I remember, once I was asked to have a conversation about quite a sensitive topic with the wife of a patient who had cancer secondaries in his spine and had become paralytic. Before I went into the room, kindly the nurses pulled me aside, to warn me that the wife can be… just a little difficult to deal with.

When I went in, I immediately knew what the nurses meant. Even bringing up the nature of the topic I was asked to talk about gave me shivers. The wife was cynical and sarcastic in her speech, almost rude, and somewhat condescending about the level of my training and experience. It was very difficult to have a gentle conversation with her and come out not too negatively affected! As she rolled her eyes and shot off random remarks, I could even see her husband cowering in fear of his wife. I must admit, as I was watching him react to his wife’s actions, I was asking in me, why did you even marry this woman!?

Yeah I could see that she was very stressed, and overwhelmed with the whole situation. Surely their lives as one couple, united as one unit, have been completely overturned (I mentioned that sometimes I don’t appreciate just the enormity of the impact on people’s lives) — and she now had to fully care for her paralytic husband regarding almost everything, from medications, food, to personal toileting, transport, and finances. She had so much in her mind. And they were only a young couple, in their forties.

I survived, with much stress (these things stress me out), the two times I had to talk to her that week without dissolving into mush enduring her glares. The third time I went in though, his wife was not there. I let off a sigh of relief to myself.

I had a quiet, little conversation with the patient himself this time. I caught a quick glimpse of the name cards of counseling, legal and social workers on the tabletop beside. But then I had the time to realise and look at the decorations in his room. There were photos pinned up on the walls of his otherwise sterile room, and they were actually quite lovely, even as he laid paralysed on his bed.

I glanced through a few of the photos. They were photos of him and his wife together — on their wedding day, on some holiday trip, and from various parts of their lives. In all of them they were beaming happily — and yes, his wife too.

To be honest, it hit me so hard, and I had to think twice, is this the same woman? And I was being serious!

At the time, I found it difficult, almost impossible, to reconcile the two images of his wife — it could never have crossed my mind that she could be smiling so beautifully and sweetly, when she was in front of me being so aggressive (and defensive too) the last two times I talked to her; and it could never have crossed my mind that she could be so aggressive, when I was looking at the photos of her smiling so beautifully and sweetly.

And I felt disgusted. Not at her, but at our hearts. Our hearts are corrupt. I catch glimpses of the same reality in me — of being so impatient, critical, unforgiving, unkind (for example, I wrote about an instance here), when I am “caught up in the moment” and all I think of is myself. I am scared of the deceitfulness of my heart. And who knows, when someone sees the two sides of me, I would also be perceived as how I perceived this patient’s wife at the time, maybe even worse. Unlovely. Two-faced. Of loose principles. Wayward.

Oh this gunk hidden in our hearts beneath our superficial face — how do we know how thick, and how dark, it is! And when our hearts are prodded and the offensiveness flows out, how do we deal with it?

… That story happened a few years ago. I have wanted to write about it, but like many other things, I never got around to it. Oh well.

Recently, I was reading a Christian book (Christians talk about the realities of sin but also the good news of God addressing it, which is the gospel), and I came across this story which struck me so hard:

A pastor friend of mine was visiting in the house of a couple who were founding members of his church, a couple who were greatly respected and loved and who had consistently invested their lives in other people. At the time of this particular visit, the husband had terminal cancer and did, in fact, die a few months later.

In the course of his visit, the pastor asked the couple, “How are you doing spiritually?” With tears in her eyes, the wife responded, “We’re doing well as far as the cancer is concerned. But what I can’t handle is our sin. After all these years, and especially in this situation, you would think we wouldn’t still hurt and wound each other, but we do. And this is what I can’t handle. I can handle the cancer, but I can’t handle my sinful flesh.”

As someone training to be a cancer doctor, the reality of this story is even more poignant for me. I feel like shedding a tear together with the wife (this one!). I think, I know a little of what she meant and how she felt…

I don’t know what you think. I suppose our worldview shapes how we approach situations like this. Let me know your thoughts though.

4 responses to this post

  1. yi ning
    // reply // #

    Hi Joseph, I really appreciate this story you managed to tell after all. It unsettled me a bit but I reckon it’s a good thing. *no no not the story itself or you but the questions you are asking* >..<, but I am interested to hear more of your thoughts about this. I think its really relevant to my work too. :)

  2. yi ning
    // reply // #

    sorry a big chunk in the middle of the comment went missing~ as below:
    I think you are right on the spot when you mention that the poison from others can really erode us and remind ourselves about our own poisons deep inside, often leaving us with very little room to hide. One thing I’ve really struggled to differentiate is that when I am shocked/disgusted by my own poisons, is it really just acknowledging my own sins as sins and falling prostrate before God, or is it because I am still holding onto a delusion that I have been and can be much better than what I really am – and hence – I actually refuse to accept my hopelessness as God has forgiven and accepted me?
    I personally think only by reconciling ourselves to our poisons first we can then manage to tolerate, respect and help others to reconcile themselves to their poisons. And probably the only way we can minimize our own poisons from seeping out and eroding/damaging others (and stirring great fears in ourselves) is if we actively dig them up, face up to them and try to understand them. It really is an awful process for anyone, as invariably our natural inclinations are to avoid poisons whenever we can, others or our own.
    Some of these are not actually my own ideas, got them from a jap crime fiction called “Nameless Poison” which really taught me a lot last year. Sorry for ranting on in your territory again~ :)

    • // reply // #

      Thanks for commenting, Yi Ning. I always have to think hard to reply your deep comments!

      I’m probably a little more simple (my head hurts) and as I dig down I just call them as sin — an inherent corruptness of our hearts, natural inclination to rebel against God our Creator, and wanting to have things our way, unwillingness to submit, that affect all of us. From this outflows our actions in everyday life that injure our relationships with the people around us and the world we live in, shock ourselves, but it is ultimately against God Himself that we are offending. That is the worldview that I read from the Bible. And I believe properly knowing our sins and dealing with them can only be done in light of the Cross and His ongoing work in us; rather, by our own strength and deceitful desires we just go in circles (or end up worse, as you mentioned it can be an awful process).

      I’ve really just recently been thinking about this (hence this post) and how it is the gospel that convicts and enables and energises us to deal with our sin, which is otherwise impossible. Similarly with helping others. Not sure how applicable it is to your work, but for me I go back to the gospel haha……

      • yi ning
        // reply // #

        did I come across as “lets set God aside and turn to some new age oriental philosophy stuff”? :(… *I think I did… sorry* really agree with all you said re: all this has to be enabled by God. I likely have a thinking habit of “it goes without saying that God is behind all this” and not really paying attention to what comes out.
        And you are absolutely right about the danger of digging around with our own strength and deceitful desires. It reminds me of “the return of the unclean spirit” in the gospels. I never previously made a link of it to my work but now it just looks very very relevant. (there you go, thats something new and really applicable I need to ponder on XD)
        though I still think a digging process driven by God is way more awful (sorry prob not the right word)/ difficult than a self-satisfying digging/cleansing process. There will be none of the temporary relief and feeling of righteousness that come from cleaning one’s own house on one’s own accord, instead we can’t ignore our rebellious conditions – the hiding, the procrastination, the losing sight of God, the days of hard work but not finding anything, the going through of rubbish bins on the sideways for less important gunk in desperation to pretend to ourselves this is all worth it…

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