Sunday, April 17, 2005

You Can Win All the Battles and Still Lose the War

It began in the early 90’s. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There just wasn’t a sense of physical wholeness.

I pastored a church in northeastern Missouri at the time. Hospital visitation was a major part of my work. One stressful day, after climbing a set of stairs while making my hospital rounds, I had difficulty catching my breath.

My wife, ever the diligent one, encouraged me to see a physician. (I think it was more like, “If you don’t go on your own I will stick you in a burlap bag and drag you.”) After a series of tests, probing in places that had absolutely nothing to do with my breathing (except I inhaled quickly when they did it) and a round of diagnostic imaging, the cardiac specialist had these sage words of wisdom.

“So, you see a lot of sick people in your job. Stop seeing so many. You will feel better.” I could have gotten the same diagnosis at the local gossip shop for the price of a cup of coffee.

Several years later, after adjusting to being less resilient and suffering from a low tolerance of heat and high humidity, a new round of health issues surfaced. Again, conventional wisdom directed me to a cardiac specialist. Fast-forwarding through EKGs, MRIs, and the rest of the medical ABCs, I ended up at a sleep clinic.

Hey, people, the problem is not when I am asleep. It is when I am awake!

I dismissed a half-hearted medicinal approach by the cardiologist and decided to self-medicate myself through the administration of Bar-B-Que and Sonic Burgers. After all, homespun wisdom says, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It made as much sense as reaching my heart by going through the other end!

I didn’t feel any better. I did enjoy feeling worse.

One night I tried to play broomball. (It’s a game for hockey addicts played during the three weeks of Minnesota summer.) After just three or four minutes, I began to hurt. This, I knew, was no nagging problem. My chest felt like someone was sticking an ice pick into it. I couldn’t get my breath even after sitting down for ten minutes. However bad I felt, I was more afraid that when I went to the doctor he would tell me to do something like buy a size larger under-shorts. I just refused to go through the whole thing again.

I reinvented my life. I slowed down to almost a stop. I slept a lot. I downsized everything I could to put off the inevitable. In the end, I felt “old.”

One day in November, while calling on customers in Austin, MN, I began to hurt. I was two blocks from my car. It took me nearly two hours to get back to the car. The next evening, while sitting at my computer, the pains started again. As I promised my wife, I called Son-In-Law Number 2 and off to the hospital we went. This time the pros found the problems, fixed them and sent me off to mend.

I look back and realize it wasn’t the doctor’s fault an earlier opportunity to diagnose failed to find the developing problems. Timing, after all, is everything. I ended up in one of the premiere health facilities in the world being care for by my wife’s handpicked health-care colleagues.

We often see so much better in retrospect.

Some wars you won’t win, regardless how well you manage the battles. Preparation and prioritization will get you only so far. There comes a time when you have to stand up, face the challenge and ask for help. When you join with your allies to face your greatest enemies in the “Valley of Decision,” victory often goes to the one who marries the strength of commitment with the lack of viable options.

As a teenager, I attended a funeral service of a man who took his own life. Our pastor made a most remarkable statement. He said the deceased was his own worst enemy. He said it in public, during the service and in front of the family. An unfortunate person, this man saw his future replete with evidence of ever diminishing opportunities for victory.

The overwhelming sadness is that he never recognized his potential allies. He never saw there were others willing to stand with him. He went into the “Valley of Decision” thinking he was alone.

He thought he won the battle. How sad he lost the war.