Of late I’ve been bored and restless, self-absorbed. I feel as if I’ve become a drag.
I take my psychic vitals ten times a day along with fretting about every ache and pain I feel as though any of them could be harbingers of my impending doom. Truth be told, my health – except for an almost defunct immune system – leaves me reasonably comfortable and functional.
Learning of my diagnosis was deeply disturbing. Eventually, despite the bad news, it had a perverse way of terrifying me while simultaneously arousing my curiosity. I decided to investigate the experience of facing my mortality by keeping my moods and thoughts clearly in my mind’s eye, like catching fireflies in a jar to see what made them glow.
I’d obsess about my emotional reactions, looking at them from every conceivable angle to see if any contained a story to tell about the state of my union. This requires no small measure of self-absorption.
Recently I’ve grown bored, restless. I fear that I must be becoming a real drag. This was a new feeling. It bothered me, as if the challenge in facing my mortality, was a mundane and banal affair, not the terrifying adventure I’d been considering it. As vulnerable as I might feel, I still found energy and considerable solace in writing about how the illness was affecting me and those I loved.
I felt stuck. I’d said it all. My interior life seemed fogged, and the world around me lusterless, the way depression can make me feel. I know about depression but when this feeling struck, it sounded a more nuanced timbre. Was my body running down? Was my spirit dry and parched? Had I spent all my fuel? The mood left me feeling bored, restless and dissatisfied.
Prayer is often the royal route many take who feel caught in these kind of conundrums, but I must confess, there are times when just talking to myself and praying can seem indistinguishable. In both instances the results are the same, which is to say, no results. Nothing new comes up and I’m no closer to understanding or accepting what’s happening to me than before. I believe in prayer but in my experience in praying seems more effectual when I can just surrender the matter and not work so hard to make it come out even. In this instance, the boredom became too invasive. I couldn’t leave it alone. It was taking me over. I needed help.
If there is one thing that this experience of living into dying has taught me thus far, it’s this: If I feel troubled, and even after exploring the matter exhaustively in my own mind, I find I must talk about it with someone else, anyone but me. A good listener is usually someone who just listens –– right now I do better with someone who also talks back to me. What they say may not turn out to be all that sage. Nevertheless, the very act of my opening up matters of my heart to another person who will listen, get them to mix it up with me, has proven helpful. I suspect it’s the act of reaching out to others that’s the real issue, the thing that’s required, and not so much the contents of my complaint.
The ‘Collect for Purity’ appearing in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ makes one point eloquently: “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” God knows my whole story long before I open my mouth. Spiritual guides encourage us to share our burdens with others. I’m convinced God likes us working together when we’re lost. Teams do what individuals can’t.
My medical regimen requires that I have blood drawn twice weekly. One day the nurse asked offhandedly how I was. I said fine. She went to get a couple of things and when she returned, I said, “You know, I lied, I feel lousy.” She asked if she could do anything to help. I said yes. I told her of my oppressive feelings of boredom, how debilitating and demoralizing I found them and how empty my days were becoming.
I thought she might not have any idea what I was talking about. To the contrary, she looked at me for a minute and she said easily, “Oh, you’re talking about the monotony.” I had not thought to use the word monotony but it captured even more vividly something of what I was feeling. We tossed the ball back-and-forth and she went on to say how many of her patients, particularly with diseases like mine, live limited and monotonous lives. Many illnesses involve frequent medical visitations which define the term of one’s life. Many treatments offered are palliative rather than restorative interventions so that for some, it sets up a kind of “Sisyphus” syndrome. I push the rock up the hill several times a week only to watch it roll down and then start the next week pushing it back up. While the interventions sustain my life, they lack closure, one of those powerful needs we all have –– I certainly have––the feeling that for the time we spend, there’s something to show for it. Sustaining life is no small thing, but it doesn’t bring the sense of closure the way assurances of a cure can or that even death does. If I can’t get closure, what then? It feels as though I’m in limbo.
My brief conversation with the nurse that day didn’t solve my problem with boredom and monotony. What it did do was to reaffirm something valuable I already knew but had forgotten: that if I’m having a bad day, and I’m feeling lousy, and I’m bored and restless, and I’m feeling in limbo, I let someone know; I get them talking with me even if I may seem like a drag. It may not alter circumstances, but it can reveal them in a new light. A fresh perspective can be a game changer.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality including The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.
Letters to Editor
SD Swan says
I thought of you when reading this and so offer it up to you today. Marianne Moore’s What are years
What Are Years
What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.
Margaret Iovino says
I love this essay. Don’t forget how much the readers of your essays benefit from your attention to your psyche and your ability to put your findings into words that benefit all of us. Most of us can’t do this. Your identifying the boredom and monotony phase (and the ability of nurses, due to their experience with patients, to bring major insights to our lives, is such a nice touch esp in the context of the monotony of treatment without an outcome.
Bobbie Wells says
The process of living, until you’re not, does have it’s ups & downs- even if not hindered by a disabilty,or less ability than during former glory times. I’m active, out and about, but have lately been aware of occasional wierd anxiety,or odd low moods. I’m chalking it up to the unrest of transition from winter to spring It’s still largely gray out, especially on a cloudy day. There is still a chill in the air. Each sunny, warm day is a gift, as are the wildly blooming daffodils & helebore in my yard. I’ll take what joy I can find, & just say ho hum to the rest. Maybe try to remember to thumb my nose at these moods.
James Wilson says
Just remember that more singing birds are starting to arrive. Find a quiet place in the woods and listen and absorb. This might be better than thumbing your nose. Jim
Don Hilderbrandt says
I connect with your recent columns regarding your end of journey. That expression was used by our doctor for my wife Carol in 2012. Her end of journey at Hospice was 10 days. I now find myself in a similar situation but that will drag out for maybe a couple more years. Having been diagnosed in June of 2020 of prostate cancer, my doctor said I had it for at least ten years. It has spread to other parts of body but I I’m not aware of its presence or pain yet. I’m told that wherever goes it is still prostate cancer. I have two treatments that are removing my testosterone or abating the cancer in other parts of my body.
Carol endured the horrible effects of chemo and radiation from 67 trips from Easton to Johns Hopkins for fifteen and a half months. I, on the other hand, am on a very expensive regimen of pills that averages about two years before it plays out. I’ve been told that I will slowly deteriorate from not getting out of bed, not eating and lacking interest in anything.This is when I became interested in your recent writings.
I left my Vancouver, Washington home in May to shorten trips of family and friends. That has worked well but it is related to holidays and birthdays. I elected to move to Annapolis to be close to major medical facilities which has worked well. I did not want to be back in Easton and traveling to Johns Hopkins. Terrible memories.
I’m sorry for all that information but I too seem to like sharing my burden. As far as boredom, I have started painting watercolors and color pencils at a tremendous rate. Nanny Trippe and I started a gallery in 2010 in Easton and she has graciously taken 27 of this recent outburst.Since last December I have done 35!
t read a quote recently by Johan Johannsson that says “Find the thing you do well and do it again and again the rest of your life.” You are an excellent example with your writing and a great sense of comfort to me. I am saving all of your recent columns to read over and over again to give me strength.
I thank you
John Banghart says
George, you hit that nail on the head. I often have felt recently that all the doctors visits, tests, etc keep me in a state of limbo, and rob me of some of the time I have left. Thank you for sharing a new perspective on things for me.
Lyn Banghart says
You’ve done it again. I hope you realize what a special human being you are. John and I will listen and talk anytime. And all the better if it involves wine and martinis and some laughter. We have grown to love you and Jo.
Howard Freedlander says
Nurses have heard and seen much. They have an unusual perspective, observing the ebbs and flows of life and pain. Sometimes, their qualities are angelic; they may know about us than we know about ourselves. They’ve learned to listen and empathize. It sounds as if you experienced well-deserved