During a routine check-up recently, it was discovered that I had a high blood-pressure episode, so the doctor thought best to monitor the pressure overnight.
In a matter of minutes, I was promoted from hospital visitor to hospital patient.
I tend to live by the clock, with many self-imposed punctuality requirements.
So when the doctor blew the whistle and said “time-out,” I found myself confined to a bed for a few days, with plenty of time to think.
At one point, I had two doctors at the foot of my bed talking in low tones and not even smiling at my jokes. The doctors said my pressure was simply not coming down, and it was beginning to concern them.
Suddenly, all those things I was rushing to do–the things I had to get out of this dang hospital to tend to–weren’t going to get done. And I was powerless to change that.
Comparing Apples To Tom Hanks
I often defer fear by thinking of books, movies, and experiences, playing them in my head like DVDs and looking at them from a different angle to see if I missed something.
As I lay in the hospital in nervous silence while meds were pumped through my IV, I thought about the movie Castaway. Tom Hanks plays a man who washes ashore on a deserted island after a plane crash. He regrettably left his fiancee on Christmas Eve back in Memphis for a job that demands being on time.
In stark contrast, after the crash, time stands still, and there is no deadline to meet.
One day, some garbage washes ashore, and using a piece of plastic to make a sail, he floats away on a hand-built raft, at which point he is discovered by a ship and taken home.
Lying in that hospital bed, I discovered a point of the movie I had missed before: While the castaway is on the island, he has no hope of being genuinely happy again on his terms, and is so depressed that he tries to kill himself.
He can’t see a productive “reason” for his existence–where his life is going–and what is supposed to happen. Yet when he returns home, he learns his girlfriend has married someone else and life has gone on without him.
So, even after he returns home, he still doesn’t know why he lived through the crash or where his life is going. Despite all his attempts at control, he realizes he has none.
He finally sits down at a friend’s house and reflects on his experience: He says the one thing he learned was that when he didn’t really know what he was supposed to do, he realized his only job was to stay alive, that eventually something would come along–like the piece of plastic that washed up on shore and suddenly he had a way off the island.
I began to see my own medical problems as part of God’s plan. He will take these matters where He chooses, and will do with my life what He decides is best. My job is simply “to keep breathing.”
When I don’t understand something, I need to just tread water and stay alive.
At some point, my sail will wash up on shore and take me to the next place. But there’s no guarantee that place will solve my problems or answer my questions. Such favor is simply a matter of grace.
I’ve found this philosophy will help get me through the lowest spots.
In the movie, Hanks’ character, speaking to a friend, refers to the futility of both his lonely travail on the island and his fiancee’s trying to keep hope alive as the years go by with no sign of him:
“We both had done the math. Kelly added it all up and…knew she had to let me go. I added it up, and knew that I had…lost her. ‘Cause I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick, or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when, and how, and where it was going to happen.
“So…I made a rope and I went up to the summit to hang myself. I had to test it, you know? Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log snapped the limb of the tree, so I–I–I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing.
“And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing.
“And one day, my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass…And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island.
“And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”
When I awaken in the hospital on day two, I’m told I will have to stay overnight again. I decide to take my own advice and tread water.
I sit quietly as tests are performed; I smile confidently as a steady parade of family and friends come to see me. I say good night to my wife with a quivering lip as we spend the first nights apart since we were married.
And I wonder if I’ll get any answers as to why this has happened to me.
And then on the third day, a new doctor stops by. He is holding a chart at the foot of my bed, and he is not smiling. I sit up and nod because I suddenly see he is my plastic sail that has just washed ashore. He nods back.
“Your blood pressure is down, and you will be going home today.”
I smile because my sail has caught the wind, but he does not smile back.
“I overheard you talking to your children yesterday,” he says. “It sounded almost poetic the way you told them about a man’s inability to control things.”
I said I am somewhat of a writer and can get creatively carried away occasionally.
He said, “If you don’t start taking better care of yourself, the only thing that’s going to get carried away is you under that sheet.”
I looked at the floor.
“Let’s talk about the things a man can control,” he went on. “I looked up your history. You are supposed to be on blood-pressure medicine, you are supposed to be 25 pounds lighter, you are supposed to be getting bi-annual check-ups. You lost your father at 65 to a sudden heart attack, and you play with these factors? You don’t appear to be a stupid man. How can the medical world help a man who refuses to stand in the place he can be helped? You took yourself off the medicine, you ignored the check-ups, and you have gained weight. Do you think this is some sort of game?”
As the doctor continued his lecture, I realized I had become sloppy about so many things I had stayed on top of for years.
How could I do this to my family? They deserve to have me there for every important moment of their lives.
So in the final analysis, I made a pledge to remain diligent about my duties, even about things I don’t understand; further, I learned it’s unfair for me to expect God’s grace when I’m not exercising a personal control.
In other words, the plastic sail was provided, but I needed to be smart enough to lash it to the raft, steer it into the wind, and chart a course to accomplish the goal. The sail is just a sail–I must find the wind behind it.
Drowning In Reality
Today I am back on my medicine, which has been fine-tuned to meet my needs. I walk the dog a mile each morning and evening, which is good for both of us. My wife joins us most evenings.
Yogurt, cheese, whole wheat, grains, beans, and a great deal of salad have become my mainstays. Folks, I dropped a dozen pounds in no time. This is not a fad–this will be the rest of my life.
We read statistics every day about how unhealthy Americans are, yet we have the power to control this situation.
In other matters–emotional, financial, or social–we endure and seem to find a way to land on our feet. But we fall so short when we have to maintain a healthy lifestyle and set a good example for family and friends.
This isn’t about fad diets, some wacky piece of special gym equipment seen on television, or even counting calories.
It’s about looking inward and finding the strength, understanding that although there is so much that is not in our control in life, we are obliged to keep living before we can expect the grace of dodging bullets as I did last month.
I was lucky and started all over. I invite you to join me.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at email@example.com.