Slaying the Dragon of Selfishness
January 20, 2009 | My Jottings
A little over three years ago my dear husband Michael was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He was only 56 years old, and we certainly did not see that one coming. Our family doctor thought he saw a slight stiffness in Michael’s walk and a lack of facial expression, and referred him to a neurologist. Of course we were stunned when the Stage 2 diagnosis came, and we wondered how this would change his life, and our life together as a couple. Indeed, it has changed almost everything in our married life.
Michael doesn’t have tremors like the majority of Parkinson’s patients, but he has the other classic symptoms: severe joint stiffness, tiny handwriting, an occasional shuffling gait, a blank look on his face, debilitating exhaustion, and a loss of volume in his voice. Everything he does and says is slow and deliberate, and he looks like a man living tentatively.
One of the most difficult things for me personally has been the loss of conversation between us. He can barely raise his voice above a whisper sometimes, and then only for three or four words. I spend a lot of time saying, “What? Pardon? Can you try to say it louder?”, and he gets as frustrated as I do. There’s a lot of silence now. But we have a wonderful love between us. Our marriage has been a gift from God, and even though our aging years are apparently not going to be filled with the familiar, companionable verbal sharing I had pictured, we have touch, we have the knowing way we connect with our eyes, we have humor, we have our 28-year history, and we have Jesus.
One day as we were driving home from a neurologist’s assessment in Minneapolis, we were both reflecting on all we had learned. The speech therapist who worked with Michael showed him on a computer monitor how his voice wasn’t even coming close in decibel level to that of a typical speaking voice. She kindly but firmly said to him, “It’s your responsibility to raise your voice so that people can understand you.” So as I drove along on the interstate with traffic noise around us, I was having trouble hearing what Michael was saying. I had to keep my eyes on the road and couldn’t easily study his mouth as he spoke, and I kept saying, “What? Louder.” and finally I raised my voice and said, “The speech therapist just told you that you’re the one who has to make yourself heard! Talk louder!” I was crabby. He said, “Never mind,” which of course made me feel terrible. I apologized to him for being so witchy and intense. And then this is what I said, and we’ve used this terminology and laughed about it ever since: “Michael, you have Parkinson’s, and I have Witchinson’s.”
I couldn’t find the definition of the word Witchinson’s in Webster’s dictionary, but it’s listed in my own personal dictionary, and here’s what it says:
Witchinson’s– wi’ chun suns – noun – (orig. unkn.) 1a – a condition that causes impatience: restlessness or shortness of temper, especially under irritation, delay, or opposition. 2a – being concerned excessively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being, with less regard for others.
Now that we’ve established the official definition of Witchinson’s, here’s the official portrait of what it looks like:
But God’s Word has a remedy for every malady – even Witchinson’s, because His Book is like no other.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12
It’s the only book we’ll ever hold in our hands that’s living and active, and powerful enough for any mountain in our lives. Next time you have your Bible nearby, just take a long look at it. It may look much like any other book, but I believe if we could see it through God’s eyes, we would see the pages brilliantly lit and shimmering with power, and we could feel it vibrate with the very life of God. But He has told us to live by faith and not by sight, and we are to take Him at His Word, even when we don’t yet see all that He’s going to do. So my Bible does not shimmer and pulse, but if we could see it with spiritual eyes I believe we would hungrily pick it up and read many times a day.
So while my kind and humble husband is losing mobility and needs help with his shoelaces and with cutting food, I have gone through an inner battle with some disappointment. This last year has been full of unwelcome changes around every corner. As Michael’s abilities have lessened, it seems that my life has gotten smaller. I’ve had to let go of some activities that felt like they were life-giving to me, in order to keep up with the increasing demands of our work, and of my husband’s needs. And even if I don’t always show it on the outside, Witchinson’s rears its ugly head too often on the inside. With every impatient sigh or roll of my eyes, or wave of self pity that comes, I know that God can see my heart, and wants me to be different. More like Him. It isn’t that my heart doesn’t break for what my formerly active and strong husband is suffering. It’s just that in my own weariness, sometimes I’ve allowed self-pity and selfishness to govern my thoughts instead of the Word of God. And unfortunately, there have been times when I’ve been more businesslike with Michael than servant-hearted. There’s a lot to accomplish on any given day, and I can be brusque and task-oriented rather than gentle and people-focused. I’ll bet some of you reading this relate to what I’m sharing, even if your husband isn’t sick. Some of you are overwhelmed with your own struggles – challenging children, inattentive spouses, financial hardship, precarious health issues, loneliness, secret battles, or just plain tiredness. You know the feeling of starting each new day with firm resolve, and ending it with the confession of your failures.
Because I long to walk closely with the Lord and bring a smile to His face, I’m always crying out to Him about this issue, asking for His help and strength. I know He’s able to bring to completion the good work He has started in me, but I’m dismayed at how quickly my selfish nature surfaces. I can’t give an exact formula of how to slay the dragon of selfishness in our lives, but I can share how God is consistently moving in my heart and hope that someone will be encouraged.
A couple of months ago, as a group of us were driving to the Twin Cities to attend the CBS Leadership Conference, my dear and wise friend Sue R. and I were talking in the front seat. She shared with me about her father and the inevitable changes that aging has brought to his life, how he doesn’t talk as much as he used to, or have as much energy. She quoted something she had read that made her think of her dad, and it was something like this: “Just his presence was enough now. He had passed on his strength and character to the next generation.” Just his presence was enough.
And with those words, I sensed the Lord begin to speak to my heart about Michael. Just his presence is enough. And it was as if a few scales fell from my darkened eyes. For months I’d been thinking, “Is this how my life is going to turn out? No meaningful conversation? No more adventurous travel? Just me taking care of the multitudes and no one taking care of me?” Oh, that dragon creeps in and turns our thoughts to ourselves and what we think we deserve, and how sorry our lives are, doesn’t he? That real dragon, the enemy of our souls, is always lying in wait, always crouching at the door, sniffing for an opportunity to assist us in getting our eyes off of Jesus and onto ourselves.
Then, the whole theme of the conference we attended was about being a servant leader, and how our lives are truly found when we give them up for His sake and for His purposes. One of the scripture passages mentioned repeatedly by the different speakers was Philippians 2:3-8:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!
This is absolutely impossible to do without God. It’s absolutely impossible to even want to do without God. But with God, all things are possible. As I pondered my struggles of the last year, I could see that most of them were rooted in pride and selfishness.
I’ve read these verses from Philippians countless times. But at the CBS retreat God quickened them to me and I knew He was asking me to take them to heart, and begin to serve my husband differently. He was asking this because He so dearly loves Michael, and He so dearly loves me. He only asks of us what will be best for us.
Michael’s presence is enough. His presence is a blessing, a gift to me from my heavenly Father. And as I sat there and drank in what the Lord was pressing on my heart, I knew that with God’s supernatural equipping, I could go home and begin to make my husband’s life heaven on earth.
Now I know there’s a limit to that. This earthly life isn’t heaven and it’s not meant to be mistaken for it – and Michael is accountable for his own choices. I can’t take away his Parkinson’s, but I can let him know every day that I consider his very presence enough, extravagant, even. He may not have many words for me anymore, but that doesn’t have to affect how I love and serve him. As I have asked God to give me creative ways to bless Michael in this new season of our marriage, He has been faithful to do it. We all need new and creative ways to walk out the lives we’ve been given. We can ask God. We can go to Him, humble ourselves, tell Him we’re willing to obey, and He will show us what to do.
I couldn’t wait to get home from the conference to put into practice what I felt that the Lord had spoken to me. But I sort of didn’t want to tell Michael too much about it, because I knew I’d eventually fail. And I have failed. Miserably. Again and again. For me, slaying the dragon of selfishness is sometimes a minute-by-minute kind of effort. And many times the arrows I shoot fall to earth without even getting close to the target.
To keep it real, I’ll share a recent failure at making our home heaven on earth for my husband. He’s having a hard time turning over in bed these days, and not long ago I woke up as he was struggling to do just that. Edith the Schnauzer was curled up behind his knees, the covers were twisted around his legs, and I could hear him trying to do what you and I take for granted: turn over in bed and cover ourselves. So I sat up, moved chunky Edith away from him, gently positioned Michael on his side, and pulled first the sheet, then the blanket, then the warm comforter up over him so he would be nice and warm. I didn’t know he was half asleep. As I was making sure the covers were right up under his chin he mumbled (petulantly), “Stop it.” And I aimed some daggers from my eyes at him there in the dark and promptly said, “Fine. Do it yourself then.” So much for heaven on earth.
The next morning I apologized right away for my attitude, but he didn’t remember a thing. When I told him what had happened he laughed, and I was thankful for a new day, with new mercies, and a powerful and patient God who enables His weak and needy people to do the impossible by living on His love and strength.
But I’m finding that just making up my mind to do this isn’t what helps me do it. It’s going to God. It’s sitting with Him, searching His Word, and asking Him how He wants to bless Michael through me that day. I have failed way more often than I have succeeded, but on good days I cry out to my Savior in utter helplessness and trust that He will give light as the day progresses.
A couple of years ago I was standing at the kitchen sink as Michael was saying something to me, and as usual I had a hard time understanding him. After asking him to repeat himself numerous times, he finally spoke loudly enough to be heard. Irritated, I said, “Why don’t you speak that loud the first time? It can’t take more energy than repeating yourself five times!” Michael calmly looked into my eyes and said quietly, “Julie, the Lord is using me to refine you.” And as he walked away I stood at the sink and the tears fell, because I knew he spoke the truth.
I’m still disappointed that our lives aren’t turning out as we had dreamed. We had talked of traveling during our retirement years, of a cabin on a lake, of missions trips, and more. Sometimes the days seem horribly dark to me, with our choices getting more limited and our future so uncertain.
But I would rather have God in the dark, than to be in the dark without God. One day in His presence is better than a thousand elsewhere.
Gratitude as a Weapon
I have not slain the dragon of selfishness once and for all. It seems that it’s something I need to do again and again. Just this morning as I was waking up in the chill and dark of our bedroom, I thought I saw the thin, sulfurous streams of breath exhale upward from two ghastly nostrils. That dragon is waiting for me to whine and complain and sigh and despair each morning even before the sun comes up. But I have the quick and sure arrows of God’s truth in my quiver, if I will use them.
I can either be led stupidly into the dank and hideous lair of the dragon of selfishness, or I can stay and dwell in a spacious place, a light and wide open space of freedom and joy. (He brought me out into a spacious place; He rescued me because he delighted in me. — Psalm 18:19)
Today I choose the spacious place. I choose the life God has given me. I don’t have to fully understand His ways to trust Him. Today I plant my feet, reach back over my shoulder and take from my quiver the golden arrow called Thankful. I carefully place the arrow into position on the bowstring, close one eye to aim, draw it back in perfect form, pause, and let it zing, flying straight, far and true…into the heart of the dragon of selfishness.
Today this is what I will do.