By Mark Davis Pickup
After 16 years confined to an electric wheelchair with severe multiple sclerosis, the disease slowly began moving into partial remission. I was able to walk again. My early steps were shaky, uncertain and stiff—rather like walking on stilts. But it was a form of walking. As the weeks passed, my withered, weak legs began to grow stronger.
Now I am able to walk with two canes for short distances and only rely on a wheelchair for longer distances or when exhausted. After many years unable to write or hold a pencil with my right hand, or even cut my own meat at mealtime, I can now do both and have regained the use of much of my right arm and hand. Then something unexpected happened.
Rather than being ecstatic about regaining lost function, I became resentful that I have been seriously disabled for more than half my life. As I said in a previous post, I felt swindled by life. I will never know what I might have achieved in my career cut short and that ended when I was 38 years old. I lost years of being active with children and grandchildren. I haven’t danced with my wife in over 30 years. One of the last things I did as a normal father—before the MS completely crippled my legs and right arm—was to struggle to walk my daughter down the aisle on her wedding day. Shortly after that, the ability to walk came to an end for me: Serious neurological disease dragged me through an internal, infernal hell on earth!
Now, the fire seems to have subsided and the dust is settling. When the terror of MS was finally not staring me in the face at close range, I looked around and the full weight of the lost time came into full view. Multiple sclerosis robbed me of 36 years, my best years in the prime of life. What’s left? I’m an old man! Was this trial really necessary? Apparently it was necessary. I think God is more concerned about my holiness than my happiness. God was always with me—even in my darkest days during all those decades.
For me to ask God why more than half of my life has involved sickness and disability is to presume it should have been different. But why should I presume my life should have been without adversity or suffering? Throughout the centuries, suffering has been part of the human experience. As for the answer to my “why” of suffering, it may be found where I least expected to find it.
There are questions for which there are no answers, only understanding. They are questions that focus on the deepest meaning of life or eternity. The understanding they bring usually involves tears before joy, then, perhaps both, or at least consolation. This is something those who have not yet suffered are unlikely to comprehend.
C.S. Lewis once wrote:
Can a mortal ask questions that God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow round or square? Probably half the questions we ask―half our great theological and metaphysical problems―are like that (A Grief Observed).
When I first encountered Christ in the early days of 1980, all I asked was that He would make me more like him and less like me. That was all that mattered back then. Is that all that matters now? I must believe that is what God had been doing: making me for like Christ. It is a huge task for someone as base and vile as me. Major spiritual surgery has been required. I cannot say “Make me more like Christ” then question the major overhaul when it starts to occur. If a purifying fire is required, who am I to complain about the heat?! I must trust there is a purpose to suffering.
Pope John Paul II was acquainted with various types of suffering. He said this:
In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the “why” of suffering as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love. In order to discover the profound meaning of suffering . . . we must above all accept the light of revelation. . . . Love is also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. The answer has been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Throughout my decades of disability journey, I have slowly discovered the profound truth in Pope John Paul II’s words of his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering).
Should I desire happiness or holiness? My answer to that question will not answer why I have had a life marred by chronic illness; it will identify the state of my spiritual condition. At a certain point in spiritual journeys, we all may discover the only real happiness is found in holiness. That happiness will become an eternal joy. At its foundation rests the divine love of Jesus Christ. As John Paul II alluded to, I must seek the spiritual maturity to grasp the sublimity of Christ’s divine love.
It is in the interior life where the truth of His love is revealed. It is there that my will is surrendered to his will. It is in surrender where I encounter a childlike sense of wonder and a beautiful enchanted encounter with Jesus. I begin to understand Christ’s point when he said,
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17).
It is through the Son of God we can become children of God.
What is the purpose of my life? What is the purpose of your life? Each of us takes different paths but surely the purpose is the same: To become more like Christ.
Finally, as an old man, I see beauty all around me. What a wonderful world God created for you and me.
Mark Davis Pickup has lived with aggressive multiple sclerosis for over 36 years. Although electric wheelchair dependent, Mark has spoken across the United States and Canada promoting the sanctity, dignity, and equality of all human life. He has addressed politicians and legislative committees (both Canadian and American), university forums, hospital medical staffs, religious and denominational leaders, community groups, and organizations about the critical importance of protecting all human life from conception to natural death. Mark is also a widely published writer on bioethical and Christian issues. Mark is the recipient of numerous awards including the Monsignor Bill Irwin Award for Ethical Excellence, the William Kurelek Award for fostering respect and appreciation for the dignity of human life (Canada), and a Governor General’s Medal for Community Service.
This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at humanlifematters.org/2019/06/after-life-of-adversity-ive-discovered.html.
image: Shenghung Lin via Flickr | CC-2.0