I love to hike. I love to work with my hands.
In the spring of 2012, I began to feel severe pain in my hands and feet, and then also in my tailbone and torso. My hands and feet began to swell. One night, unable to sleep, I got out of bed, went into the garage, and cut off my wedding ring. That provided some slight relief for that rapidly swelling finger, but some consternation for Linda. We both knew that something serious was at hand. Within a few months, the pain grew extreme, very much like the sensation of having my extremities and torso trapped in a fire that I could not escape. I could hardly walk. I could hardly open a door. I could hardly pick up a book or plate of food. Walking across a room, rolling over in bed, getting dressed, any number of simple things became excruciating. At times, when the pain medication wore off, which it did more quickly than it was supposed to, the pain became terrifying. I thought this might kill me. Without massive doses of pain killers, the pain became mind-bending. Even with heavy doses of Gabapentin and two kinds of codeine tablets, a total of 14 per day, the pain raged, a constant throbbing and burning, all day and night.
It took a full year for the rare viral infection in my my brain and spinal column to peak and then subside. I feared that I might never hike or work with my hands again and that I might finish my days in a wheel chair (along with that viral infection in my brain and spine, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis).
Some of you pray, as I do; some of you do not. Regardless, I believe you will understand the experience I record here, the defiance that came from it. For that whole year, I prayed for several hours every day. I did not but rarely pray for myself, not even for relief from the pain. Instead, I prayed for all of my loved ones by name--family and friends—over and over. Sometimes I prayed for my enemies too, people who had hurt and abused me and others. I avoided praying for myself, not because of any piety on my part, but because praying about my health meant focusing on my pain, and I needed instead to focus away from myself.
Focus on your own pain, and your pain will own you.
One night while praying, as the throbbing felt especially intense, I heard, almost in an audible voice, "Get up and dance." I reacted with astonishment and sort of yelled, "You want me to do what? What the hell?" Yes, I swore at God. The command came again. "Get up and dance."
I struggled out of bed and staggered to an open space in the bedroom. I began to dance. I prayed and danced—and began laughing. The searing-hot throb in my feet and torso was horrific; yet the experience of dancing through such fiery pain was one of the most joyful and beautiful experiences of my life. I cherish what I learned from that fire. I cherish that dancing.
I still sometimes dance while I pray, as my memories of this have become my metaphor for a life of faith. As I write this, I remember of course that not all of you friends share my or any religious faith. Nonetheless, I believe that you understand my dancing and why I think of it as metaphor. Despite your suffering, you find a way to dance. You must, even to laugh as you dance on fire.