In August of last year, I wrote a reflection on chronic illness, chronic pain, and the way world leaders, including Pope Francis and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, deal with these afflictions. Since I wrote this reflection, the subject has come home for me.
While I’m still not a world leader (thank goodness), over the past six months I’ve dealt with steadily worsening ulnar nerve entrapment. A neuropathy of the arm and hand, ulnar nerve entrapment is usually minor and sometimes even goes away on its own, but in my case it became an ongoing nightmare of numbness, shooting pain, “spinster’s claw,” and loss of feeling, dexterity, and muscle tone in much of my left hand. Since early December or so it has been especially bad. The climax (so far) of my struggle with this condition was a surgery on Friday, March 5, intended to relieve some of the physical pressure on the nerve to promote healing. As of this writing, symptoms have actually worsened since surgery, which (the surgeon told me beforehand) is often the case. Apparently it is one of those conditions that has to get worse before it gets better.
Having this private health disaster to deal with on top of the public health disaster of the COVID-19 pandemic has given me a lot to think about since fall. My pace of new writing for Where Peter Is has slowed significantly, for a few different reasons. I have a new day job that’s taking up more of my attention, I’ve been distracted from Church affairs by the chaotic politics of my own country, and the worsening condition of my hand has made it impossible to type with any comfort for long stretches. All of these situations have impacted my productivity. While not writing as much as I normally do, I have been reading very assiduously. Currently I’m finally making headway in Moby Dick. (I know this is one of the classic books people often claim they are reading when they “have time to read,” but in my case, I actually am reading it.) I’ve been able to listen more and be more attuned both to God’s presence in my life and to the things that one learns listening to the heartbeat of the Church here on Earth.
At the same time, however, I’m immensely frustrated to have missed writing about so many people and events that I very much wanted to cover for Where Peter Is, especially over the last couple of weeks. In particular I’m frustrated that I haven’t been able to write much about Pope Francis’s historic trip to Iraq, Cardinal Sarah’s resignation as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, or the recent antics of certain right-wing Catholic influencers and their followers. All three are topics that I followed with great interest, and having to follow them in an almost entirely receptive rather than responsive or dialogic way has been a cross for me to carry. And that cross is itself a kindness, since it is something that it helps me in my walk with God. “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me,” even if I’m not supposed to be gripping rods or staves with my left hand right now.
Having to write less and read more, talk less and listen more, since I’ve had this condition, has been one of the hardest restrictions that has been placed on me in years. In a way it’s been worse than the COVID restrictions, because it affects the capabilities of both my private and my public self. Even so, as an old woman I knew growing up used to say, these things are sent to try us. While I wouldn’t wish severe nerve palsies on anyone, I have, in general, always been on the side of the sick, over and against what Japanese disability activists call “the egoism of healthy people.” It’s been nice to listen. It’s been nice to learn something. Chronic pain has come home for me since I wrote about it last, and I believe it happened for a good reason.
Image: “A Chemist in His Laboratory” by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.