Swim Diagonally

The refrain of “name and date of birth” requests were constant while I was in the hospital; during my 11 day stay, I probably recounted the story of how I got sick and the progression of my hospital hopping 30 times. In the hospital, everything is about you when you are the patient. Doctors, nurses, surgeons, nurse technicians, social workers, nutritionist, and case workers all come to check on you. It’s true for those family and friends who come to visit as well; these people care about how you are doing because they want you to feel better, to be back to normal, and to not have to go through whatever has brought you to the hospital. This is lovely. I’ve never felt so cared for than I have over the past month; people show their love and their care by trying to understand what has happened and trying to figure out any way in which they could help.

Perhaps it is my personality, or maybe even my vocation, but this has both been something for which I am grateful and it has also been isolating. In essence, I have just talked about myself for a month, and it’s tiring. So much of my normal life is spent not talking about myself; my call requires me to listen. I listen to people tell stories of their own heartbreak and pain; I listen to the message that we hear in scripture, and I try to listen for words of hope in times of darkness. I am learning to sit patiently with the reality that this is a season of sharing. I know that to help others live out their own ministry and callings to care for others (even me), that I must talk about myself, how I am doing, how I am feeling, and on and on.

Still, I have to resist a little. 

It is easy to feel like the world revolves around me and my Not Cancer. I have to resist this not just to keep myself from being isolated by my own recovery, but also to resist the pull of prayerful narcissism. In much the same way that I grow weary of talking about myself, I also grow weary of praying for myself. I long to not be pulled and directed in my own prayer life by how I feel when I wake up, but rather to be directed toward others, towards the joys and pains of those I love, those for whom I care, and for those that I know in name only. When you pray with and for someone it connects you to them; I have felt connected to so many people throughout this time in ways that are new to me, and for this I give thanks. In this season, however, I have missed the outward reaching focus of continually praying for others, even as I ask for prayers for myself.

To escape a riptide, it is said, one must swim diagonally; Charles Latimore Howard, whose book Pond River Ocean Rain I highly recommend and wrote about on our campus ministry blog, writes beautifully about seasons of life that feel like a riptide. In these seasons, we feel pulled not by our intentions or our hopes, but by our circumstances and surroundings; Howard writes:

There is hope in the diagonal. Different paths – away from the expected normal route. So many swimmers in life’s rivers find themselves floating into dangerous riptides and end up being pulled in. There is another way. There are other currents – a Holy Current – that take us off the path most commonly taken.

For those of us who find ourselves in the midst of a riptide, we are called to swim diagonally. Cut across the downward spiral. Do not swim back the way you came. Nor should you continue to swim with the direction of the downward pull. Cut across it all diagonally. Keep your eyes on the shore. Climb out and then get into the River of Life. This River is also wild, yet there is a solid, faithful, steady Ground beneath it all. (54)

I’m in a riptide season, and I’m attempting to swim diagonally. Our parish, like many parishes, has a prayer list, and for me, swimming diagonally means pulling up that list and praying it everyday, just as I would if I were in the office able to be fully present there even as I face the continued shock at seeing my own name on the list. Swimming diagonally looks like sitting with my own worries and hopes, but not letting them take up prime real estate in the prayers that I bring to God; swimming diagonally looks like taking slow walks and remembering that God moves in this world, but sometimes healing is slow and hope abounds. Swimming diagonally is praying for others and praying for grace when the riptide of prayerful narcissism takes over; it is remembering that the prayers that have surrounded me during this time have kept me afloat and that soon this riptide season will be over, but it is also remembering that others may be in their own riptide seasons and once on the shore, it will again be part of my life to encourage others to swim diagonally too.

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