Thesis 4: Papillary Carcinoma
This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.
"4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven."
I recently connected with a friend over similar experiences we've had with health. In the recent past, she was finally diagnosed, after many years of conflicting diagnoses by dozens of doctors, with a condition that not only impacts her physical health, but her cognition as well. When she described her mental state as a "fog," I was immediately reminded of own experiences during the days I was not allowed to take my thyroid medication. What I had had to endure for a couple of weeks a couple of different times is her everyday mode, day in and day out. As someone who identifies as a writer, as someone who cherishes the transfer of thoughts and emotions onto the page with clarity, this can be nothing shy of crushing. Believe me.
In 2004, my entire thyroid and several lymph nodes were removed from my neck after they were found to be cancerous: papillary carcinoma of the thyroid, to be precise. But there was always something strange and lonely about being sick, about being foggy. Once you admit it to others, you admit your helplessness. Once you admit it to yourself, you admit to being less than you had hoped for. You admit your dependence. We are all taught to be so strong, so self-reliant. I remember wanting to appear fearless in the face of the unknown, at least so that I could care for the emotions of my wife and my mother. And so I ended up detaching myself from the disease, treating it as strictly something to be tackled by science. I knew what my prognosis was going to be, and it was good. Emotion was not acceptable.
Still to this day, I have a hard time bringing it up. And when I do, it's usually still in that detached way that speaks to the facts of my treatment, the science of the disease, the statistics of other people who've had it. Emotions surrounding the whole experience lead to a much darker place.
Probably because of this, I still feel sick.
I think this is the same thing we do with sin. Once we admit it, it's gone. Once we point at, expose it to the light, grace is there to immediately draw us back to God. We have only to shift our way of thinking, to repent, to change our mind.
Luther says that sin is our penalty for hating ourselves. I would argue that they are the same thing. We hate ourselves because we have not yet found our true selves. We are trapped in the belief that our Shadow Self is our true self, rather than our silent core where God rests. If we can practice true repentance, true changing of our minds about who we are, we will begin to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, as Luther says..
But it is no clear-cut process, let's remember. It is not a ritual of magic words, crosses, and incense. It is a lifelong process, a becoming, a three-dimensional exploration and not a pathway. I like to think of that last part of thesis 4 as telling us that, "You'll practice true inward repentance until you get it right!"
I will carry the burden of the fallout of my time with cancer until I open it up to the light. Until I admit the damage it did to my marriage, to my wife's trust in me to be honest about my emotional life. Until I admit the painful awkwardness of discussing it with my parents and other family who I thought couldn't possibly identify with me. Until I admit my own weakness and physical frailty at having been diagnosed with cancer at the age of 27.
Slowly, surely, I will continue this process of mind-changing, of not purchasing our culture's indulgences of rugged individualism and tough masculinity. I will become the meek, and therefore find perfect strength. I will become the poor, and therefore find infinite riches. I will seek out and sit with the poverty of my spirit, and therefore find the kingdom of heaven.
And my fog will become clarity again.