessons and wisdom Christ imparted to his disciples during his short time on earth.
Christ also tells Peter, a number of times, to feed his sheep. In this, Christ means his human sheep, and he means more than just providing actual food. The intent is to give spiritual sustenance to God’s children. It is this action that will take Peter’s life to a more selfless purpose, taking the focus to the vital mission of evangelism and benevolence and away from the burden of martyrdom.
So I have made it a priority to live up to my end of the covenant by finding ways to feed God’s sheep. My efforts to provide spiritual sustenance focus in part around a few service projects at my church. I participate once every few months in our operations at a food pantry. I participated in the AARP senior Food Pack Challenge in September. I look forward to the times of the year where we provide Christmas gifts and schools supplies and other resources to those who are less fortunate.
But I think one of my most important efforts is keeping up this blog. My faith has inspired me to avoid the doom and gloom of a weak heart. Instead, I learn whatever I can about the physical and spiritual challenges of heart failure, and then pass whatever knowledge I have on to others who have chronic conditions. I figure that learning about heart failure, and more importantly maybe even learning to laugh with heart failure, has made the uncertainty of the future more bearable. So I just want to spread this good news to others who might see the value in my findings and my advice. I want them to have faith that God is always with us.
I am helped by the other faithful children of God I find along the way who feed my own soul and heart. There are many companions I find in my journey who value life and who bring joy to those they encounter. These include the members of my family; my friends and colleagues from my long career; my brothers and sisters in my church; my medical team and my former therapist who helped me to cope; the people I have mentored (and who have in turn mentored me) over the years; and a very special caretaker at my Mother’s retirement facility. I think it is the companionship and compassion of these fine people who will ultimately ease my trip to the place that I do not want to go.
So this in a nutshell is how I am able to cope with being led to a place where I do not want to go. I do it with God’s help, with fulfilling my promises to God and knowing that our covenant has integrity. I follow God and I hope that I am feeding God’s sheep. I do not think that God’s help is confined to those who are Christians. I have not closely studied each religious faith, but I have friends and colleagues who observe other religious faiths. My friends and colleagues and i live in harmony together, and I am convinced that all of our faiths are based on covenants where we work to help others while God works to guide us. I know in my heart that he will be there to help us cope as we are led to places where we might not have volunteered to go, but now take the next steps with an open and willing heart.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.