Sometimes I get to the point where I think I’ve seen it all. And then I walk into a patient’s room to see several leeches on him. I’ll admit, I got a little woozy. In theory, I knew that leeches are still used in modern medicine, but I had never actually seen it until recently. I’m guessing this is not what the patient expected when he checked into a Western hospital in the year 2014. But healing can take some unexpected, and rather uncomfortable, paths.
In the fifth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus encounters a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years, and asks him what always seemed to me a ridiculous question: “Do you want to be made well?” Um, of course he does, Jesus! That’s why he’s there with all the other sick people at the pool that’s supposed to have magical healing properties. I mean, honestly, what sick person doesn’t want to be made well? But after working in a hospital for a few years, and now facing a need for healing myself, I hear the question differently.
This man had been ill for a lifetime. The sickness had likely become his defining characteristic in the eyes of most people. Maybe even he had forgotten who he was apart from the illness. I have had patients like that, who have struggled for years with a debilitating condition, and when a possible cure finally comes, they expect to be elated. Their loved ones may be thrilled, but some of those patients confide in me that instead of happy, they feel terrified. They have become experts at living with disease. They just don’t know if they’re prepared to walk the path to wellness. The way is uncertain.
Do you want to be made well? What if being made well means waking up covered in leeches? What if it means trusting a stranger to cut you open and perform a risky surgery? What if it means no longer being the “fun drunk” at parties, but standing up in a meeting and introducing yourself as an alcoholic? What if healing means months of trial and error before hitting on the right dosage of the right medication to stabilize your overwhelming emotions without taking them away altogether? What if it means losing your beautiful hair to chemotherapy? What if it means sharing your darkest secrets with a counselor? What if it means abstaining from the foods you love in order to keep diabetes at bay? What if it means – and doesn’t it always – giving up control?
Perhaps Jesus knew that the choice he was giving the man was not between sickness and health. That’s an easy one. But the real choice was between the familiar and the unknown. For most of us, choosing any familiar reality, no matter how unpleasant, can feel safer than choosing the unknown. Often a patient or family member will say to me, “I didn’t expect to feel this way,” or, “I didn’t know it would be so hard.” And I tell them, “Of course not. How could you? You’ve never been here before.”
That’s what I am telling myself these days, as I entrust my healing to God, doctors, counselors, pharmacists, support group members, and others. I don’t quite know how to feel. But then how could I? This is new territory. It was a difficult step to finally come forward and say, “Yes, I want to be made well.” I’m only now realizing that I have no idea what the path to wellness will look like, or how long it will be. There is too much that is not in my control. I know how to be unhealthy; I have years of experience. But now, I am choosing the unknown. God help me.