Gift and Loss

a gift tag inscribed 'with love'
Given with love?

All illness involves loss. At times I’ve read the story of the last fourteen years as a tale of loss after loss–of energy, of mobility, of friendships, of useful work, of reputation, of my own reliability–and when I read it that way it seems like I’m trapped in a collapsing bubble of capability and control. From being an agent I’m becoming ever more a patient–an impatient patient.

Grieving those losses is natural–there’s a whole literature to guide you through the stages of loss, to help you do your grieving–but nature isn’t always all it seems. Is it in our nature to hold our own lives as possession? Are we to be self-possessed? Isn’t that the sin of Adam–to want what is given as a gift to be owned by right, available of demand, the object of control and convenience? Isn’t it in the nature of nature to be recalcitrant as well as malleable; Other rather than Same?

What we hold we hold as gift–including ourselves, including our lives. St. Ignatius makes it his basic principle, his starting point, that our origin and end are both outside ourselves.

Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save their souls.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for us and that they may help us in following the end for which we are created.

From this it follows that we are to use them as much as they help us on to our end, and ought to rid ourselves of them so far as they hinder us as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honour rather than dishonour, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

‘We want not health rather than sickness’. That’s a bold manifesto to be placing at the door to the Spiritual Exercises–an expensive ticket for entry. In a wild and youthful spirit our idealism makes that prayer. I remember, many years ago, quaking at the prospect but finding it incredibly attractive–to be that indifferent, that free, that unafraid, that available to whatever destiny awaited me.

And there’s the paradox for me. It is a liberating vision to be unbound from fear of death or illness or poverty or dishonour. So free! Yet when illness makes an appearance it comes as a binding, a limiting, a loss. It comes un-heroically, sadly, in complication. How can you receive it with open arms as a lover’s gift?

Ignatius’ vision isn’t fatalistic. Finding God in all things isn’t an underwriting of reality as it comes to us. Often it is a naming of evil, a refusal of acquiescence, a passion to make things otherwise. How do you find God in illness–by fighting or surrendering?

At a practical level I grapple with that question under the rubric of ‘living’? Do I put my life on hold until the imaginary moment I become well again or do I live as well as I can here and now with my losses all around me?