Margaret was sick. Everybody knew it, except apparently Margaret. Day in and day out, she would show up to work with a bandage wrapped around her leg. She carefully disguised it as “leggings” but it wasn’t too long before the sight of oozing blood and the smell of pus made it undeniable.
Everyone thought, “Now she will get that looked at by a professional.” But day after day, the smell and ooze got worse and Margaret still seemed to be oblivious.
The office staff went to Kathryn, who was generally acknowledged to be Margaret’s friend at work. Kathryn reluctantly agreed to bring up the subject the next day.
As Margaret walked into the break room, the other two employees quickly left, hands over their noses. Kathryn remained and in one glance knew something was wrong, more wrong than yesterday. Margaret was flushed and beads of perspiration dotted her forehead. She looked awful but still smiled as she poured her coffee and limped to a table.
Kathryn dove in. “Margaret, are you OK? You look like you are running a fever!”
Margaret looked surprised. “No, I am fine, just a little tired”
“Seriously, Margaret, you could be getting blood poisoning or whatever they call it, from that wound!”
Margaret shifted uncomfortably and crossed her good leg over the other, hiding the bandage but not the smell. “Wound? What wound?”
“Are you kidding? The smell of it just drove Andy and Nikki right out of the break room!”
Margaret looked shocked. “Smell?”
Kathryn took a microsecond to decide if Margaret was in denial or something worse.
“Margaret, you and I are going to the ER now, this minute. No excuses”
“It’s nothing, I will clean it better. And get new bandages. I’m not sick. Really, there is nothing wrong.”
“There is something terribly wrong, and I am no doctor, but as bad as that looks and smells I know you could lose that leg. Come on”
“Really, it was just a scratch.”
“I don’t care what it was. What it is now, is dangerous! We are going to the ER right now!”
“I didn’t want anyone to know…. to see. I just wanted to keep it covered up until it went away… and now…. I feel…. so….” Margaret put her head down on the table.
Kathryn opened the break room door and called out, “Nikki! Call an ambulance, now.”
It had been ten years. Ten years since that awful diagnosis. The big “C.”
Martha had gone through treatment and had come through like a trooper. Her doctors said there was absolutely nothing left of the cancer and that she should not be concerned about a recurrence with this type and how early they caught it. She faithfully got her annual check-ups and nothing had shown up in ten years, but she knew she was still sick
She found it hard to hold down a job for very long. Martha would discover some environmental problem at the office or someone she thought was “contagious” who might retrigger the cancer. She knew there was some cancer cells in her body somewhere just waiting to be triggered into growth by a chemical, a virus, or some other stressor. She didn’t understand why people expected her to carry the same work load as those who had never had cancer. Didn’t they realize she was at risk?
She walked into Kathryn’s office and sat down. “Kathryn, I can’t go to Chicago for that presentation”
Kathryn did not look up because she was pretty sure what was coming. “Why not?”
“You know my immune system can’t handle the trip, and the stress of getting ready, and I won’t be able to eat right!”
Kathryn sighed. “Martha, I don’t get the connection between an illness you were cured of ten years ago and not being able to do your job today.”
“Unless you have experienced it, you wouldn’t understand. I am not cured. I will never be truly cured. Every day I am still battling it. People should understand that!”
Kathryn had had enough. She had been Martha’s supervisor for a year now and had heard this argument once too often.
Kathryn’s voice sounded sharp; sharper than she had intended it to be. “Martha, your past medical history is not relevant to your job performance now. If you are truly still sick then get treatment. If you are not, then please join the rest of the human race and get on with living.” Kathryn regretted the tone, but not the words.
Martha said nothing and walked out.
Martha turned in her resignation the following morning and began looking for yet another job, hoping to find a supervisor who understood how sick she still was.
Two extremes. Two women. One who was sick and tried desperately to ignore it and hide it; the other, not sick, who continued to live like a sick person. These two women serve as metaphors for where many of us are living spiritually.
The Margaret’s among us hide their spiritual illness and even deny its existence while everyone around them knows it and even suffers from it as a result. The Margaret’s refuse to get help. They try to treat a massively infected wound with water and a bandaid. They go through life trying to convince their friends and family that nothing is wrong and everything is fine, until the spiritual infection is nearly past treatment. Would any of us walk around with a huge gaping infected wound and try to convince ourselves and others nothing is wrong? We, the Margaret’s do it all the time. We just ‘suck it up.’ We appear to be in control. We are OK, all together, spiritually healthy. Margaret’s tend to crash and burn. They can’t keep up appearances forever, so at some point the infection wins and either they finally get help or they lose the battle.
But then there is the other side. The Martha’s choose to live as a victim forever. Yes, in our metaphor, the cancer was awful, but any survivor will tell you cancer should not continue to control your life. Neither should our life experiences continue to rule over us. Yes, it is awful you were sexually abused as a child, or cheated on, or abandoned, or __________________ (fill in the blank). But, the most important word in that sentence is WERE. You are no longer the victim. Stop living like one. In John 5, Jesus asks the invalid who has laid by the pool for 38 years a really important question, “Do you want to get well?” And interestingly, the invalid does not say yes. Too many of us are choosing to live spiritually “sick” when Jesus has offered healing, or worse, after He has healed us.
When we are physically sick, most people recognize it, acknowledge it, and alters their routine in order to get better (goes to the doctor, takes the day off, treats the symptoms, etc.) When we are over the illness, most people leave the sick room behind, get back to their routines, and get back to living life. They are thankful to be healthy again. Shouldn’t our spiritual lives look the same?
Scripture is replete with admonitions not to ignore our spiritual illness AND not to live sick after we have been healed.
Let’s stop acting healthy when we are sick AND vice versa! Instead let’s accept the spiritual healing Jesus offers and then live our lives showing the world what he has done for us.
I Peter 2:24
Deb Nickell is a grandmother, physician assistant and teacher. She has an evolving passion for communicating truth and grace.